Nazi History and Political Culture in West Germany since 1945:
Overview of my current research

by Harold Marcuse, UCSB (homepage)

Presented at the conference of all UC history departments,
Newport Beach, May 3-5, 1997

[jump down to current interest, table of moral stages]

National Socialism, especially the atrocities systematically perpetrated under the guise of its ideology, stands out as one of the crucial events of modern history. Its implications for present society are momentous: The fact that such horrors were both organized by a modern state apparatus, and willingly carried out by many of its citizens, implies that barbarous behavior can be (and is) easily evoked in modern states. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno attempted to explain this phenomenon in their 1944 treatise Dialectic of Enlightenment. They argued that enlightenment (or at least its positivist variant) was very close to myth, and thus could easily oscillate between producing civil or barbaric behaviors. The converse, they argued, was also true: myth, or non-rational belief, could also promote the civilizing process.

This insight casts doubt on the very idea of progress toward more civil states of social interaction. If one accepts that one of main purposes of remembering and reexamining the past is to preserve attained levels of civility in society, then Nazism represents perhaps the most utter failure of this recollective process in the history of Western civilization. I think it is important to keep this dialectic of enlightenment in mind when one examines what are commonly distinguished as "history" and "memory." History is often defined as the rationally established, objectively reproducible, "true" representation of the past, while memory is used to connote an emotionally influenced, subjective, "distorted" version of the past held by individuals or what I call memory groups. Mythic memory may, in certain circumstances for certain groups, be more effective in advancing enlightenment than enlightened history itself. It has been argued, for instance, that in postwar Germany a period of forgetting and distorted recollection was necessary before a more unsparing program of historical education could begin.

My current work, a study of the history of "Dachau" since 1945, can be conceived of as an investigation into how memory, at all of its levels from individual remembering to group recollection to academic historiography, has attempted to come to terms with this failure. I write "Dachau" in quotation marks because I mean both the concrete site of the concentration camp and the mental images of that site held by individuals as individuals and members of specific groups and organizations; those embraced by organizations, agencies and political bodies; and those whose existence is postulated theoretically by individuals and groups who see themselves as the vanguard of the civilizing process. In practice my sources range from individual interviews, letters and memoirs to newspaper reports and organizational documents, to programmatic statements and historiographical representations and reconstructions. The most interesting and illuminating material concerns the transitions in the use of the Dachau concentration camp site. It went from a penal site run by the US Army in 1945, to a refugee camp run by the Bavarian government in 1948, to a memorial site run by the Bavarian government under the auspices of a consortium of organizations of concentration camp survivors in 1965. Since the 1980s a younger generation of (primarily) Germans has begun to assume responsibility for the future of the memorial site, which has evolved substantially from several short-lived museums prior to 1965 to an increasingly complex educational establishment since then.

My own interest in the subject began when I visited the Dachau memorial site in the mid-1970s. Subsequent experiences living in West Germany led me to reflect on how that site had come to the unexpected form in which I had encountered it. I began studying the concrete shapes given to Dachau and other former concentrations camps. In 1985 this research culminated in a large collaborative project comparing memorials for fallen soldiers, civilian casualties, and victims of government-organized genocidal persecution in four countries: East and West Germany (as successors of the perpetrator nation), and France and Poland (as countries that had been victimized).

The next step was to examine the historical process out of which these concrete shapes had emerged, as well as the evolution of the mental images (or meanings) of the historical events for various groups over time. Once I was able to reconstruct the historical process in fair detail, the next logical step was to study the effects that the modified sites had had on the individuals who had visited them and on the societies in which they existed. The Dachau concentration camp was an obvious choice for a case study because it had been the largest and best-known concentration camp in what was to become West Germany, and because it had also consistently had the highest local, regional, national and even international public profile since 1945 (internationally it was eclipsed by Auschwitz some time in the 1970s or early 80s).

Since little had been published about the post-war history of the camp, my basic reconstruction of its history was based first on newspaper articles archived in various clippings collections in Germany, as well as passing references in the published literature about the Dachau camp. Based on that information I was able to identify state agencies, private organizations, and prominent individuals who had taken an active role in determining the uses and shape of the site. The archival material I found enabled me to reconstruct some of the dialogues about the camp, and ultimately to infer the various meanings it had held for different groups at different times.

Current research interest

The evolution of those meanings over time implies that the moral or political culture of German society was indeed changing, but one cannot infer that knowledge about the camps played a causal role in that transformation. It is possible that the changing conceptions of the camp merely reflected, rather than effected, changes in the underlying moral norms of German society. Nonetheless, aside from past and present experience, few things are likely to have effected such a learning process. Indeed, one finds that at crucial junctures when present events raised moral concerns, the Nazi past was (and is) often invoked, albeit in different ways by the different parties. I recently completed a study of the invocations of the Nazi past during the 1968 student movement. I found that radicals, liberals and conservatives all brandished images from the arsenal of Nazi history in their battles to establish or protect the legitimacy of their respective stances.

At this point, I think it is acceptable to leave open the question of causality, for it is also interesting to have a gauge of the predominant moral culture of a society. In the title of this presentation I used the more familiar term "political culture" because it overlaps in many respects with what I mean by moral culture. However, political culture is usually conceived more narrowly as the actual electoral and social behavior of a population, as opposed to the legitimizing values and principles underlying that behavior. Jürgen Habermas, who has studied and theorized about this phenomenon, uses the term "moral consciousness" to describe the same phenomenon. Whatever one calls it, it remains a rather nebulous phenomenon. For one thing, societies do not, and probably cannot have a single, monolithic consciousness (or culture, unless it is understood in its most comprehensive sense). Thus I prefer to speak of a predominant consciousness (i.e. one that is hegemonic in the public sphere of politics), in which the heterogeneity of a large number of relatively homogeneous group consciousnesses is subsumed under a norm or accepted standard. That standard not only guides state policies, but also determines the range of acceptable deviance in public discourse, and perhaps also influences the parameters within which most private discourses unfold.

Habermas has developed a taxonomy of this predominant moral consciousness of society. He derived the taxonomy primarily from Harvard psychologist Leo Kohlberg's empirical work on the moral development of children. Accordingly Habermas outlines six basic stages of social moral consciousness within three broad categories: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional morality. Preconventional morality is characterized by egocentricity and immediate physical rewards or punishment; good is defined by the immediate effect of an action on the subject. Conventional morality is oriented along the lines of expectations, customs, norms, rules and regulations; group loyalty becomes an important value, and intention may supersede actual physical consequence as a criterion of judgment. Finally, postconventional morality attempts to define good and bad according to principles whose validity transcends the groups which hold the principles. Within each of these categories there are two stages, one more passively accepting of the moral order, the other more actively participating in the definition of that order.

While this taxonomy does offer a developmental scale upon which the moral consciousness of a society can be gauged, it is very rigid and contains strong normative assumptions. It presumes that the horizon of the subject group's identity is congruent with the frame of reference of its moral principles. Thus individuals in groups bound by concrete physical characteristics are oriented according to immediate, physical rewards and sanctions; more arbitrary, voluntarily formed collectivities can codify their rules and establish scales of equivalence; and universal collectivities apply universally reciprocal principles. In practical application I found that groups often acted inconsistently with their moral frames of reference, and that individual identification with a group is not stable, but can move from one category to another depending on circumstance.

For example, when the US Army liberated Dachau, in an unsupervised moment before complete order had been established, a small group of US soldiers massacred a large number of camp guards. On the one hand the soldiers were men fighting in the name of humanity to liberate Europe from tyranny, but at the same time they were inflicting physical retribution instead of applying logically consistent principles of justice. Thus they combined a postconventional group identity with preconventional behavior. Habermas' taxonomy can be used to explain what happened if the group of soldiers perpetrating the massacre is conceived as a tightly bonded group of soldiers who had been fighting for their lives and identified themselves strongly with as victims of German brutality, including the literally thousands of starved and tortured corpses strewn throughout the camp. Their preconventional eye-for-an-eye vengeance without due process was quite in accord with this powerful, exclusive identity.

In an attempt to account for incongruities between identity and consciousness, and for the changing frameworks of identity, I have expanded Habermas's three-stage model to a grid, with the type of group along one axis, and the motivation/rationale along the other. Habermas's three moral stages fall on the diagonal ascending from left to right, which one can conceive of as a line of stability (congruence of group identification and moral consciousness). This axis is indicated by the italicized boxes 1, 5, and 9 in the table below. The inherent logical inconsistency of the non-diagonal gives them, I think, an inherent instability, and they should tend over time to move towards the categories of the stable diagonal. This is a fairly complex model, and I will spend the rest of my time during my presentation giving examples of the various categories and showing how the model helps to explain the changing meanings of Dachau since 1945.

To give you my conclusion now in a nutshell:
I think that there was a development from an essentially preconventional stage at war's end, in which the Germans were to be punished for their transgressions, to a long conventional period ranging from bureaucratic denazification, materialist reorientation and normalization during the "economic miracle" of the 1950s. The 1968 era may have initiated a transition to a postconventional situation, in which (West) Germans of later generations not involved in the Nazi era feel responsibility for the crimes committed by their parents and grandparents. I think Green party politics show many postconventional traits. Still, societies are diverse, and it is difficult to claim that the entirety of German society is postconventional.


Moral Principles &
Values (across->)

Type of Group
or group identity (down)

immediate, tangible reward or sanction: material benefit or physical coercion;
power, pleasure-pain
legitimacy based on custom or reasoning according to concrete, codified laws;
utilitarian values, group approval, acceptance
justification derived from application of abstract principles;
realization of logically consistent universal human rights
abstract, inclusive, universal collectivity
(humanity, free world, living beings)
7. Some heads of ghetto Jewish councils sign deportation lists including children.
Or: East German socialist elite claiming to work for the benefit of all embezzles foreign currency and lives in opulence
8. Allied governments specify in treaty that remains of camp must be preserved 9. "Support Association" argues that memorial site must be expanded because its effectiveness as teaching tool for good of all will increase
arbitrary, constructed, formally defined, semi-voluntary collectivity
(citizens of a state; voluntary members of private organizations)
4. Bavaria maintains memorial site because it increases tourist revenue.

Or: Dachau tourism association argues for acceptance of site because of tourism revenues
5. Bavarian state maintains memorial site because of contractual agreement to preserve (or because all other German state governments do)
Or: German government takes on fiscal responsibility for E. German sites after unification, due to concern about international image.
6. Protestant Church group "Sign of Atonement" argues that Germans have a special obligation to work for world peace.
Or: Bavarian SPD supports initiative to erect memorials in all towns along route of evacuation "death" marches
tightly bound, exclusive group sharing unique characteristics or experiences
(family, long-time residents of village, members of elitist organizations, band of partisans)
1. Dachau county governor proposes closing memorial site because it focuses hostility on town (Dachau bus in France).
Or: site is maintained because it brings more economic benefit than detriment.
Or: Nazi racial community kills Jews for material gain
2. Dachau residents accept refugee camp because state assumes all fiscal responsibility.

Or: Nazi master race kills Jews because members accept pseudoscientific argument that Jews are inferior and detrimental
3. Camp resistance organization protects a brutal SS guard from retribution because "he is human too"
Or: Some Holocaust survivors expect all Germans to feel a sense of collective guilt
Or: Master race justifies killing Jews because they will hinder the progress of human civilization. [Himmler speech]
[below the axis]
Type of response immediate physical
(eye for an eye)
equivalent physical/material
(fines, community service, jail)
verbal (therapy, appeal to conscience, remorse)
Relationship to past activity Lived experience, or shared experience of own nuclear group.
Conscious reconstruction and propagation of historical knowledge.
Also: official commemoration, history teaching
Identity transcends history.
Theoretically, no need to recall past, or only to confirm universality of principles
(dialectic of myth and enlightenment)

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