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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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2.1 Intervening Into Memory When I first visited an international oral history conference at Essex in 1978, I was a newcomer to this field just planning a project of our own. The little previ- ous expertise that I had at the time can be boiled down to three personal experi- ences with interviewing and a recent encounter with foreign practices of profes- sionalized oral history. In the sixties I researched for my dissertation on American Denazification in Germany and, alongside archival research, I went to see all sorts of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, that had been active in these policies – from the American proconsul, the former General Lucius D. Clay, downwards to regional officials and party functionaries in Bavaria, to ask them questions about the loopholes within the archival records, taking notes on my knees. Somewhat spe- cial, but not altogether uncharacteristic, was my interview with the General, then on the board of a major private bank in Wall Street, where he received me in his wainscoted office: he put his feet on his desk and invited me to ask questions, staging sort of a long postponed press conference about outdated news from twenty years back with the little apprentice of history from abroad. In actual fact the outcome was nil – even his memoirs of 1950, then a bestseller, had been written by his military staff – but I got an impression of his personality, his ap- proach and bits and pieces of information about the people he...

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