Tuesday, May 16, 2006

German Memory Debate

H-German, a discussion network for German history, recently put up a very interesting review by Frank Biess of Dagmar Barnouw, The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans. I am by no means an expert on German memory, but it seems to me that Biess is pretty gentle, too gentle, with a seriously flawed argument.

One more thing--at one point in the review Biess writes:

The same necessity for context also applies to the Allied air war. The genesis of strategic bombing culminating in Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima deserves critical analysis, yet this analysis remains insufficient without due attention to the previous German escalation of air warfare as experienced by civilians in Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry.
I would be remiss if I did not add to this list the previous Japanese escalation of air warfare as experienced by civilians in Shanghai in 1932. I was a Donald Jordan student, after all.


thejamestaylor said...

Also no expert on historical memory here. It seems to me that a crucial part of this is that following the war there were two Germany's, and both had different interpretations of what had happened. If one can speak of one German historical memory today, in my experience it would be that the post-reunion generation prefers to view Grandma and Grandpa as victims of warfare, and to leave the whole Nazi thing out of the equation.

Toby said...

Not so much victims of warfare, but victims of the Nazis. The prevailing viewpoint today, as far as I can see (I speak with many young Germans on a regular basis), is that the Nazis took Germany hostage. It was not the German people who committed the atrocities, but the Nazis.

Hence the recent emergence of films about the Third Reich. Movies such as Downfall and Sophie Scholl portray civilians as victims of the Nazis, rather than active participants.

Tom said...

That's not the Downfall I saw. In fact, it was exactly the opposite of what you say--it shows misguided Germans embracing wholeheartedly the Nazi way of thinking and actively fighting for that philosophy.

thejamestaylor said...

This probably depends on whether we are talking about the Holocaust, or about the effects of the war on Germans and Germany. I think that many Germans like to believe that a small percentage of their countrymen somehow pulled off one of the greatest crimes in history, and gave them a bad name in the process. But when it comes to the direct effects of the war on Germans, what occurred in Dresden for example, many would like to separate what happened from the ideology that their loved ones fought for to the bitter end. It was the war, and not the ideology, which was responsible for all of this, or so the story goes.

Toby said...

Tom, the only civilians who were cooperating with the Nazis in Downfall were the Hitler youth and a couple of Hitler's aides in the bunker. The filmmakers made it a point to highlight Hitler's tirades against the German civilians. Also, what about the multiple scenes with civilians getting shot or hanged for not fighting?

Tom said...

The filmmakers made it a point to show Hitler's tirades against everyone, which is an accurate portrayal. And those civilians being hanged? Other civilians were doing the hanging. So by my count we have all of the civilians in the bunker, the Hitler youth volunteers, and the majority of the random people in the street against a wounded veteran father (who made no political statements) and a handful of others. Heck, I'd even say the Goebbels children were borderline. That is, they were mostly innocent but well on their way to Naziville

Look, I find noxious the efforts by some contemporary Germans and lots of Japanese since the war to portray the civilian populations as victims of the regimes they wholeheartedly supported. But Downfall simply does not do that. In fact, I thought it did a wonderful job of showing how seemingly rational and good people embraced (i.e.: were not victims of) Hitler and the Nazis and all of their evils.