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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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5.1 Reconstruction and Disintegration: The German Labor Movement between War and Cold War Introduction The history of the German movement during the occupation is lacking in social- historical depth and precision– a criticism that applies to the history of the post- war period in general. There have, to be sure, been a host of useful individual studies of the Social Democrats, the Communists, and the unions in terms of their organization and program. These studies have tended to be either purely descriptive or have confined themselves to specific questions. In general, inves- tigators have tried to gain an analytic perspective by looking into the relation between program and praxis. The result was a kind of "surface criticism," which intra-organizational controversy often produces. In recent years, we have begun to pay more attention to the framework set by the Allied occupation for the development of parties and interest groups. Both kinds of approach are indispensable period of reorganization and change. Yet taken alone, they fall short. Our earlier tendency to confine the study of the working class to the politics of its leadership was at least justifiable on heuristic grounds. This argument no longer holds true for the postwar period, however, where an enormous amount of contemporary documentation permits a deepened understanding of the rank and file– who they were, how they lived and worked, what was there experience and milieu. If we fail at this point, the reason seems to me rather to lie in a certain helplessness with respect...

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