Ha'aretz, Nov. 8, 2001 [link to original article]

Germany's postwar resistance

By Galina Vromen

Three myths - German victimization, ignorance of Nazi atrocities and resistance to Nazism - were adopted and reformulated by successive generations of Germans

"Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp 1933-2001," by Harold Marcuse; Cambridge University Press, 590 pages, $34.95

Allies force Germans to look at corpses of concentration camp victims
Allied forces oblige German civilians to view the corpses of murdered Jews. Marcuse believes the myth of ignorance of genocide has shifted to a genuine quest for the past.

Reading Harold Marcuse's "Legacies of Dachau," I was reminded of a visit I made as a student in the 1970s to a historical research institute in Berlin. The institute's exhibition hall contained a large map of Berlin crowded with little red, green, blue, yellow and purple lights to indicate all the places where resistance to the Nazis took place. These multicolored beams of ostensible German resistance were obviously intended to leave visitors with the surprising impression that Germans had been tremendously busy between 1933 and 1945 resisting Nazism.

Although Marcuse does not refer directly to that institute (the Berlin Institute for Reconstruction and Remembrance) in his book, he puts the display exhibited there three decades ago into context.

Marcuse, associate professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara and grandson of German emigre philosopher Herbert Marcuse, explores in detail the myths that Germans in the post-Nazi era created about their past, and the impact these perceptions have had on the process of memorialization.

Although he focuses on Dachau, the title of his book is misleading because he spreads his net much wider to look at issues of collective memory and memorialization in Germany as a whole. Marcuse's primary theory is that Germans after the war adopted three basic myths. The first was the myth of Germans as victims - victimized by the victorious Allies, by survivors who demanded compensation, and later by foreigners and tourists who insisted on reminding them of the Nazi past.

Second was the myth of ignorance of genocide, which, Marcuse argues, transmuted over time into a desire to remain ignorant, too, of "renazification" - the return of former Nazis to positions of power in Germany - and silence, in general, about the Nazi past. The third myth, (which I encountered at the Berlin institute in the 1970s), was the myth of German resistance to Nazism. Marcuse argues that this myth, too, gradually changed into a resistance to learning more about what happened during the Nazi period.

Marcuse's theory is that these myths were reformulated and altered by each generation after the war, under the impact of the formative experiences each generation underwent as youths. He discusses how interpretations of the past were affected by postwar events such as the Allied occupation, the Cold War, the publication of Anne Frank's diary (which became a best-seller in Germany in 1960), the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, the attention given to the play "The Deputy" (on Vatican inaction during the Holocaust), and of the ABC television miniseries "Holocaust" (broadcast in Germany in 1979).

Genuine quest

Ultimately, his message is a hopeful one. He sees a shift in the generation that came of age around 1979. For that younger generation, the myth of victimization has been transformed into a willingness to accept historical responsibility. He believes the myth of ignorance of genocide has shifted to a genuine quest about the Nazi past, epitomized, perhaps, in a decision in 1980 by the country's centers for political education to make national socialism the nationwide topic for high-school students to investigate as part of a competition for a president's prize in history.

Anna Rosmus (whose uncovering of the doings of her town during the Holocaust, and the subsequent brouhaha her inquiries stirred up, became the subject of the movie "Nasty Girl") was one of the amateur historians who participated in the competition that year. Her kind of interest in uncovering the past is representative of the younger generation, Marcuse believes. The myth of resistance, he posits, has been transformed by recent generations into resistance to the three original myths.

Marcuse's theory struck me as an interesting one, although it seemed a little too neat to be entirely convincing. He contends, for example, that the myth of resistance to the Nazis and resistance to learning more about the Holocaust were characteristic of the generations that grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. He then suggests that this resistance myth was transformed into resistance to intolerance of perceived fascist tendencies in the 1968 generation, expressed in the extreme by the Baader-Meinhof group. The 1979 generation, epitomized by Rosmus, in turn has now taken to resisting the myth of resistance.

Marcuse sees all these attitudes as the transmutation of a single idea of resistance through the generations. I am not convinced that they can usefully be lumped all together in this way. They may actually be disparate attitudes which Marcuse ties together simply by tagging them with the word "resistance" in describing each one.

Furthermore, the many exceptions Marcuse himself presents to his own generalizations about each generation led me to wonder whether the generalizations themselves are meaningful constructs. Rosmus may be typical of her generation in some ways, but there are certainly many Germans her age who simply want to put the past behind them without undue consideration.

Yet there is no question that there has been an evolution in the way Germans deal with the Nazi past, and Marcuse, regardless of whether one accepts his theories, provides a fascinating and detailed description of that evolution.

'Big' and 'little' fish

In Dachau, where some 28,000 people died during the war, the constant pull between the desire of town authorities to destroy as much of the concentration camp as possible, and the pressure by survivors to retain as many historical vestiges as possible, is carefully chronicled. The stake various groups of survivors claim in the preservation and memorialization of the camp - the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jews each lobby for their separate memorials - and the decision to ignore until 1994 the fact that homosexuals, too, were persecuted there, are all clearly explained.

I was fascinated by Marcuse's more general account of how the shift in Allied priorities after the war - from denazification to winning supporters in the Cold War - affected Germany and the interpretation of the past. If in the months immediately after the Allied victory, the United States forced residents of Dachau and other German towns to visit camps so that they could not deny the atrocities committed there, by 1948, the military government received orders from Washington to end denazification as quickly as possible.

"Just as the [legal] chambers had finished finding thousands of 'little fish' and were turning to the `big fish,' most of them were let off without so much as a verbal reprimand," Marcuse writes.

Moving into the 1950s, the overriding need of the West was to integrate millions of Germans to the task of rebuilding West Germany. The dilemma of Western policy in Cold War Germany was that it was difficult to be anti-fascist democratically without the help of fascist anti-Communists. Thus, the myth Germans developed of having been victimized by the Nazis helped pave the way for them to become good democrats, Marcuse points out.

The book is a historian's history, although it is written in a clear style that is sure, too, to capture lay readers with an interest in the historiography of the Holocaust. It is unfortunate that Marcuse chooses not to enrich the book with some of the insights gleaned by sociologists and those who have studied the iconography of memorialization (James Young, for example, among others) to gain a broader perspective.

At the start of the book, he says he wants to explore how the Dachau memorial site came to be, the lessons it tries to teach and who decided how to convey them. In this, he has succeeded. But he poses a third question which he fails to answer. He asks: How are the messages conveyed by the site received and what are the short- and long-term effects they have on visitors? It is here that a broader exploration into the process of memorialization by researchers in other disciplines might have helped him answer this most important question, both in terms of Dachau, specifically, and in terms of Holocaust memorials, more generally.

The writer is a member of the IHT-Ha'aretz editorial staff.

copy archived by H. Marcuse, August 4, 2003
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