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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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3.1 The Infancy Of Tarzan. Is Collective Identity indifferent? In the recent Disney cartoon of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan saga, there is an affecting post-structuralist Ur-scene that does not appear in the original text of 1914; it has more than one meaning. The little white child of a pair of castaways is rescued by a black ape-mother, after his own parents are torn to pieces by a tiger in the jungle; she brings him up in place of the children she has lost. But there are continual conflicts with other members of the gorilla band, incited by its male chief against this alien addition to the family. Even when he plays with his contemporaries, the human child is made painfully aware, as in Lacan's mir- ror stage, that he is unlike them. After one such conflict the child, seeing his face reflected in a puddle, smears it with mud to make it more like those around him. Whereupon his ape-mother solves Tarzan's crisis by constructing an identity for him. She wipes the grimy mask from his face and bids him close his eyes. To let him realize what they have in common, she lays the palm of his hand on the na- ked sole of her paw. Then she lets him feel the beating of his heart, and takes him gently in her arms, so that he can hear her own, consoling him with words of postmodern comfort: 'You see? We're identical!' Thus, shutting his eyes to empirical reality,...

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