Writing the Child

Fictions of Memory in German Postwar Literature

by Susanne Baackmann (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 228 Pages
Series: Cultural Memories, Volume 18


The child is never just a child. While the image, voice and gaze of the victimized child is a universal symbol of a failing world, it can be an equally potent aesthetic screen for historical obfuscation. Analysing selected works by Dieter Forte, Günter Grass, Gisela Elsner, Hans-Ulrich Treichel and Rachel Seiffert, Writing the Child considers the evolution of German cultural memory concerning wartime trauma and victimhood. In these works, the aesthetically conceived child comes into view as a memory icon, animated as much by collective fantasies as shaped by specific historical moments. Whose suffering has gained importance after the end of World War II? Who claims innocence or responsibility at the time and over time as the Nazi legacy reverberates into the future? Who remains implicated in the legacy of perpetration? In dialogue with the voices of German war children, the Kriegskinder, the texts echo but also contest exculpatory victimologies that have shaped German memory frameworks from the 1940s up to the post-1989 present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Fictions of Memory
  • PART I: The War and Kriegskind Generations
  • CHAPTER 1. Kriegskinder Politics: Abiding Victimologies
  • CHAPTER 2. The Myth of Knowing Innocence: Dieter Forte’s Der Junge mit den blutigen Schuhen
  • CHAPTER 3. Performing Childhood: Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel
  • CHAPTER 4. ‘The Disgrace of an Untimely Birth’: Gisela Elsner’s Fliegeralarm
  • PART II: The Kriegsenkel Generation
  • CHAPTER 5. ‘The past does not want to disappear’: Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s Der Verlorene
  • CHAPTER 6. ‘Lore’, or the Implicated Subject: Rachel Seiffert’s Postmemory Work
  • EPILOGUE. Memory in a Moment of Danger
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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At first, this book seemed to be a purely academic study, designed to engage a larger conversation with colleagues about the vicissitudes of German cultural memory. But it became a much more personal exploration of my relationship to a past I experienced only vicariously. The fiction analysed in this book offers stories about the German child silenced by war or traumatized by silent parents – a child who maintains a tenuous dialogue with the Jewish child, the ‘other’ child, who in most cases did not survive a war in which they were targeted. These stories forced me to confront childhood silences I grew up with in Germany without having been aware of them at the time. It challenged me to reflect on how, exactly, this war has crossed my own life, my own way of being, my own thinking. How did this war shape me – a white woman born in the Ruhr Valley well after May 1945. Both my father, born one year before the First World War, and my Kriegskind mother, born two years after Hitler came to power, were tenaciously silent about their war experiences. During the work on this book, I began to see them with different eyes and found myself wanting to ask them questions I never got to ask. I grew up in a country in which the violence of war had been efficiently covered up by postwar prosperity and the myth of the ‘economic miracle’. Yet for the past three decades, I have lived in the United States, a country whose national myth also brackets the violence of racial domination at its core. This core also implicates me – a white woman of European descent with middle-class privileges. How to traverse these intersections of different yet interrelated histories and cultures resting on legacies of systemic persecution, discrimination and domination? How to acknowledge the privileges and opportunities that rest on these legacies and which I benefitted from in both direct and indirect ways? How to understand my own implication in much larger historical textures without finding shelter in convenient historical or theoretical abstractions?

←xi | xii→

Writing the Child became a book not only about my German family but also about my own child, whose grandparents were among the few children lucky enough to escape Nazi Germany just in time. It became a work of family memory in the broadest sense and reckons with cultural discontinuities I experienced growing up and family discontinuities I married into without fully understanding them. Writing became a labour about unrecognized memory entanglements that settled into my own body after confronting a history I knew only faintly. Hence, I am dedicating it first and foremost to my daughter Hannah. Like her father, David, to whom I owe a lot of gratitude for trying to explain the unexplainable, she will have to find a way to live with what Hannah Arendt – the philosopher she is named after – defined as the best we can do in light of this history: ‘Das Höchste, was man erreichen kann, ist zu wissen und auszuhalten, dass es so und nicht anders gewesen ist, und dann zu sehen und abzuwarten, was sich daraus ergibt.’ [The best one can achieve is to know and make space for precisely what has been, and then to wait and see what comes of knowing].

Susanne Baackmann
March 2022

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There are many whom I must thank for their support during the work on this book. The editorial guidance of Mary Child was simply invaluable. Her insightful, clear-headed and ever so tactful suggestions turned the final manuscript into a much more nuanced, coherent and readable text. Her expert knowledge of the Anglophone lexis, grammar and punctuation moderated my Germanic tendencies for long-winded sentences, as well as my preference for repetitions. At this point, I am to blame for any remaining infelicities. Scott Melton also contributed to the final version of the manuscript. His sharp eye for detail added the final polish and allowed me to send it off with a smile on my face. I am so very grateful for Nancy Nenno’s help. Her patient support and expert editorial help was a generous and an unexpected gift I greatly appreciated. She continued to believe in this book even when my enthusiasm faltered. Patrick Joseph Hoffman’s steady and competent help with every translation, conjunction, preposition, dash and semicolon was equally priceless. Nina Berman, Anja Barr, Mark Smith, Jaime Denison and Joseph Kuster all contributed to this project, albeit in different ways. Their help with initial chapter drafts was another gift that contributed to the final form of this manuscript. I am grateful for the support of colleagues at the University of New Mexico, in particular Pamela Cheek, who throughout the years kept encouraging me to believe in questions to which I had no easy answers; she remained convinced that I would eventually find the answers. I will also never forget the wisdom and support of my mentor and friend Jack Zipes. His urgent and persistent commitment to make this world a better place by taking seriously the power of story not only inspired me deeply, but also sent me on my way into a future of curiosity and exploration that continues on. I owe him immense gratitude.

I must extend a special and heartfelt thanks to John Cousins. His warm and unceasing optimism, uncontainable enthusiasm, patient support, and belief in my work kept me going – particularly when the going got tough. ←xiii | xiv→I am not sure that I would have completed this book without his unfailing readiness to ply me with kind, earnest and heartfelt encouragement, as well as his open-minded and strategic questions about the next chapter, not to mention a never-ending supply of chai and rooibos. Last, but certainly not least, this book is dedicated to my students at the University of New Mexico. Their unceasing curiosity about all things German has kept me curious despite the ambivalence I carry within about a country I left almost four decades ago.

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Introduction: Fictions of Memory

The turn of the millennium represents an inflection point in Germany’s cultural memory. Rather than receding, the Nazi past uncannily seems ever more present – a paradoxical telescoping of time and space which Anton Kaes observed in 1987. He began his study on the return of history as film with the poignant observation, ‘Es scheint unheimlich: Je weiter sich die Vergangenheit zeitlich entfernt, desto näher rückt sie.’ [The further the past recedes, the closer it becomes.]1 Twenty years later, this compression of time seems only to have intensified. In 2004, referring to the wake of the ‘Supergedenkjahr 1995’ [1995, the Year of Super Commemoration], historian Norbert Frei observed: ‘Soviel Hitler war nie!’2 [Never was there so much Hitler!] And in his 2010 study on a new generation of memory, sociologist Michael Heinlein modulates Frei’s pithy statement to: ‘Soviel Kriegskindheit war nie.’ [Never was there so much childhood of war!]3 Through divergent disciplinary lenses, these declarative statements delineate dis/continuities that have shaped (West) German reflections and deflections of the Nazi past. Five decades after the end of the Third Reich Hitler, Hitler’s complicated legacy remains palpable in increasingly fictional spaces encoded in cinematic and literary memory work and, more recently, reframed by personal stories told by the German Kriegskinder [children of war]. Establishing a dialogue between selected literary memory texts, autobiographical recalls of the Nazi past and the politics of Germany’s cultural memory, Writing the Child ←1 | 2→examines the use of imaginary child witnesses in postwar German literature deployed not only to articulate but also disrupt the traffic between any given moment and an unredeemable past.

The literature examined in this volume was published or gained renewed relevance around the turn of the millennium. Focused on experiences during the last war years or their legacy, the selected texts explore unresolved questions of the present and offer incisive commentary on, as well as interventions in (West) Germany’s cultural memory. Dieter Forte’s Der Junge mit den blutigen Schuhen [The Boy with the Bloody Shoes], published in 1995, draws on personal childhood memories and gives voice to a trauma culture which coalesces around the suffering of innocent Germans during the bombing war. Forte’s novel represents a new phase in German cultural memory that rests on intersecting autobiographical and fictional narratives, which shape a new memory authorized by the last remaining ‘Augenzeugen’ [eyewitnesses] – those who witnessed the Third Reich as children. Forte’s text is also representative of a wound culture that gains momentum in the 1990s. By contrast, Günter Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum], published four decades earlier in 1959, exposes a culture of memory that in the immediate postwar decades rested on a collective display of faux-innocence and faux-contrition. It garnered renewed attention in 1999 when Grass was awarded the Nobel prize and again in 2006 after the author’s belated confession about his SS membership. Die Blechtrommel may be the best known and one of the most examined text in the body of material under consideration. It is included here since it is one of the first postwar texts to direct attention to the performativity of autobiographical and literary memory. Gisela Elsner’s lesser-known novel Fliegeralarm [Air Raid Alarm] was published in 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This unusual and satirical text sharply critiques Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s memory politics, which sought to normalize the Nazi past and move on. Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s Der Verlorene [Lost], published in 1998, represents yet another phase in Germany’s cultural memory: a postmemorial perspective of belatedness. It addresses the transgenerational legacy of the Nazi past and exposes the impact of inherited trauma experienced by succeeding generations. Like Der Verlorene, the story collection The Dark Room by the British-German author Rachel Seiffert, published in 2001, no longer ←2 | 3→negotiates first-hand experiences of the Nazi period but instead examines different gradations of complicity and implication in the history of Nazi perpetration. Seiffert’s work is written in English yet inscribed by autobiographical experiences tied to National Socialism, in particular, loving German grandparents who nonetheless remained unreformed Nazis. The Dark Room is included here as an example for the resonance of the topic across national, cultural and linguistic borders.

Resting on what Cornelia Blasberg has called ‘das markante Einspruchsrecht der Literatur’ [the incisive power of objection characteristic of literature],4 a system of signification that not only tolerates but celebrates ambivalence, ambiguity and overdetermination, these texts not only are but also offer insightful witnesses to the Nazi past.5 They recall experiences under Hitler using the voice, gaze or stance of a child to mediate dis/continuities of German identity post-1945 and post-1989. Speaking as, with, or to eyewitnesses of history, they are examined here as ‘fictions of memory’ in the double sense advanced by Ansgar Nünning. While fiction refers most obviously to something ‘imaginatively invented’ and more specifically to literature concerned ‘with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters’, it has a less commonly known connotation.6 In law, fiction also refers to a perspective that contests existing conventions, that is, ‘a supposition to be at variance with fact but conventionally accepted by reason of practical convenience, conformity with traditional usage, decorum, or the like’.7 In other words, fiction denotes both literary, that is, non-referential narratives, as well as underlying theoretical configurations and frameworks. Thus, above and beyond any specific narrative plots and character configurations, literary fictions implicitly reveal the work(ings) of overarching memory discourses. They ←3 | 4→mediate ‘a culturally sanctioned system of ideas, beliefs, presuppositions, and convictions that constitutes [national and collectively curated] mentalities’.8 Writing the Child considers how fictions of memory deploy their heuristic power to expose suppositions and ideological assumptions that have firmly inscribed the myth of innocence into the memory of a perpe- trator nation. The texts under consideration in this book use the voice of the child as a capacious aesthetic focalization, a lens which underscores the creative impulse behind every memory narrative. As Walter Benjamin points out, recalls of the past create rather than simply re-present images based on the asynchronous process and poetic nature of remembering. When we remember, we see ‘Bilder, die wir nie sahen, ehe wir uns erinnerten’9 [images that we never saw until we remembered]. In his view, memory is fundamentally fiction, a story that inevitably reframes past experiences and is shaped by retrospective insights. While taking into consideration the autobiographical and generational location of each work, I examine them less as idiosyncratic expressions of individual authors than as contributions to larger cultural, political and social (memory) discourses. Writing the Child shares Amir Eshel’s conviction that literature looks back in order to look ahead. It strives ‘to widen the language and to expand the pool of idioms we employ in making sense of what has occurred while imagining who we may become’.10 Literature, I argue, does not only have remarkable powers of insight and objection but is also uniquely capable of turning into story unresolved questions of the present by questioning the past in search of a different future.

Based on differing generational and auctorial subject positions, the selected texts describe a mnemonic arc delineated by the perspective of the Flakhelfer, Hitler Youth, or more broadly war generation (Günter Grass) – men conscripted into the Wehrmacht as juveniles in the last years of the ←4 | 5→war; the perspective of the Kriegskind generation (Dieter Forte and Gisela Elsner) – German civilians who experienced the last war years as children; and finally the perspective of the Kriegsenkel [grandchildren of war] (Hans-Ulrich Treichel, Rachel Seiffert) – children born to parents traumatized by wartime experiences. In critical dialogue with central tenets of Germany’s cultural memory, they offer ‘fantasies of witnessing’ (Weissman). From differing degrees of proximity to an event few contemporary readers have witnessed, the voice of an imaginary German child witness articulates the psychosocial and political reverberations of the Nazi past. Although focused on the effects of state-sanctioned genocide, the selected literature does not directly engage with the Holocaust, nor does it speak from the Jewish perspective. Rather, it unpacks the emotional, political and cultural utility of collective innocence from the perpetrator perspective (in the widest sense). In divergent ways, these fictions of memory reveal what Hannah Arendt has observed with respect to those persecuted under Hitler: ‘[H]uman beings simply can’t be as innocent as they all were in the face of the gas chambers.’11 In the harsh light of the death camps, innocence has proven to be an absurd epistemological category. However, as a persistent myth that offers palatable screen memories for a fundamentally disrupted national identity, collective innocence has retained its currency, evident most recently in the rhetoric of alt-right parties. This study examines literary works that reframe existing taxonomies of accountability, works that carve out who counts in the continuously growing web of stories about the Nazi past and who does not; who is worthy of recognition and who is not; who can be held accountable and who cannot. While there are certainly seminal East German authors who deploy the child as a witness of the Nazi past, the historical circumstances and ideological tenets to which they are responding represent a radically different memory regime than that of West Germany, including a different understanding of who were the perpetrators and who the victims.12 I chose to focus on the West ←5 | 6→German context and its attendant victimologies because it quickly became the dominant memory regime in post-1989 united Germany. Recalling the Nazi past using a child’s voice – its limitations and its flexibility, its familiarity and its otherness – means first and foremost to interrogate the traffic between knowledge, denial, complicity and implication. Harnessing the heuristic power of poetic imagination, the critical project of these fictions of memory rests on the vantage point of three interrelated childhood tropes: the innocent, the knowing and the implicated child.

The Child as a Fiction of Memory

The child is never just a child. In this book, the child comes into view as a vicarious witness to the Nazi past – as a discursive surface, not an empirical referent. Itself a potent fiction of memory, the child is used to expose cultural anxieties and desires behind the fantasy of collective innocence.13 An object of imagination exhibited and celebrated in art for the pleasure of the adult, the child has long been ‘naturalized’ in the way Roland Barthes describes it in Mythologies, his critique of the tropes of mass culture, and Camera Lucida, his critique of the language of photography. That is, as an aesthetic icon the child seemingly transcends historical and social specificity; as a memory icon it masks the ideological forces that have shaped and continue to shape it. In a manner similar to the work of myths – narratives which do not offer factual truths but mirror collective desires and aspirations – iconographies of childhood elevate a set of (historically specific) conventions to the category of nature, betraying our implication ←6 | 7→as adults in the very process of making the child. Philippe Ariès, one of the early scholars to draw attention to this process, showed the extent to which the modern child is a cultural invention.14 Commenting on this seminal if unconventional work, literary theorist James R. Kincaid observes that Ariès reveals how ‘the modern child is the perceptual frame we have available to us for fitting in just about anything we chose – or nothing. What the child is matters less than what we think it is and just why we think that way.’15 In the context of this study, the child is examined as a memory icon that represents a potent trope of innocence.

An imaginary other, the child at once defines, questions and transcends the certainties of adulthood. Similar to the way fictions of memory harness moments of the past in order to define or address uncertainties of the present, the child functions to stabilize the hard-won securities of adulthood. For the Romantics, the child is an aspirational focal point, a glorious memory of a better self irretrievably lost to the adult, a pristine site outside of social norms from which to reassess the social and cultural status quo.16 As the keeper of poetic insight and utopian promise who reminds us of the possibility of decency, the child is an ‘index of civilization’ (Jenkins). Yet, as I show in the following chapters, when cast as a witness to violent historical legacies such as National Socialism, the child can also represent an index of barbarism. Lost in(to) a traumatizing history, driven by a savage will-to-know and representing the ‘pain of others’, the child gains depth as a historical subject implicated in acts of perpetration and discrimination which it neither planned nor authorized, yet nonetheless benefitted from.

The etymological and conceptual roots of the term innocence indicate that it refers first and foremost to the impossibility to cause harm. The term is a compound of the prefix in (not) and the present participle nocens (from nocere to be harmful). Accordingly, the innocent child is conceived as a subject who can do no harm. Born helpless into a dangerous and ←7 | 8→unpredictable world, the child does not (yet) possess historical agency. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines innocence as: ‘freedom from sin, from guilt or moral wrongdoing in general’ as well as ‘freedom from cunning or artifice’, in short, as a state of foundational guilelessness.17 While subject to the vicissitudes of history, the child is not yet a subject of history and thus readily embodies the collective fantasy of being outside of or even exempt from history. Miriam Ticktin notes that innocence works as a ‘boundary concept’ which ‘helps produce and regulate human kinds and their constituent outsides – it helps to imagine “humanity”’.18 Furthermore, conceived as a state of purity, it is associated with the figure of the victim. As such, the child represents a troubling memory trope. Due to its vulnerability and helplessness, it invites self-identification with Hitler’s victims – a fantasy that Ulrike Jureit and Christian Schneider have termed the ‘Figur des gefühlten Opfers’ [the figure of the felt victim] that centres (West) German cultural memory since the mid-1980s. Both individual and collective, this memory trope readily embraces the victims of Nazism, while Nazi perpetrators and their crimes remain obscured and abstract.19 An icon of vulnerability and victimhood, often unmoored from history and context, the child is the paradigmatic felt victim who appeals to protective instincts, mobilizes adult responsibilities and invites heroic fantasies of rescue. Moreover, when standing in for the victim, the child readily represents those deemed worthy of being remembered.


XIV, 228
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (November)
German Postwar Literature National Socialism Implication Writing the Child Susanne Baackmann
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 228 pp.

Biographical notes

Susanne Baackmann (Author)

Susanne Baackmann is Associate Professor of German at the University of New Mexico. Informed by having lived and worked in two cultures and languages, her research is focused on issues of gender, memory and trauma in the context of German-speaking cultures. Previous book publications explore how contemporary women authors have rewritten narratives of love and desire and how gender inflects narratives about violence and war. She has published widely on memory and postmemory in recent literature, films, photography and art. In her teaching she focuses on contemporary German culture, as well as fairy tales, notions of Heimat and memory studies.


Title: Writing the Child