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Memory and History

Essays in Contemporary History


Lutz Niethammer

This book brings together eighteen English language essays on the fringes, overlap, and tensions of memory and history that the author has published over the last three decades. It is characteristic that the two longest essays in this volume, and the most recent one, are reflections on the author’s ambiguity vis-à-vis autobiographical Ego-histoire, on his role and experiences as a government advisor during the international negotiations on compensation for Nazi forced labor, and on the contexts of the essays of this book. The author was also instrumental in bringing Oral History to Germany and making it academically respectable. So the second largest part of this book displays some examples of his approaches to German ‘Erfahrungsgeschichte’ West and East, and to their roots in and beyond the Nazi period, being analytical and literary at the same time. The third major group of essays documents some of the author’s interventions into intellectual and conceptual history: with the examples of ‘Collective Identity’ and ‘Posthistoire’ he shows the merits of investigative ‘Geistesgeschichte’ contesting mainstream intellectual assumptions. With the method of Comparative Considerations he tries to specify the situation of German Labor after the ‘Third Reich’, the mythological potential of Soviet Special Camps in Germany after World War II, or the perspectives of the German ‘Sonderweg’ after 1990.


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EGO-HISTOIRE? Living Memory and Historical Practice. A personal tale


1.1 Mastered History? Irritations about the suggested format and authorship of ‘ego histoire’ To be invited to present a public reflection on the interrelationships of one’s life and work is to be seducted and frustrated at the same time. Seducted because it is flattering that there should be such a personal interest in my historical practise and in my person with colleagues from all over Europe, being gathered at it’s most prominent graduate faculty here in Florence. Frustrating because an one hour exposé in ‘Ego Histoire’ seems to me to be an impossible task. Obviously, the challenge is not an autobiography because that genre of nar- ratives can hardly be put on the agenda from the outside. If its results were to be any good, it needed a special motive and time in the author’s life to be triggered off and then most probably it may run into complexities that would afford far more space. Basically this holds still true when the task would be cut down to a work account after more than thirty years as an academic historian. The right time in life for autobiographical labors usually is a crisis, when things can no longer be taken as selfunderstood and the person is forced to come to grips with his or her own tale, authoring it anew. Less generally, but still as a standard rule the best type of crisis for an autobiography is a liberating one, when the re- straints of institutions, ambition and discretion tend to...

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