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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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4.1 From Forced Labor in Nazi Germany to the “Re- membrance, Responsibility and Future” Sixty years after the fact In July 2000, the German Bundestag enacted a law establishing the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” in implementation of a plan to com- pensate persons who were exploited as forced laborers by the Nazi regime. Sixty years had passed since the practice of impressing foreigners into the wartime workforce first began and nine out of ten of the persons concerned were no longer alive. An agreement on the payment of compensation to former forced laborers was finally concluded on December 17, 1999, just two weeks before the end of the 20th century, when President Johannes Rau made a statement to an international audience at Bellevue Palace in Berlin (see Annex, p. 311). Now that the process of getting the compensation payments to their recipi- ents has essentially been completed and initial attempts are being made to record this chapter for posterity, we need to do more than just write up an after-the-fact report on the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.” We need to go back a bit further and try to find answers, at least in general terms, to three questions that arise on closer examination of our subject matter. Question number one: What was behind the use of foreign civilian workers and the exploitation of detainees in concentration camps for the German war- time economy? What were the reasons for the growing amount of forced labor, a phenomenon that eventually...

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