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Memory as Burden and Liberation

Germans and their Nazi Past (1945–2010)


Anna Wolff-Poweska

This book examines both the obvious and less obvious ways in which Germans struggle with their Nazi past. It embraces only a small part of a complex problem, which is impossible for an individual author to grasp in its entirety and character. The main intention, which leads through a thick of actors, issues, institutions, events and phenomena, is a reflection upon the reasons for which German reckoning with the past turned out to be a process full of contradictions; a bumpy road rippled with political, intellectual and moral mines. This intention is accompanied by the question about the specific character of German collective memory in relation to the helplessness and moral condition of a person defending himself/herself and his/her nation in the face of unimaginable evil.
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National Socialism was the ideological foundation of Hitlerite Germany for twelve years. For the last sixty-five years, Germans have been struggling with its memory. This long period of stumbling through the past, acquiring and rejecting the images of the most dramatic modern history – both for Germans and the rest of Europe – is sometimes called “a second history of Nazism”. Social sciences use Pierre Nora’s term, “history of the second degree”, to refer to the history of memory, of collective representations, their evolution and role in the process of shaping identity.1

German memory is a subject of interest for many academic disciplines, as well as art, media and politics. For the first time in history, a nation publicly dealt with its own past in front of our eyes. We observe a particular experiment: generations of Germans participate in a process that is full of contradictions, and they have to confront both themselves and the outside world. The factors that affect this process are, for example, changes in internal political conditions and in international surroundings, as well as generational changes.

The uniqueness of this phenomenon and the fascination in the subject that is sweeping through academic circles and the media can be explained by the fact that, despite numerous wars and barbarisms in the history of humankind, there is no commonly accepted standard, as the one in Sèvres, that would determine how a community, in whose name murders and violence were committed, should cope with...

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