War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Robert G. Moeller [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 15.2 (Fall 2001)

November 19, 2001

Rebecca E. Wittmann (reviewer)

Historian Robert Moeller's new book, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, is a fascinating and original addition to the current discussion of postwar Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "overcoming," of its Nazi past. Opposing the argument -- presented first by scholars like Theodor Adorno and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in the 1950s and 1960s -- that West Germans engaged in a universal "willing forgetfulness" or "purposeful silence" about the Nazi past, Moeller makes a case instead for their "selective remembering" of it. He argues that immediate postwar West Germany (1949-63) was dominated not by silence, but by a carefully manipulated representation of the past that was molded with one goal in mind: to downplay German culpability in Nazi crimes by focusing on the equally destructive totalitarian system in the Soviet Union and the territories it occupied, a system that devastated the German population no less than the Nazi state had devastated the Jews. This "memory work" was shaped by widely circulated stories about two common German victim groups at the end of the war: expellees (Vertriebene: German nationals who had settled in the East and were then driven out by the encroaching Red Army) and POWs (German Wehrmacht soldiers who had been interned in Soviet prison camps, and were estimated to have numbered in the millions). Moeller explains that "by telling stories of the enormity of their losses . . . [Germans] could talk about the end of the Third Reich 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 acknowledge the Nazi past but found ways to minimize the discussion of "collective guilt" 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 past in which a few sadistic, powerful men organized and implemented a horrible plan of extermination and led Germany (and particularly the millions of innocent men sent to their deaths on the front) to ruin. According to Moeller, the representation of a clear division between the evil Nazis at the top of the dictatorship and the rest of the German population served both to distance the general public from the Holocaust and to portray Wehrmacht soldiers and families who had settled in the East as innocent victims. Additionally, by concentrating on Soviet brutality in driving millions out of the East, Adenauer's government rejected the much-resented Allied claims that Germany had been the sole perpetrator of crimes against humanity.

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 simple chapter divisions that elucidýte a distorted image of the Nazi era that persists to this day. After an excellent introductory chapter, Moeller examines the way the new government Òaccounted" -- literally -- for the past by considering Adenauer's policy of reparations to Israel. He shows how Adenauer convinced an ambivalent public of the need to compensate Jews both by comparing German and Jewish suffering during the war and by promising that expellees and POWs would also be compensated for their losses. By conjuring up mirror images of Jewish and German ghettoization (Jews in actual ghettos in Eastern Europe, Germans in the minds of the rest of the postwar world), Adenauer made reparations to Israel -- a policy he knew he had to pursue in order to gain international support -- palatable to the majority of Germans. According to Moeller, monetary reparations to Jews had a secondary effect: They diverted attention from any real dialogue about 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 in building a new German national identity around a common history of suffering. Here he focuses on the important five-volume work, Documentation of the Expulsion of Germans from East Central Europe, compiled by historians Theodor 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" history in which the Nazi past was inextricably linked to expulsion and imprisonment and was portrayed as one of the most catastrophic episodes in German history. The suffering of the Nazis' victims was never discussed -- nor was the important history of the early war years in which German settlers came to the East as part of the Lebensraumýprogram, expelling the original inhabitants of the land. Atrocious stories of the rape of German women at the hands of "Asians, Mongols, and marauders" (oft-recurring descriptions of the Soviets) showed not only the suffering of the Germans but also the foolishness of the Allies, who had failed to recognize the brutality of their eastern Allies.

There is very little to criticize in Moeller's book; it is an extremely valuable contribution to the debate on Germany's attempts to overcome its 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," an important term that appears in his title and is used to describe a very specific (and controversial) approach to history. Second, although in the epilogue he acknowledges the historiographical trend of the 1960s and 1970s that criticized the notion that Hitler was an aberration and searched more deeply in German politics and society for the roots of Nazism and the Holocaust, Moeller does little more than that. His sole focus remains the parallel historiographical narrative -- one of German losses and suffering -- that was created in the early postwar years and came to shape much of the popular sentiment towards the Nazi past right into the present. This vision of a competing history is an important and valuable one; however, in emphasizing the continuity of the portrayal of German victimization, Moeller passes rather too quickly over the enormous amount of work done by German historians to counter this politically manipulated image. Nevertheless, as Moeller clearly states, this is a book about the popular representation of the war's effect on Germany and the way that this representation shaped a selective memory of suffering in which German victimhood was the overarching theme. Moeller's chosen themes and organizational structure powerfully demonstrate the distorted mirror that the Adenauer government held up to the Nazi past in the immediate postwar years, and he successfully shows how this early representation remains lodged in the attitudes of many Germans as official history.