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; Section: "German Sites of Memory"
[only introductory pages; 5/20/97]

please do not cite without permission of the author

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


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."

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. To name just two examples for the interest in

memory: Pierre Nora's Lieux de memoire project in France, and the

international and interdisciplinary interest in the writings of French

sociologist Maurice Halbwachs on collective memory.

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. 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. 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


In the 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in the utility of the

concept of identity in educational and sociological theory. 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. 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?," his later work

focused more on theories of individual moral development.

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. 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 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


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.

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.

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].

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.

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


For a brief overview, see Israel Rosenfeld, "Memory and Identity," New

Literary History 26(1995), 197-203.

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


Jürgen Habermas, "Moral Development and Ego Identity," in idem,

Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979), 69-94.

Jürgen Habermas, "Können komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernünftige

Identität ausbilden?," in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion, 92-126.

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.