How to remember, how to reflect?

Germany’s “Erinnerungskultur” left an impact on this author, yet he thinks it could be improved

Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the defeat of state-bound German fascism. A momentous event, and one worthy of commemoration. Some, of course, would beg to differ with the second part of this statement — in the days leading up to 8. May, Alexander Gauland, formerly the CDU’s most dour face and currently the AfDs grand dragon, objected to the upcoming state holiday by claiming that Germans would be revelling in their own defeat. Such slogans are now a far-right monopoly in Germany, but until the 1970s, the CDU also made use of similar mantras. An appropriate commemorative culture vis-à-vis Nazi Germany is obviously desirable, but the road there has so far been rugged, and suffers from continuous obstruction by those who had rather this history remained obscured. Much room for improvement remains.

That is not to say that impressive attempts at commemoration have not been made. Berlin, the former “Reichshauptstadt”, is saturated with monuments and plaques commemorating the past. Most famous are the 2,711 concrete ‘stelae’ which comprise the capital’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, but separate installations drawing attention to the gruesome fate of homosexuals, Sinti and Roma and the disabled have also been created. A parallel commemorative tradition, initiated by the artist Gunter Demnig, involves replacing cobblestones in front of buildings with brass replicas bearing the names and deportation dates of former residents. One such stone was implanted near the childhood home of this author; it was dedicated to Fritz Elsas, a liberal dissident and resistance-member who was murdered in Sachsenhausen in 1945. To many, however, the “Stolpersteine” (tripping-stones) fulfill little more than their nominal function, while selfie-addicts have done their part to desecrate the larger monuments.

Naturally, the German education system seeks to sensitize its citizens to these abstract forms of commemoration via more concrete ones. At the age of about nine, we were familiarized with our country’s history by Judith Kerr’s magnificent When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit, and through the antifascist tirades of a maverick German-teacher, who informed us that the Nazis had been “Arschkriecher” (ass-crawlers) and “ganz kleine Würstchen” (supremely small sausages). Later, our home-room class received a visit from an elderly Jewish woman who revealed that she had survived deportation to a concentration camp. Most memorably, she handed around a letter addressed to her family, which miraculously reached its destination after she tossed it out of the window of a cattle truck. The story left a deep impression on us.

As we matured, so did the forms of commemoration we engaged in. The Nazi period became a subject of study not just in history class, but also in Politics, French, German and English. On the one hand, this exposed us to the topic from multiple perspectives; on the other, it also gave rise to repetition and redundancy. Having grown up surrounded by my father’s biographies of Hitler, Stalin, and other twentieth-century Caligulae, I was left thirsting for more meaningful analyses of the matter, which only my final two years of highschool delivered. Of those peers who did not specialize in history, many later confessed to me that they had found the constant loop of similar documentaries, novels and textbooks, unaccompanied by critical interpretation, kafkaesque and dry.

On my American side, a different picture gradually emerged. The Nazis mattered primarily because American boys had managed to defeat them. Films like The Longest Day recast the perpetual “Cowboy versus Indian” antagonism as one between American and German soldiers, with the beaches of Normandy as the new Turnerian frontier. Once, when I asked my father why these depictions were so insouciant, he responded that many Americans at the time would have had German grandparents (their pacific adversaries, by comparison, enjoyed no such redeeming qualities). I speculate that West Germany’s incorporation into NATO was also a factor, albeit indirectly. Today, cinematic kitsch like Iron Sky or Dead Snow, coupled with video games like the Wolfenstein series, have concluded this lengthy development and crowned the Nazis cartoonish cultural icons.

In a sense, both commemorative cultures are plagued by a certain nihilism, marked by gravity in the one instance and levity in the other. Perhaps this is due to the relative depoliticization of the topic. A profoundly understandable preference — it would be disrespectful to serve up such a serious subject to adolescent debating societies, and plainly destructive to resurrect the cryptofascist apologism which haunted the West German public sphere in the 1980s. But a total lack of analysis and interpretation outside of university departments has already led to growing indifference among the general population. Learning, after all, is a creative process, and mere commemoration is hardly more sustainable than mere memorization. I allow myself a Galenic cliché in claiming that, as so often in life, a healthy balance is the solution.