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Harold Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933–2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ISBN 0 521 55204 4, pp. xxii + 590, cloth £27.95.

Reviewed by: K. Hannah Holtschneider, CJCR Research Fellow

Legacies of Dachau discusses the development of the memorial at the former concentration camp at Dachau. Marcuse demonstrates the different approaches to the site taken by religious and national communities, and shows the transformation of the site into a complex memorial with its own history of remembering. Dachau, as it is structured in 2001, itself has a history as a memorial site and visitors will need to enquire about the transformations it has undergone since the immediate post-war years if they want to learn about the history of the camp as well as about its history of memory. Marcuse’s study is particularly helpful in relating the development of Dachau and the debates surrounding the post-war development of the site into a memorial centre to debates on the use of the sites of the Auschwitz camp complex, as well as in drawing attention to the international nature of these debates. As such it is a significant work, not only for the study of Dachau, but also for the study of other sites of remembrance and the wider debates on the memory of the Holocaust in Germany.

The book consists of four parts, each discussing a clearly identifiable phase in the history of the site and the city of Dachau. The first two parts deal with the National Socialist years 1933–1945 (Part I) and first post-war decade 1945–1955 (Part II). Part III discusses the history of the site until the beginning of the student protests at the end of the 1960s (1955–1970) and Part IV reaches up to the present (1970–2001). The structure of the book demonstrates that these four phases of history overlap and cannot be seen as contingent in themselves. The theme that runs through the whole book and structures Marcuse’s argument is the theory of three myths that are influential in post-war German interpretations of National Socialism and the Holocaust. According to Marcuse, these myths are transformed and reinterpreted by all post-war generations. Hence the transformations these myths undergo are indicative of new stages in the process of remembering the Holocaust at the site of Dachau concentration camp. The myths are: the myth of victimisation, the myth of ignorance and the myth of resistance.

Marcuse follows methodologies that address the relations between individual and group memories. He distinguishes between memories of individuals and ‘public recollections’ of groups of people. In this latter category Marcuse defines collective memory as public recollection, suggesting that such recollection results from the interaction of different group memories (p. 14). He analyses sensitively the changes in collective interpretation of the history of the camp and its relationship to German Nazi history that occur with the growing temporal distance from the events and the younger generations’ influence on German public, social, cultural and political life. In the final part of the book Marcuse details the transformations of the three myths through generational cohorts, each of which exemplify a number of characteristics typical for a particular age group’s approach to Nazi history and the Holocaust. At important points in the argument Marcuse writes himself into the text, either describing his involvement as a researcher in interviews, or as a peer of his own age group and social community of American Jews who interact with the memorial site at various points in their lives. In a sense his book on Dachau is the culmination of a long-term involvement in researching the history of the site and its current layout, an interest which began with his first visit to the former camp site in 1977 (p. xvii).

Marcuse begins in the first part by sketching the Nazi history of the town and concentration camp. He demonstrates that this history is interpreted in different ways: some local residents see the Nazi years and the concentration camp site at their doorstep as an event out of character with the rest of the history of Dachau; the international community and many Germans in contrast ‘associate the name Dachau with a site of Nazi atrocities’ (p. 15). Having charted the historical background and differences in perception of the history of Dachau, Marcuse turns to describe three myths dominating post-war German approaches to former camp sites and the legacy of the Holocaust (Part II). These myths of ‘vitcimization, ignorance and resistance’ can be seen as accounting for the differences in interpreting the Nazi history of Dachau. The myths are created by ‘the desire to have collectively fallen victim to developments beyond "Germany’s" control; the wish to have been ignorant of what was happening in the concentration camps and extermination centres; and the sanguine vision of an unsullied "other Germany" that had done its best to resist rioting and intruding barbarians, or at least rein in their excesses’ (p. 74). Manifestations of these myths can be found locally in the post-war history of Dachau and the former concentration camp site as well as in national debates on the relationship of Germans to the Nazi past of their national history. According to Marcuse these myths are apparent in three contexts: ‘the Germans’ perceptions of themselves, the Germans’ perceptions of the survivors, and the treatment of the physical remains of the camps’ (77). The main body of Parts II–IV of the book consists of an explication of these myths and their transformation in the three post-war eras Marcuse has identified. By writing the history of Dachau concentration camp with the key players in the post-war construction of the site at its heart, Marcuse demonstrates the transformation of the interpretations of the site, locally as well as nationally. The three myths serve as framing devices that shape the narrative and bundle the insights. In particular, differences between the generations influencing public opinion and views of Germany’s Nazi past play a crucial role in Marcuse’s narrative.

Marcuse argues that post-war German society can be structured into seven generational cohorts, identified by their formative years in relation to the Nazi era. He details these cohorts in a table, which lists their formative experiences in relation to Nazism and gives examples of members of the individual cohorts. This detailed approach to the issue of generations is particularly helpful for people studying Holocaust remembrance in Germany. Current sociological literature on the subject of generational transmission of Holocaust remembrance in Germany often refers to only three quite broadly defined generations which as such fail to capture the variety of publicly observable formative experiences detailed in Marcuse’s categories of generational cohorts.

Marcuse identifies changes in the expression of the three myths with changes in the representation of different generational cohorts in German society (cf. p. 328): the 1933ers, 1943ers and 1948ers felt victimised by the Allies and tourists, and their ignorance of the ‘renazification’ of German society went together with a silence about the Nazi past and a resistance to learning more about it. The 1968ers saw themselves as victimised by their parents and expressed this in solidarity with people currently oppressed. However, the 1968ers remained ignorant about life during the Nazi time whilst being committed to teaching about National Socialism. They resisted new fascist developments in German society. ‘Mythic and post-mythic tendencies among 1979ers’ include the interpretation of survivors as ‘historical witnesses’ and a ‘willingness to accept historical responsibility’ that transcends the myth of victimisation. The myth of ignorance is combated by a desire for learning about the Nazi past and an emphasis on ‘cognitive learning over empathetic portrayals’ of historical events. This generational cohort expresses resistance to all ‘three myths and their legacies’. Marcuse illustrates these generational developments with examples of individuals connected to the site of Dachau concentration camp and the approaches of the different religious groups represented at the site, i.e. Catholics, Protestants and Jews. On the national level of the analysis, Marcuse highlights the relevance of public debates on the memory of the Holocaust in Germany. In this part the debates of the 1980ers and 1990ers that one would expect to find in such an analysis are discussed, such as the debate on the mini series Holocaust, the Bitburg Controversy and the Historians’ Controversy, and the exhibition Crimes of the Wehrmacht. This well-balanced study successfully intertwines the analysis of local and national events, using the paradigms of generational cohorts and transformations of historical myths as interpretative devices.

However, some critical questions need to be asked, which by no means diminish the tremendous achievements of this work. Scholars working on the visual representation of history in photography and art have pointed to the need to explore the relationship between text and captions. Why are photographs included in historical works, i.e. what is their function? Why are photographs located where they are in a given book? Marcuse’s volume groups pages of photographs in two places in the book. It is not at all clear to the reader why it is so important at that point in the structure of the book to look at a variety of captions. The captions are labelled, but their relationship to the preceding and following text is not made clear. This stands in contrast to the excellent incorporation of tables detailing the generational cohorts and their relationship to the three myths. Here the table occurs at the place in the text where the reader is occupied with the analysis of the cohorts. Thus, the relationship between text and table is explicit, in that the table presents a condensed version of the analysis in the text.

Other questions occur in the sections dealing with Jewish approaches to remembrance in Dachau and reflections on the nature of memorials. Having defined Jewish survivors of Dachau as two groups, one of German/Austrian Jews and the other of Eastern European Jews, Marcuse generalises about Jewish experiences of concentration camps. He rightly points out that to Jews camps were primarily sites of death, which distinguishes Jewish experience from the experiences of political prisoners and religious prisoners such as priests who had a chance of release and who ‘had been able to practice cultural pursuits such as religion or writing’ (p. 263). Marcuse concludes that ‘for the overwhelming majority of Jews religious practice played no role in the camps’ (p. 263). I would contend that in the light of a substantial body of literature on Jewish religious life in camps and ghettos, this bold assertion is too general to be helpful. This may have been the case for Dachau, but to attribute it to a majority seems difficult in the light of the available evidence.

According to Marcuse the ‘elevation of senseless victims to "martyrs" who had died for their beliefs or some cause is typical of most memorials’ (p. 270). Again, while this can be seen to apply to monuments at Dachau, I would caution against a generalisation beyond the concrete example. The growing body of literature that explores the function of memorials and artists who actively pursue other approaches to memorialisation such as the counter-monuments of Jochen and Esther Geertz and Daniel Libeskind’s architecture highlight that it is necessary to be specific when describing memorials and monuments.

Marcuse presents an impressive study of the history of Dachau concentration camp and memorial site and its relation to the town of Dachau. Interwoven with this history are national and generational debates on the memory of the Holocaust in Germany. Marcuse portrays the history of this particular site through many examples and case studies that detail and illustrate his argument. A strength of the study lies in the connection of local with national history and generational changes in the approach to the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. Thereby issues that can be identified on a national level are concretised in the setting of a particular memorial. One can only hope that this detailed and well-researched work will be translated into German.

Posted: July 2001

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