Prof. Harold Marcuse
Dept. of History
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Tel: (805) 893-2635

Paper for the Upper Great Lakes Consortium for European Studies Conference,
Minneapolis, 21 Feb. 1997; (I also presented during week 6 of this 1999 Consortium graduate seminar)
Section: "German Sites of Memory" [only introductory pages; uploaded 5/20/97]
please do not cite without notifying the author

Former Concentration Camps and the Politics of Identity in West Germany, 1945-1995

Theoretical and Historical Background

The terms memory and identity have become standard fare in much recent historical writing. One recent anthology calls them "two of the most frequently used terms in contemporary public and private discourse."[1] However, there is a substantial imbalance in the theoretical exploration of the two terms. While a substantial body of work examines the concept of memory, especially in contrast to "history," "identity" tends to be mentioned, but not analyzed.[2] To name just two examples for the interest in memory: Pierre Nora's Lieux de memoire project in France,[3] and the international and interdisciplinary interest in the writings of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs on collective memory.[4]

This imbalance is all the more striking when we realize the heavy interdependence of the two concepts: on the one hand the temporal and spatial continuity expressed by "identity" derives from the preservation of aspects of the past in the present and future implied by "memory," while on the other hand the selection of certain aspects of the past for preservation in memory is determined by the identity of the individual or group which is recollecting that past. In fact, in popular discourse, the terms are often used interchangeably, as in the recent West German "Historians' Debate" about the role in contemporary politics of recollecting the Nazi past.[5] In that publicly aired discussion among historians, representations of Germany's history were often taken to be the primary factor shaping a unitary national conception of self.

Before delving into an analysis of the role of memories of concentration camps in German identity politics, I would like to focus briefly on the term identity. Its present usage to describe a given individual or group's awareness of its unity and characteristic features became common in psychoanalytic discourse in the aftermath of World War II. The term was popularized by the work of Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a German emigré who had closely studied Freudian psychology. Erikson emphasized that identity forms in a dialectical interaction between individuals and their communal culture.[6] He described identity formation as a process of assimilation of the broader culture into (preexisting) individual identities. In his formulation, there is also extensive overlap between identity and memory: you are what you have experienced of your cultural environment. Recent biopsychological research confirms that both memories and identities constantly evolve as physical and social environments change.[7]

In the 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in the utility of the concept of identity in educational and sociological theory.[8] Jürgen Habermas's discussion of the evolution of social identities offers a conceptual framework within which the role of history and memory in identity development can be explored. Habermas began by examining the socialization process in which personal identity develops; he was especially interested in comparing it to the development of moral consciousness.[9] Although he began to examine the relationship between individual and collective identity in the early 1970s (in an essay entitled "Can complex societies develop a rational identity?,"[10] his later work focused more on theories of individual moral development.[11]

However, as his interventions in the aforementioned Historians' Debate show, his assumption of the applicability of theories of individual identity development to social identity underlies much of his subsequent political essayism.[12-missing] In my examination of the role of former concentration camps in West German social identity, I find his categories of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional identity highly illuminating. In fact, although I cannot develop the argument fully in this context, I think that the identity of (West) German society has developed from a preconventional form in the Nazi and immediate postwar years, to a conventional stage in the 1960s, and is now, in the 1990s, showing many postconventional traits.

[see the table of these moral categories at the bottom of this May 1997 presentation,
and these scans from Habermas's book that I discussed in a lecture course]

  1. See John Gillis, "Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship," in: idem (ed.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University, 1994), 3-24, 3. The papers in this volume resulted from a 1990 conference on "Public Memory and Collective Identity."
    For an interesting review of the literature and a discussion the utility of the concept of identity with relation to the broader categories of culture, politics and economics, see Valentine Moghadam, "Introduction: Women and Identity Politics in Comparative Perspective," in idem (ed.), Women and Identity Politics (Boulder: Westview: 1993), 3-26.In addition to the cursory examination by Gillis in the introductory essay cited above, see: Richard Handler, "Is Identity a Useful Cross-cultural Concept?" in: Gillis (ed.), Commemorations, 27-40. On identity Handler refers only in passing to the discussion of Erikson in the work of Philip Gleason, which he himself dismisses. (back to reference)
  2. A translation of the introduction to the multivolume publication of Nora's project was published in a special issue of Representations on "Memory and Countermemory:" 26(1989). See also the introduction to that issue by Natalie Z. Davis and Randolph Starn. (back to reference)
  3. See especially Halbwachs' posthumously published On Collective Memory, ed., trans., and introduced by Lewis Coser (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1992). On the recent reception of Halbwachs' work, in addition to the works espcially by Barry Schwartz cited by Coser, see Patrick Hutton, "Sigmund Freud and Maurice Halbwachs: The Problem of Memory in Historical Psychology," History Teacher 27:2(Feb. 1994), 145-58; and Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, "Collective Memory: What is it?" History and Memory (Spr. 1996), 30-50.
    The reception of Halbwachs in German has been equally rich. See, for example, Theresa Wobbe, "Das Dilemma der Überlieferung," in idem (ed.), Nach Osten: Verdeckte Spuren nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen (Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1992), 13-43, and Jan Assmann, "Collective Memory and Cultural Identity" in New German Critique 65(1995), 125-33 [originally published 1988]. (back to reference)
  4. The so-called Historians' Debate began with a critical gloss by Habermas on recent works by conservative West German historians, published in the German weekly Die Zeit in July 1986. The debate unfoldd on the pages of Die Zeit and other major West German newspapers; most major English language historical journals published discussions of it, and several book publications resulted. A good English-language starting point would be: Charles Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1988). Peter Baldwin (ed.), Reworking the Past (Boston: Beacon, 1990), offers a comprehensive bibliography of publications to date; the English translation of the original texts, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1993), is unreliable. See the review in Central European History 26:2(1993), 250-2. (back to reference)
  5. Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), 22. The following description of the process of identity formation is taken from pp. 31f, where Erikson speaks of "cultural consolidation" and "accomodation." (back to reference)
  6. For a brief overview, see Israel Rosenfeld, "Memory and Identity," New Literary History 26(1995), 197-203. (back to reference)
  7. For an early example, see Klaus Bergmann and Hans-Jürgen Pandel, Geschichte und Zukunft: didaktische Reflexionen über veröffentlichtes Geschichtsbewußtsein (Frankfurt, 1975), chap. 7: "Identität und Identifikation." (back to reference)
  8. Jürgen Habermas,"Moralentwicklung und Ich-Identität," in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion des historischen Materialismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976), 63-91. Translated as "Moral Development and Ego Identity," in idem, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979), 69-94. (back to reference)
  9. Jürgen Habermas, "Können komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernünftige Identität ausbilden?," in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion, 92-126. (back to reference)
  10. Jürgen Habermas, "Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action," published in a collection of essays under that title, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: MIT, 1990), 116-94. (back to reference)
  11. I have substituted the term "identity" for "consciousness" because Habermas draws upon the same literature of moral identity and development for the second essay. (back to reference)

presentation by Harold Marcuse, February 1997, uploaded 1998, reformatted Oct. 2004, link updated 9/16/07
back to top, to H. Marcuse's presentations page, to H. Marcuse homepage