Ethics & International Affairs Volume 15.2 (Fall 2001): Book Reviews: War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany Robert G. Moeller [Full Text]

Nov 19, 2001

Rebecca E. Wittmann (reviewer)

Historian Robert Moeller's new book, War Stories: The Search fora Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, is a fascinatingand original addition to the current discussion of postwar Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung,or "overcoming," of its Nazi past. Opposing the argument -- presented firstby scholars like Theodor Adorno and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlichin the 1950s and 1960s -- that West Germans engaged in a universal "willingforgetfulness" or "purposeful silence" about the Nazi past, Moeller makesa case instead for their "selective remembering" of it. He argues thatimmediate postwar West Germany (1949-63) was dominated not by silence,but by a carefully manipulated representation of the past that was moldedwith one goal in mind: to downplay German culpability in Nazi crimes byfocusing on the equally destructive totalitarian system in the SovietUnion and the territories it occupied, a system that devastated the Germanpopulation no less than the Nazi state had devastated the Jews. This "memorywork" was shaped by widely circulated stories about two common Germanvictim groups at the end of the war: expellees (Vertriebene: Germannationals who had settled in the East and were then driven out by theencroaching Red Army) and POWs (German Wehrmacht soldiers who hadbeen interned in Soviet prison camps, and were estimated to have numberedin the millions). Moeller explains that "by telling stories of the enormityof their losses . . . [Germans] could talk about the end of the ThirdReich without assuming responsibility for its origins"(p. 3).

Selective remembering began, Moeller shows, with the first postwar government:Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's coalition recognized the need to acknowledgethe Nazi past but found ways to minimize the discussion of "collectiveguilt" by representing a war that "Hitler had started but everyone lost"(p. 3). In this way, West Germany was able to build a new national identity,but one that relied on a characterization of the atrocities of the pastin which a few sadistic, powerful men organized and implemented a horribleplan of extermination and led Germany (and particularly the millions ofinnocent men sent to their deaths on the front) to ruin. According toMoeller, the representation of a clear division between the evil Nazisat the top of the dictatorship and the rest of the German population servedboth to distance the general public from the Holocaust and to portrayWehrmacht soldiers and families who had settled in the East asinnocent victims. Additionally, by concentrating on Soviet brutality indriving millions out of the East, Adenauer's government rejected the much-resentedAllied claims that Germany had been the sole perpetrator of crimes againsthumanity.

Moeller's thesis is engagingly argued and backed by an expansive bibliography.He focuses on four purveyors of the images of German loss: the parliament,the media, historians, and filmmakers. This structure makes for simplechapter divisions that elucidýte a distorted image of the Nazi era thatpersists to this day. After an excellent introductory chapter, Moellerexamines the way the new government Òaccounted" -- literally -- for the pastby considering Adenauer's policy of reparations to Israel. He shows howAdenauer convinced an ambivalent public of the need to compensate Jewsboth by comparing German and Jewish suffering during the war and by promisingthat expellees and POWs would also be compensated for their losses. Byconjuring up mirror images of Jewish and German ghettoization (Jews inactual ghettos in Eastern Europe, Germans in the minds of the rest ofthe postwar world), Adenauer made reparations to Israel -- a policy he knewhe had to pursue in order to gain international support -- palatable to themajority of Germans. According to Moeller, monetary reparations to Jewshad a secondary effect: They diverted attention from any real dialogueabout the past by giving the illusion that the issue has been "resolved"once the money was paid.

Moeller also explicates the crucial role of prominent historians inbuilding a new German national identity around a common history of suffering.Here he focuses on the important five-volume work, Documentation ofthe Expulsion of Germans from East Central Europe, compiled by historiansTheodor Scheider, Hans Rothfels, Martin Brozsat, and Hans-Ulrich Wehler(among others) at the then-newly founded Institute for Contemporary History.It includes some 700 personal testimonials of expulsion and, Moeller avers,was part of a carefully crafted attempt to write "contemporary" historyin which the Nazi past was inextricably linked to expulsion and imprisonmentand was portrayed as one of the most catastrophic episodes in German history.The suffering of the Nazis' victims was never discussed -- nor was the importanthistory of the early war years in which German settlers came to the Eastas part of the Lebensraumýprogram, expelling the original inhabitantsof the land. Atrocious stories of the rape of German women at the handsof "Asians, Mongols, and marauders" (oft-recurring descriptions of theSoviets) showed not only the suffering of the Germans but also the foolishnessof the Allies, who had failed to recognize the brutality of their easternAllies.

There is very little to criticize in Moeller's book; it is an extremelyvaluable contribution to the debate on Germany's attempts to overcomeits Nazi past in the early postwar years. I was struck by only two weaknesses:First, there is no explanation of the notion of the "usable past," animportant term that appears in his title and is used to describe a veryspecific (and controversial) approach to history. Second, although inthe epilogue he acknowledges the historiographical trend of the 1960sand 1970s that criticized the notion that Hitler was an aberration andsearched more deeply in German politics and society for the roots of Nazismand the Holocaust, Moeller does little more than that. His sole focusremains the parallel historiographical narrative -- one of German lossesand suffering -- that was created in the early postwar years and came toshape much of the popular sentiment towards the Nazi past right into thepresent. This vision of a competing history is an important and valuableone; however, in emphasizing the continuity of the portrayal of Germanvictimization, Moeller passes rather too quickly over the enormous amountof work done by German historians to counter this politically manipulatedimage. Nevertheless, as Moeller clearly states, this is a book about thepopular representation of the war's effect on Germany and the way thatthis representation shaped a selective memory of suffering in which Germanvictimhood was the overarching theme. Moeller's chosen themes and organizationalstructure powerfully demonstrate the distorted mirror that the Adenauergovernment held up to the Nazi past in the immediate postwar years, andhe successfully shows how this early representation remains lodged inthe attitudes of many Germans as official history.

You may also like

MAR 15, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 36.1 (Spring 2022)

The highlight of this issue is a roundtable organized by Jesse Kirkpatrick on moral injury, trauma, and war, featuring contributions by Jesse Kirkpatrick, Daniel Rothenberg, ...

OCT 29, 2021 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 35.3 (Fall 2021)

The highlight of this issue is a book symposium organized by Peter Balint on Ned Dobos’s "Ethics, Security, and the War Machine," featuring contributions ...

AUG 27, 2021 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 35.2 (Summer 2021)

The highlight of this issue is a roundtable organized by Adrian Gallagher on the responsibility to protect in a changing world order. The roundtable contains ...