On Selective Remembering


On Selective Remembering


According to Richard Slotkin, history is the actual events that can be backed up by evidence, while historical fiction is the ability to invent things on the basis of what one knows. In other words, history is the facts within primary sources, while historical fiction is the ability to go beyond where the primary sources end. Cultural memory fits somewhere in the middle of the two. Arguably, memory contains elements of both history and historical fiction. It is history to say that someone had a memory, while it is historical fiction to try to fill in the gaps in that memory. But, memory itself is not always accurate. In the years following the end of the Second World War and the division of Germany into East and West, the different cultural memories of World War II present in both Germanys and then after reunification reveal how memory is a subjective creation off historical events, shaped by the circumstances of the times. Principally, the cultural memory in East Germany reflected an anti-West perception and that in West Germany of an anti-Soviet kind, mirroring the separation between the Soviet and Western occupied territories. After reunification, a new narrative was needed that reflected the coming together of the two Germanys and no longer relied on the Cold War ones.

Mary Fulbrook’s “A History of Germany 1918-2008: The Divided Nation” provides a background on the events that led up to and surrounded the emergence of a divided Germany. According to Fulbrook, the victors of World War II knew that they were inheriting a broken country. The plan from then onwards focused on how to rebuild Germany while preventing it from starting a third world war. To achieve this, the victors decided that post-war Germany would best be suited as a divided nation. In 1945, at the Yalta Conference, Germany and Berlin were formally split up into different sectors of occupation. Under the agreement, the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Germany and Berlin, while Great Britain, France, and the United States occupied the western halves. These two halves slowly moved apart. For example, the Soviet zone and the Western zone took differing approaches on denazification. The Soviet Union maintained a structural and socioeconomic interpretation of Nazism, adopting a strategy aimed at radical transformations of the social and economic order in Germany on the way to becoming a Soviet-style society.[1] On the other hand, in the Western zones, efforts were made to rehabilitate former Nazis by attempting to reform the education system to achieve re-education, and develop a flourishing capitalist economy.[2] These differing socioeconomic policies would feed the contrasting collective memories of the war within East and West Germany, providing for the collective amnesia evident in much of postwar Western German history and the historical distortions that hampered the creation of a new national identity in East Germany.[3]

The collective memory within West Germany was one of self-pity and victimization, in which the West Germans “selectively remembered” the crimes committed against them by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, not the atrocities of the Holocaust. However, according to Robert Moeller, “remembering selectively was not the same as forgetting.”[4] They simply placed more emphasis on the crimes committed by others against Germans than those committed by Germans against others. According to some accounts, the crimes against Germans were even comparable to those of Germans against the Jews. As Moeller says, “about the pasts of these victims…most West Germans were anything but ‘empty, cold, forgetting’; indeed, these were pasts that they recalled with tremendous passion and extraordinary detail.”[5] In effect, by shifting the focus away from what West Germans should have remembered reveals that memory was in fact present in West Germany- a memory focused on a past of German suffering.

This memory of suffering by Soviet hands reflected the tensions between the Western world, who occupied West Germany, and the Soviet Union. As West Germans mourned the expellees from eastern Germany and Eastern Europe and the German POWs imprisoned in the Soviet Union, their experiences became one important version of the legacy of the war. Their private memories also structured public memory, making stories of Communist brutality and the loss of the “German east” crucial parts of the history of the Federal Republic.[6] Furthermore, put perfectly in Moeller’s words, “in the context of the Cold War, attacking the Soviet Union- past and present- was far easier than recounting the sins of former enemies who were now allies.”[7] Since West Germany did not want to alienate its Western allies, who had brought of an “economic miracle” to the country and who were now in charge of the nation’s protection, the collective memory of the Second World War tended to portray the losses inflicted by the Red Army more so than the cities destroyed by U.S. and British bomber pilots. Thus, much like within its occupiers, resentment for the Soviets became engrained in the cultural memory of West Germany- a clear reflection of how collective memory can be shaped by time and circumstance.

On the side of the Iron Curtain, using the bombing of Dresden as its basis, the collective memory in East Germany focused blame on the Western powers, while it saw the Soviet Union as its liberators. In his research, Bill Niven found that this collective memory was extended through discourses on the motives of the bombing of Dresden. In reality, though, for all the horror the bombing brought, it was not intended to be an unwarranted act. In fact, it was largely designed to aid the Soviet advance into Germany. But, this was not the view taken by the GDR’s official discourse. According to Niven, East Germany attributed to the Western Allies a range of devious, scheming, and even quite blatantly murderous motives for the bombing of Dresden.[8] Dresden was said to have been bombed in order to promote American and British territorial interests, as the Western Allies did not want to accept the post-war zonal boundaries drawn up at Yalta, but wished to push the boundaries of their own zones further east. Further, it was claimed that the destruction of Dresden was a show of sheer might designed to intimidate the Soviets and thereby strengthen their bargaining hand in future negotiations.[9] Since the Soviet Union supposedly professed a commitment to peace and the peaceful reunification of Germany, this narrative cast the German population of Dresden as the victims of British-American aggression, and the Soviets as their defenders against this aggression.[10] The collective memory of the bombing of Dresden is therefore a perfect example of how the Cold War was projected into the memory of World War II, as the same Soviet distrust of the West was equally reflected in how East Germans saw the Western Allies as the malicious instigators who destroyed their cultural center.

With reunification in 1990, the context surrounding Germany had changed. As a result, the old narratives chastising either the West or the Soviets no longer worked, and a narrative that didn’t rely on the Cold War ones was needed. Produced in 2006, the film Dresden illustrates this new narrative of German suffering that was desired. Set during the bombing of Dresden, the film is a tragic love story about the relationship of Anna Mauth and Robert Newman. Anna Mauth is a caring nurse working in a German hospital, and Robert Newman is a British bomber pilot who has become trapped behind enemy lines. When Anna discovers Robert hiding beneath the hospital, her first instinct is to dress his wounds. But Robert is the enemy, and she must weigh her loyalty to her country against her growing attraction to him. In the end, as Anna schemes to conceal Robert's true identity and Robert does his best just to survive, the city of Dresden is suddenly consumed by war. Thus showing the bondage between two supposed enemies, the film is able to recuperate the suffering at Dresden without turning the bombers into the enemy. Also, the film mirrors reunification, as from the West comes the notion of the British and the Americans as allies, while from the East comes an interest in Dresden. Although Dresden is meant to entertain, and thus constitutes fiction, it conveys the key message of a newly reunified Germany looking to change how it remembers the past.

In conclusion, memory is neither history nor historical fiction. It falls somewhere in the middle. Memory is the ability to personally reflect on past events and develop one’s own narrative based one’s circumstances. In the official discourses on the Second World War in East and West Germany, the collective memories differed along the same lines as the division between the East and the West within the world at large. The Cold War was thus forced into the memory of World War II. Germans saw themselves as victims, but at whose hands highlighted the differing fears of the East and West within the different contexts. Once reunified, Germany then looked for something different, something to illustrate the changed context. Because history is so important to culture, it is from this standpoint that ones sees why Germany remained divided for almost fifty years- East and West Germany were simply two different nations, with two distinct memories and two distinct histories.

[1] Fulbrook, Mary. A History of Germany, 1918-2008: the Divided Nation. 3rd ed. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 125-126.

[2] Fulbrook. A History of Germany, 1918-2008: the Divided Nation. 128-129.

[3] Fulbrook. A History of Germany, 1918-2008: the Divided Nation. 129.

[4] Moeller, Robert G. “Remembering the War in a Nation of Victims.” Trans. Array The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany, 1949-1968. Hanna Schissler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 83.

[5] Moeller. “Remembering the War in a Nation of Victims.” 84-85.

[6] Moeller. “Remembering the War in a Nation of Victims.” 86.

[7] Moeller. “Remembering the War in a Nation of Victims.” 88.

[8] Niven, Bill. “The GDR and Memory of the Bombing of Dresden.” Trans. Array Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany. Bill Niven. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 113.

[9] Niven. “The GDR and Memory of the Bombing of Dresden.” 113.

[10] Niven. “The GDR and Memory of the Bombing of Dresden.” 114.