Well, that’s a big word. It means “mastering the past” or “coming to terms with the past.” And since the Second World War, German society has been doing just that, coming to terms with the legacy of Nazism.
As you can imagine, the end of the Third Reich and the Second World War was particularly hard on Germany. 8 May 1945 – the day Germany surrendered unconditionally – was a day of defeat and liberation. Hitler’s fight to the death had nearly completely destroyed the country. In the aftermath of such utter destruction, and as the full extent of the Holocaust became known, Germany had to come to grips with what had happened. Politically the country became a piece in the chess game that would come to be known as the Cold War between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. Germany ended up dividing into two countries, West Germany (officially: the Federal Republic of Germany, a member of the NATO alliance), and East Germany (officially: the German Democratic Republic, a member of the Warsaw Pact).
The division of Germany geographically and ideologically had a great impact on how Germans dealt with the Nazi past. In both countries there was at first a repudiation of the Nazis, helped along by the Nuremberg trials, the first time the international community banded together to prosecute crimes against humanity in this fashion. But soon the ideological struggle between east and west, between communism and capitalism, overtook Germany, and the 1950s were much more about rebuilding – and forgetting – in both countries. In the 1960s, first with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and the subsequent Frankfurt trials in the mid-1960s did West Germany take a closer look at its past. The concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung became prevalent as a younger generation of Germans called upon their parents’ generation to own up to their complicity in the crimes of Nazism, and the media was full of stories about the horrors of the Third Reich, with many former Nazis who had blended into West German society being exposed. East Germany, on the other hand, took a generally less reflective view of the Third Reich; the socialist government could claim that its founders had been communists and socialists who had always opposed Nazism, and so the official government line was that West Germany was not much more than a capitalist continuation of a fascist state, whereas East Germany had made a true break with the Third Reich.
When the two Germanies reunited in 1990, interest in the past shifted from the Third Reich to the Cold War period, and the attention was now directed towards uncovering the secrets and the problems of the former East Germany. Germany became the economic and political powerhouse of Europe, and with that increasing confidence came a slight shift away from the remorse and the shame that had permeated West German culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Germans still accepted responsibility for the Holocaust, but there was also an increased sense that Germans had suffered, too, under the Nazi regime. Germans were not just perpetrators, but they were also victims. This change disturbed members of the older generation (the 68ers, as they’re known in Germany, i.e. those who participated in the youth revolts of the late 1960s and 1970s) who felt that Germany had no right to claim any sort of victimhood.
Forget or Remember?
Let’s return to the time just after the war ended.
Two philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Hermann Luebbe, represent the two main currents in post-war German thought on the war.
Adorno is famous for his invocation that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement is often interpreted to mean that the Holocaust was so absolutely horrible that art and literature – what people often equate with beauty – could never regain its lustre; the world had witnessed such atrocities, how could there be any interest in beauty anymore? Adorno also took issue with Germans after the war for glossing over what had led to the atrocities of the Second World War, namely the German support for the Nazis and the support that the people gave the Nazi government and its policies. For Germans to claim after the war that they didn’t know what was happening to the Jews was, in Adorno’s view, an example of the worst kind of hypocrisy, wilful self-delusion, and downright lying. Post-war Germans refused to work through the issues connected to the war and the Nazi state, and Adorno thought this was a grave error.
(Let me also add that many commentators on Adorno would go even further. They understand Adorno’s dictum to mean that since a culture like Germany could produce the Holocaust, it would be important to be change that culture fundamentally, at its core. Since poetry was an object, a product of that culture, continuing to write poetry after the Holocaust is simply another way of continuing that culture. That’s why writing poetry would be barbaric: it keeps alive a culture that should be extinguished so that something new and unblemished can take its place.)
Luebbe, on the other hand, thought silence in the aftermath of the war was necessary. Luebbe believed that West German society (Luebbe was a West German) would not be able to undertake the process of rebuilding if it could not concentrate on the present and the future, and one cannot look forward if one is also looking backward. Luebbe felt that German silence on the Third Reich for much of the post-war period was therefore acceptable because it allowed for the rebuilding of the society. This approach runs counter to the approach taken by Adorno and by the Mitscherlichs who thought that the West German focus on material success and the economic miracle of the 1950s was a wilful attempt not to mourn the German past but rather avoid it.
Your task: You’ve just read, in a nutshell, the classic issue at the heart of the post-war period of Germany. Could society overcome Nazism best by forgetting about it or by fully acknowledging it? Conservatives tended to advocate the former route, progressives and leftists the latter. What do you think is the way to go?
The Reader – Why does Michael read to Hanna?
The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, was a huge success when it came out in the 1990s. When it was published in the United States, Oprah Winfrey made it one of her book club picks on her tv show, and that made it a bestseller in North America as well.
The discussions for this unit will all centre on some very basic questions about the novel.
Your task: Why does Michael read to Hanna? Does he do it for her, or for himself?
Note: When answering, use a quotation or passage from the novel that illustrates your point.
The Reader – Absolution
When Hanna dies, she requests that her money be given to the camp survivor. But the survivor scorns this request, seeing it as Hanna’s attempt to find absolution for her sins?
Your task: Should Hanna be absolved of her crimes?
Note: When answering, use a quotation or passage from the novel that illustrates your point.
The Reader – The heart of the matter
Your task: Using a quotation to illustrate your answer, explain what you think the main point of the novel is.
Specific Instructions for this Review: Guilt
Please watch this ProfMoment:
Your task: Is The Reader an optimistic or pessimistic story? Does it evoke hope for the future, or despair about the past?
Feel free to make use of the content items in the module and the postings of your classmates when composing your answer. (For example, perhaps someone else mentioned the point you’re making in a posting – you can cite that and expand on it.)
General Instructions for the Module Reviews
Please keep the following in mind, and please note the elaborations that have been added (in red):
- your answer should be uploaded as a PDF document – if it isn’t, it will be graded, but you’ll receive no comments.
- your answer should be double-spaced.
- no title page, but there should be a title, your name should appear at the top, and there should be page numbers.
- answers should be within the specified word range.
- good essays have the following: grammatically-correct sentences; coherent paragraphs; no spelling mistakes; a clear argument or point; titles that capture, directly or indirectly, a point being made in your essay.
- if you refer to a reading in this unit, you don’t have to give full bibliographical information, but when you first mention it, give the full title and author’s name. If you refer to material not read in class, provide a full bibliographical citation at the end of your essay (it will not count as part of the word count).
Please note: the question may ask you to make use of the discussions that occurred in the module. There are two modes for viewing the discussion forums, GRID VIEW and READING VIEW. (You can change which you view by clicking on the settings – the gear icon – in the upper right-hand corner of your screen when you’re in the Discussions area of the course.) Play around with the two views to find the setting that works best for you. For example, when I’m reading your discussions during the week and commenting on some of them, I use the READING VIEW, but if I have to read and grade a lot of postings I use the GRID VIEW.