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4.2 Program for the Study of Germany and Europe

The Politics of Memory: Nazi Crimes & Identity in West Germany,1945-1990

1994 – Harold Marcuse


Memories of historical events are to a great extent dependent upon the identities of the re­membering subjects, which are in tum shaped by the immediate and vicarious experiences of those persons. It may be assumed that experiences directly related to the historical events in question are especially important in the formation of memories of those events.

This paper links the widely varying memories of the Nazi concentration camps in West Germany during the past five decades to the differing historical experiences of those camps by the various groups performing memory work in the West German public sphere.

The author has found that the remembered images of the camps fall into five main types, each of which held a predominant position in the West German public sphere during spe­cific periods. The fIrst of these was shaped by an Allied media blitz immediately after liberation in 1945; in Germany it held sway for about a year, while abroad it has persisted largely unchanged to the present day.

After a transitory period in the late 1940s, the author argues, leaders of public opinion in West Germany made a concerted effort to establish a memory of the camps based on the Nazi propaganda image of what he calls the "clean" camp. This sanitized image was super­seded during a period of historical rediscovery of systematic genocide and murderous repression from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s by a more historically accurate but still ab­ stract image of the camps. It was not until the 1970s that this external, parallel history of the camps was reintegrated into the history of daily experience in Nazi Germany.

As more recent events such as the 1985 dual commemoration at Bergen-BeIsen and Bitburg show, public memory of the Nazi camps in West Germany is bifurcated between the suc­cessors to the sanitized images of the early 1950s and the multifaceted memory fo the camps as institutions of repression, exploitation, and extermination.