Memory as Burden and Liberation

Germans and their Nazi Past (1945–2010)

by Anna Wolff-Poweska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 419 Pages
Open Access


This book examines both the obvious and less obvious ways in which Germans struggle with their Nazi past. It embraces only a small part of a complex problem, which is impossible for an individual author to grasp in its entirety and character. The main intention, which leads through a thick of actors, issues, institutions, events and phenomena, is a reflection upon the reasons for which German reckoning with the past turned out to be a process full of contradictions; a bumpy road rippled with political, intellectual and moral mines. This intention is accompanied by the question about the specific character of German collective memory in relation to the helplessness and moral condition of a person defending himself/herself and his/her nation in the face of unimaginable evil.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Mnemosyne – Mother of the Muses
  • 1. Dialectics of memory and forgetting
  • 2. History versus memory
  • 3. Memory and identity
  • 4. History and politics
  • 5. A historian between media and politics
  • Chapter 2. Between the end and the beginning
  • 1. Legacy of the two World Wars
  • 2. Coming to terms with the past
  • 3. Guilt and shame
  • Collective guilt: truth and myths
  • Helplessness of an intellectual
  • 4. Perpetrators and victims
  • 5. In search of defensive strategies
  • Innocent criminals
  • Honest murderers
  • Hitler and his ‘clique’
  • ‘The disciplined’, ‘the patriots’, ‘the idealists’
  • The ‘big’ and the ‘little’ person in a uniform
  • Social ‘normality’
  • 6. Crime and punishment
  • Denazification – a failed experiment?
  • Social reaction
  • Chapter 3. Divided nation, divided memory
  • 1. The winners of history: the German Democratic Republic in the shadow of anti-fascism
  • 2. Burdened with history: the Federal Republic of Germany between myth and memory
  • Community of silence?
  • The return of history
  • Patriotism after Auschwitz
  • Identity of a ‘normal’ nation
  • Chapter 4. The Berlin Republic: a marathon of memory
  • 1. German turning points: 1945 and 1990
  • 2. Debates that changed Germany
  • The Wehrmacht: a defence community?
  • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: an ordinary German as a Hitler’s assistant?
  • Martin Walser: Holocaust as a “moral bludgeon”
  • Mourning as the conscience of history?
  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a symbol of mourning or disgrace?
  • How much past in the future?
  • Chapter 5. Days of Remembrance
  • 1. Memory as a ritual
  • 2. 8 May: dialectics of defeat and liberation
  • The German Federal Republic: the day of liberation
  • The Federal Republic of Germany: day of mourning or celebration?
  • In the reunited Germany
  • 3. The Night of Broken Glass – The Holocaust as an identity dilemma
  • 4. The war against Poland in German oblivion
  • In the clutches of prejudice and propaganda
  • On the way to the dialogue of memory
  • Bibliography
  • Zusammenfassung
  • Index


National Socialism was the ideological foundation of Hitlerite Germany for twelve years. For the last sixty-five years, Germans have been struggling with its memory. This long period of stumbling through the past, acquiring and rejecting the images of the most dramatic modern history – both for Germans and the rest of Europe – is sometimes called “a second history of Nazism”. Social sciences use Pierre Nora’s term, “history of the second degree”, to refer to the history of memory, of collective representations, their evolution and role in the process of shaping identity.1

German memory is a subject of interest for many academic disciplines, as well as art, media and politics. For the first time in history, a nation publicly dealt with its own past in front of our eyes. We observe a particular experiment: generations of Germans participate in a process that is full of contradictions, and they have to confront both themselves and the outside world. The factors that affect this process are, for example, changes in internal political conditions and in international surroundings, as well as generational changes.

The uniqueness of this phenomenon and the fascination in the subject that is sweeping through academic circles and the media can be explained by the fact that, despite numerous wars and barbarisms in the history of humankind, there is no commonly accepted standard, as the one in Sèvres, that would determine how a community, in whose name murders and violence were committed, should cope with the wrong that was done, what it should remember and for how long, and what the accepted forms of externalising memory are. The expectation that the departure from National Socialism would be a path that follows religious patterns – confession, penance, absolution and reconciliation – turned out to be an idealistic utopia. What should the narrative and debate on the murderous character of the Nazi system be? How can one be a German and a German patriot after Auschwitz? How can one confess a guilt that can stigmatise? How can a democracy be built on the ruins of dictatorship, in a society that is not convinced that democracy is the solution?

In 1945, Germans and their political leaders faced numerous challenges, the character and size of which had been impossible to anticipate. Their long record ← 7 | 8 → of running away from and returning to history has been rippled with disputes that are impossible to define equivocally. This process of evolution of the culture and policy of German memory is not over. It is marked by both subjective and objective contradictions that have been part of it from the beginning.

Even the preliminary stage of semantic interpretation of the basic categories related to reckoning with the past caused fierce disputes. The terms ‘perpetrator’, ‘victim’, ‘guilt’, ‘punishment’, ‘denazification’, ‘zero hour’, ‘overcoming the past’, ‘defeat’ and ‘liberation’ all polarised public opinion. None of these terms were satisfactory, a common denominator was found for none of them and the division lines of German public opinion were not based on an unequivocal criterion.

There was a gap between suppressed, repressed or unaware remorse and German society’s sense of responsibility and the expectations of individual, group, national or state victims of the politics of the Third Reich. The perpetrators wanted to forget the old and build the new; the victims desired punishment for the perpetrators and commemoration of their suffering and losses. The feelings of victims and perpetrators are incompatible. The Hitlerite Third Reich fell in 1945 but a nation remained that had to face a justified accusation of carrying out a genocide on a scale never seen before.

Those who were expected to honour and mourn the victims remained helpless. Hitherto, mourning practices defined grief as sorrow for one’s own loss, for those who died in war. Death for one’s country usually gave meaning to national identity. Modern history had not yet known a case of mourning for victims from other countries and nations by the nation in the name of which the crime was committed. How to go into mourning after losing common values? How to lament those who had been excluded from the German community long before and were seen as Untermenschen? How to commemorate the death of millions? Are Germans allowed to lament their own losses and victims? Historical experience of dealing with mourning shows that it can be easily used to manipulate, to mobilise crowds and to arouse conflicting feelings.

The memory of the criminal nature and politics of National Socialism is distinguished by permanent asymmetry between the official, ritual policy of the past of the German state and individual reflection, between political correctness, moral command and an individual need to forget. This dualism has been a source of tension and conflicts.

Debates on the past both in German states and in the united Germany have demonstrated that individuals do not seek justification for the dictatorship but for their own life. Strategies of releasing witnesses and minor players of the Third Reich from the charge of compliance in the Nazi system resulted from a need to get rid of the stigma of false people living in false times. ← 8 | 9 →

Both in Germany and abroad, the issue of the price that had to be paid to build a new country is still controversial. Contradiction lay at the very foundation of building democratic structures in post-war West Germany. Some German intellectuals found collective silence after 1945 to be an element of an efficient political strategy, a necessary factor in the emergence of German democracy.

Collective memory is one of the major factors that legitimises the political system of a country, and is a crucial element of identity. Post-war German democracy needed a positive identity to integrate around democratic values. However, what past should it refer to if the history of the previous twelve years included genocide and an exhausting war? In the first years after the war, negative memory conflicted with the process of creating a positive image of the new country. Against the expectations of idealists, it was not spiritual renewal or moral self-examination of Germans that constituted a sine qua non condition to build foundations of a democratic state, but, on the contrary, it was the state, its institutions and citizen values that formed a basis for inner freedom, and allowed Germans to face and accept history.

The question, asked by many intellectuals, as to how to rebuild the spiritual substance of Germans was marked by ambivalence in spirit and in politics from the beginning. The writer Günter Kunert, struggling with his image of Germany, expressed it emphatically: “The word ‘Germans’ hardly passes through my mouth. It leaves an unpleasant taste on my palate. This term is like some kind of vessel, brimful of old and new contradictions. The inextricably linked – Heinrich Heine and Heinrich Himmler, Weimar and Buchenwald, masterpieces of art and death as a master – from Germany. A variety of artists and even more experts in memory tricks.”2

The exceptionality of Nazi crimes does not correspond with exceptionality of memory. Collective memory is characterised by the minimum amount of content and the maximum amount of symbols. Germans could not rise like a phoenix from the ashes and suddenly become citizens aware of their responsibility for political consequences of the criminal politics of the Third Reich. Reckoning with one’s own involvement in the Nazi system requires, first of all, knowledge and understanding of the origin, process and consequences of the racist system. This demands temporal distance, generational change, a new language of education and new awareness. The difficulty of bearing the burden of responsibility in a democratic state results from the necessity for deep reflection: the compass of law should not get lost in the process ← 9 | 10 → of overcoming a state of lawlessness and democratisation of anti-democratic structures should not deprive society of respect for democracy.

The external world expects harmonisation, unequivocalness and uniformity of the image of the memory of the period 1933–1945, which influenced the fate of Europe and the world. In democracy, however, memory is heterogeneous. The culture of collective memory in a democratic state is a culture of dispute. Germans themselves are not sure whether they are acrobats or masters of historical reckoning with the past.

As archival resources and primary source documentation were gradually made available, the quantitative and qualitative increase in academic and memoir literature contributed to the permanent revival and pluralisation of memory. The Holocaust research exhausted the hitherto prevailing formula of debate on perpetration. It turned out in the 1990s that a dichotomy of evaluation and interpretation of crime according to schematic division into intentionalists and structuralists does not correspond with the research results of many academic disciplines or with the broad interests of literature, art, and media.3

Along with the development of research, the complexity of motivations for the perpetrators’ activity within the system of National Socialism is constantly revealing. There is no single, complete interpretation model. Memory of the Nazi crimes must absorb new knowledge of the history of the crimes, including overlapping research interests and aspects and contexts of different areas of life in the Third Reich and the occupied countries.

On the threshold of the 21st century, 95% of German society consisted of people who were either born after 1945 or were under the age of twenty during the war. Thus, present and future historical discourse of Germans will be only a reconstructed memory of the times of the Holocaust. The agenda of public debate will include themes and questions raised by a generation that will look for a different form and language to commemorate the past. Geography of memory is changing. Immigrant members of the multicultural society that is emerging in Germany do not have to identify with the negative part of German history. Will this new community be a good carrier and guardian of memory? Universalisation and globalisation of memory is inevitable; collective memory is permanently transformed.

The competition between communities of memory is constantly joined by new actors. First, Central and Eastern European countries, which, liberated from the corset of Cold War confrontation, demanded honour for their history, full of tragedy and humility. Ethnic groups, minorities and nations that had not so far had ← 10 | 11 → the opportunity to be noticed by the world’s public opinion, made their voice heard. Communities that lost their countrymen in mass murders and rapes during the 20th century, symbolised by e.g. Srebrenica and Rwanda, do not want to be ‘second category’ victims. Development of new techniques of human communication enriches the culture of memory by providing new forms of commemoration. However, it also brings new sources of conflict as we live in times when measures of memory and forgetting undergo a thorough revision.

German struggles with memory, that is, collective recognition of the essence and efficiency of National Socialism and its mechanisms of seducing the masses, is a process in which what mostly matters is its influence on the present. Collective memory has a great political potential. Therefore, the quality of German citizens’ dialogue with the past is to a great extent determined by the quality of governance and the political class. Although intellectual and political reflection is rarely accompanied by the question whether – and how – a person can consciously and rationally draw conclusions from the past, Germans after 1945 had to face the question of who is ready to take responsibility for the traumatic heritage of Nazism, and how.

The book that the Reader now holds in his or her hands is an attempt to examine both the obvious and less obvious ways in which Germans struggle with their Nazi past. It embraces only a small part of a complex problem, which is impossible for an individual author to grasp in its entirety and character. The main intention, which leads through a thick of actors, issues, institutions, events and phenomena, is a reflection upon the reasons for which German reckoning with the past turned out to be a process full of contradictions; a bumpy road rippled with political, intellectual and moral mines. This intention is accompanied by the question about the specific character of German collective memory in relation to the helplessness and moral condition of a person defending himself/herself and his/her nation in the face of unimaginable evil.

These intentions determined the structure of the book. It includes an introductory part, which aims to clarify terminology and theoretical and definitional grounds on which the reflection on the collective memory has been based. Then the book leads the Reader chronologically through the period of occupation zones (1945–1949), divided memory in two German states (1949–1989) and the reunified Germany since 1990. In justified cases, the content of the book extends beyond the planned time borders. The last part is devoted to rituals of memory, mainly the celebrations of memory. What is their content, their choreography, whom do they serve and what function do they have? Commemorations of three anniversaries are the examples. Their choice has been dictated by the conviction that each of them commemorates an event that significantly influenced the identity and political culture of Germans. The memory of 8 May 1945 demonstrates the ambivalence of ← 11 | 12 → liberation and loss, which is still present in German consciousness. The memory of the Night of Broken Glass on 9 November 1938 consists of emotions and the necessity of coping with the greatest trauma – the Holocaust. The decision to choose the anniversary of 1 September 1939 resulted partly from a question that has been troubling me: why a nation that was the first victim of World War II was seen as the last and barely registered in memory.

The book does not end with any conclusions, as the subject of this work has no end. The dialogue with the past, not only the German one, remains open. Each generation introduces new problems and doubts into the dialogue, looks for their own ways of conciliation with the past. It is future generations who, with their maturity and courage, will determine whether the memory of National Socialism will remain a burden or will become liberation. ← 12 | 13 →

1Popularisation of the term in Polish academic literature was aided by an international programme of the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin, entitled Polish-German Realms of Memory, initiated by Prof. Dr. Hab. Hans-Henning Hahn and Prof. Dr. Hab. Robert Traba.

2G. Kunert, Notgemeinschaft (Dezember 1988), in: F. Barthélemy, L. Winckler (Ed.), Mein Deutschland findet sich in keinem Atlas. Schriftsteller aus beiden deutschen Staaten über ihr nationales Selbstverständnis, Frankfurt a. M. 1990, p. 33.

3More on the subject, see: P. Longerich, Tendenzen und Perspektiven der Täterforschung; Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 14–15, 2007, pp. 3–7; H. Mommsen, Forschungskontroversen zum Nationalsozialismus; Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 14–15, 2007, pp. 14–21.

Chapter 1

Mnemosyne – Mother of the Muses

Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory (from mnēmē; Greek for memory) occupied a special place in ancient mythology. The daughter of Uranus – the father of the Titans and the Cyclops, personification the sky – and Gaia, the great mother of all, gave birth to nine Muses by Zeus. For ancient Greeks, the sky represented constancy while the Earth represented change. Thus, the mythological inspiration lets us interpret the meaning of memory, which includes elements of what is constant and what is changing. At least since the times of Homer, there used to be a custom of referring to a Muse at the beginning of every work. The goddess of memory, as the mother of Muses who were honoured to feast with gods at Mount Olympus and who were patrons of various fields of art and science, symbolises the source and fundament of what is most important in life. Allegoric Memory as “the mother of all knowledge and thinking”, born from “the nuptials of Heaven and Earth” was expected to remind successive generations that she was the beginning of all human skills and actions.4

Cesare Ripa, the author of Iconologia, generously referred to the tradition and aesthetic imagination of antiquity according to the rules of Baroque. His Memory is presented as a two-faced woman, as it embraces “all things past, and through the rule of prudence, all things which will happen in the future”.5 In the world of iconographic poetics, where the spirit of a phenomenon was expressed though symbol and allegory, History was presented as “a Woman, resembling an Angel, with great Wings, looking behind her”, writing on a table, on the back of Saturn. The Wings “denote her publishing all Events, with great Expedition”; her looking back, “that she labours for Posterity” and “her white Robes: Truth and Sincerity: Saturn by her side, denotes Time and Spirit of the Actions.”6

Learning is personified by “a mature Lady, fitting with her Arms open, as if she would embrace another. A Scepter in one hand, on which is a Sun. A Book open on her Lap; and from the serene Sky falls abundance of Dew. The age shows ← 13 | 14 → that learning is not acquir’d but by long Study; the open Book, and the extended Arms, that learning is very communicative; the Scepter and Sun the Dominion it has over the Darkness of Ignorance; the Dew, that learning makes tender Youth fruitful.7

Although memory has been a common subject of interest since ancient times, it is a relatively new phenomenon as a scientific category and an element of historical discourse. Its origin dates back to the 20th century. In the last century, philosophers’, writers’ and artists’ interests focused on the art of remembering and its forms: ars memoriae, and the role of paintings and works created in the process of memory and oblivion. The art and the theories and models of memory show how humans created a kind of thesaurus that gathered treasures of the preserved fragments of the past. The architecture of memory, which embraces what museums and archives gathered as objects of aesthetic sensitivity, corresponds with what historical and social sciences refer to as social or collective memory. The accumulated energy of individual and national suffering, expressed in works of art, corresponds with the philosophical reflection formulated by Friedrich Nietzsche: “only that which hurts incessantly is remembered.”8 Not incidentally, some scholars called history a science of human suffering. The ribbon of memory is marked by dark colours of life. Canons of human awareness are determined by blood, martyrdom and sacrifice.

Since the memory of posterity focused on human suffering and misfortunes, the task of historiography was to emphasise the glory and greatness of rulers. Herodotus, considered to be the father of history, was driven by the common human instinct in his aspiration to preserve from decay “the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians of losing their due meed of glory”. According to the ancient thinkers, a historian had an important mission to complete – the creation of soul. However, it was ancient Israel that gave decisive meaning to history: not in terms of philosophical reflection but exceptional faith. Only in Israel is “the injunction to remember [Zakhor] felt as religious imperative to an entire people”.9

The fact that memory lies at the source of history as quite systematic knowledge of empirical past makes the interdependence of both categories an entanglement of fascinating and diversified speculations, interpretations and theories. History balances between what is proven and what is presumed, between verified knowledge and the imagination of a witness, between certainty and doubt. The English medievalist John Arnold expressed an important truth in his reflection on the functions of the history ← 14 | 15 → and memory, noting that “history is to society what memory is to the individual”.10 Dobrochna Ratajczakowa, who analyses the relationship between historiography and various branches of literature and art since ancient Greece, emphasises how much the historical truth has, to a varying degree, consisted of different truths of artistic imagination.11 The objectivity of a historian has always included the subjectivity of creators: artists, orators, and poets.

The author reminds that late Antiquity and early Middle Ages considered five signs of the Greek alphabet as mystical letters. The first and the last were interpreted as a symbol of history going from the beginning to the end and from the end to the beginning. Thus, there was comprehension that contemporary times determined the final shape of the past that was described. Due to the process of merging historiography with other disciplines of science and art, these disciplines could be harnessed to the chariot of history as important auxiliary sciences of history. They demonstrated varied cultural experiences of different generations. The poetics of memory, the relationship between history, literature and theatre paved the way for the later interdisciplinary approach and the tendency to combine different scientific and cultural perspectives.

1. Dialectics of memory and forgetting

Following the growing interest in historical reflection and memory that has been observable since the 1970s among professional scholars as well as in public opinion, one can come to conclusion that the question “what happened?” attracts less attention than the question “how to read history?”.

Alongside the history that is happening, the history that is remembered is gaining importance. The meaning of this kind of history was emphasised by Pierre Nora, who noted that it is “less interested in actions remembered or even commemorated than in the traces left by those actions and in the interactions of those commemorations; less interested in events themselves than their meaning; less interested in ‘what actually happened’ than its perpetual reuse and misuse, its influence on successive presents; less interested in tradition than in the way traditions are constituted and passed on.”12 The career of memory, second-hand ← 15 | 16 → history and its numerous prostheses directs our attention to classics. The reflection on memory dates back to Plato, whose notion of “anamnesis” was the starting point for a philosophical and historical debate.13 Since the Enlightenment, the belief that history is memory has been gradually weakening. Source criticism of historians resulted in treating history as opposed to memory: the latter could be misleading due to subjectivisation of individuals and social groups. Jan Assmann, the Egyptologist and religious studies scholar, identified three fathers of the analysis of collective memory: Friedrich Nietzsche, Aby Warburg and Maurice Halbwachs.

Observations by the German philosopher date back to 1874, when he noticed that it was possible to exist almost without memories – and live happily, like animals. However, it is impossible to live without forgetting. Nietzsche stated that “the unhistorical and the historical are equally necessary for the health of an individual, a people and a culture”.14The author of Untimely Meditations decided that overdosing memory could lead to losing identity instead of strengthening it: “Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming.”15 Nietzsche demonstrated in his works that forgetting can sometimes be a chance for a good life as the memory of the past sometimes paralyses.

The notion of the “community of memory”, introduced by Aby Warburg in the 1920s, covers the cultural circle of images and gestures of the East and West. Basing on the analysis of images, Warburg decided that people use rational and mythical interpretations in order to defend themselves against irrational fears.16 Maurice Halbwachs, Émile Durkheim‘s student who co-created Annales ← 16 | 17 → d’Histoire Economique et Sociale together with Marc Bloch and Luciene Febvre, carried out the first analysis and development of what interests us the most: social frameworks of memory17. Although the term “collective memory” was first used by the Austrian poet Hugovon Hofmannsthal in 1902, it did not become common until the 1920s, thanks to the French scholar. Individual memories are evoked through the prism of social present when the memory of others protects us from forgiveness. Halbwachs’ main thesis is that individuals remember their own past but in conditions that they have not chosen themselves.18 Collective memory is a set of memories that a society of any epoch can reconstruct within current conditions. Halbwachs distinguished between collective and historical memory. Collective memory guarantees integrity and uniqueness of a group while historical memory does not provide identification. Historical sciences are expected to care about objectivity, search for details, and discover contradictions, while collective memory has a tendency to retouch and modify history according to social expectations. The author’s analyses enrich the knowledge of the role of memory in our image of the present; they help understand how our perception of the past determines our perception of the present moment. Individual remembering is determined by social memory; one cannot liberate oneself from the pressure of the present and, at the same time, he or she is a co-creator of both the present reality and the past he or she reconstructs.19

Society has become Halbwachs’ observation field. In the process of remembering, an individual needs reference points from society: instruments in the form of words and images shaped by the social environment. Communities do not have memories but they shape the memory of their members. Memories, including individual ones, emerge through communication and interactions within social groups. Human experiences are mediated by social frameworks of meaning. Seeing that there is collective remembering, there must also be collective forgetting. Oblivion is also established within specific social frameworks. Halbwachs claims that forgotten elements are what bring mental discomfort, separate environments and families, or what conflicts with the interests of a group or society. Society “tends to erase from its memory all that might separate individuals, or that might distance groups from each other. It is also why society, in each period, rearranges its recollections in such a way as to adjust them to variable conditions of its equilibrium.”20 ← 17 | 18 →

Before French scholars described and defined the phenomena and processes of creating “communities of memory”, the Polish scholar Stefan Czarnowski had carried out pioneering works on the methodology of societies’ development. Already in 1919, drawing from historical and sociological studies, Czarnowski elaborated on a study in French on Saint Patrick. Czarnowski, who, like Maurice Halbwachs, was a student of Émile Durkheim, dealt with the cult of the Irish national hero to finally demonstrate that social facts are based on collective consciousness.21 Contemporary studies on collective (social) memory have a lot to contribute to Czarnowski’s astute interpretations. The term “past in the present” that he introduced was undoubtedly an anticipation of today’s categories related to social functions and determinants of memory.

The French school has made an invaluable contribution to collective memory studies. Between 1984 and 1992, Pierre Nora published seven volumes of his work, covering the whole spectrum of the French culture of memory. For his project Realms of Memory (Les Lieux de mémoire), Nora managed to gather the most reputable historians of the Paris Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. For the author, the terms ‘history’ and ‘memory’ are far from being synonymous; on the contrary, he finds them to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life born by living societies in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, vulnerable to manipulations and appropriation.

Julia Hartwig, in her poem Beautiful Sisters (1976/2008), included the essence of what Nora finds in the polyphony of memory:

No memory is not alone
it has many sisters who are unlike each other
all hard working never resting
Their order must be respected
the oldest always continue to grow
while the youngest die before gaining strength and body
bringing successors to life
For nature doesn’t rule the family of memory
it isn’t an image even a reflection of an image
but a separate formation a presence apart
in the end we remember only the beginning
distant greenery before banishment from Eden22 ← 18 | 19 →

Memory and oblivion are integral elements of culture. However, while the imperative of memory is omnipresent, the order to forget does not focus too much public or academic attention.23 In democracy, when memory is being privatised, there is an increasing number of actors whose interests in memory and oblivion are often in conflict. Collective forgetting is usually referred to through the back door. Franklin R. Ankersmit distinguished a few types of forgetting. We mechanically forget what is devoid of any relevance to our everyday life and what we almost do not perceive. What is traumatic and painful for a community, however, is forgotten on purpose, withheld from conscious memory. The unconscious memory is a constant reminder that there is something we should or wish to forget.24 There are elements of the past that naturally, with time, cease to be a subject of public and scholastic interest (e.g. the Kościuszko Uprising or the Revolution of 1905). In case of the Holocaust, both the victims and the perpetrators, a paradox of remembering in forgetting can be observed. The Jewish community after the Holocaust, or rather the memory of it, is spoken of as if it was a sum of scars on the collective souls that one wished to forget at first impulse.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (December)
Berliner Republik nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit Vergangenheitsbewältigung kollektive Erinnerung
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 419 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Wolff-Poweska (Author)

Anna Wolff-Powęska is a Professor of History and Political Sciences at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Faculty Poznań). She was associated with the Institute for Western Affairs and the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznań (Poland). At Poznań University of Social Sciences and Humanities she continues researching on Polish-German relations and political ideas in Europe.


Title: Memory as Burden and Liberation
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422 pages