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Moeller, War Stories, book cover

The Constructing of a Past

Book Essay on:
Robert Moeller, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 198 pages,
UCSB: D820.P72 G526 2001

by Graham Fischer-Ortiz
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
$10/15 & searchable
at amazon

About Graham Fischer-Ortiz

I am a junior English and history major who has been focusing primarily on European history. WWII and the stigmas that this catastrophic event gave to Germans, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world, has always fascinated me and it was this interest that led me to choose this work.

Abstract (back to top)

This book delves into the confusing world of post-WWII West Germany and seeks to determine how present and future generations of West Germans came to terms with the recent atrocities of the Nazi regime that had been committed in their name. Completely demoralized by their devastating defeat in the war and faced with the daunting task of reconstruction, the additional burden of accepting responsibility for Hitler's genocide was simply too much for West Germans to bear and thus they desperately sought an alternative route from the "collective guilt" policy that was endorsed by the Allies. In War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Robert Moeller shows his readers how through a dizzying array of books, radio programs, and movies in which West Germans largely ignored the victims of the Holocaust and instead portrayed themselves as the sole casualties of WWII, they were able to create a unique version of the past in which a handful of evil Nazis had not only terrorized the countries of Europe but also the German people as well. Focusing almost exclusively on the POW and expellee situations that undeniably caused hardship and even death for millions of Germans, the Federal Republic was able to distance itself from the horrors of the Nazi regime and for a time at least put off the task of directly facing truths that were almost too terrible to contemplate.

Essay (back to top)


In war, everybody knows that the victors write the history books. If General Cornwallis had been more successful history would remember George Washington as a traitorous rebel and not a national hero; had the Civil War gone the other way shouts calling him a “tyrannical dictator” and not the “great emancipator” would most likely have followed Abraham Lincoln to his grave. However, such is not always the case. Widely rejecting the victorious Allies' claims of "collective guilt," in post-WWII West Germany the citizens of the newly founded Federal Republic sought to create their own version of the past that would help them come to terms with the atrocities committed in their name under the Nazis. In his work War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Robert Moeller shows his readers how through a dizzying array of books, radio programs, and movies in which West Germans largely ignored the victims of the Holocaust and instead portrayed themselves as the sole casualties of WWII, they were able to create a unique version of the past in which a handful of evil Nazis had not only terrorized the countries of Europe but also the German people as well. Focusing almost exclusively on the POW and expellee situations that undeniably caused hardship and even death for millions of Germans, the Federal Republic was able to distance itself from the horrors of the Nazi regime and for a time at least put off the task of directly facing truths that were almost too terrible to contemplate.

In chapter one of this work Moeller immediately begins by addressing the issue of the “tragic and questionable paradox…[of] May 1945,” for this day in Germany represents both the brutal and utterly crushing defeat of Germany by the Allies and the end of Hitler's reign of terror (Moeller, p.2). This extremely tricky paradox will be one of the most difficult issues that Germans will have to make peace with because for them it represents a kind of catch 22: if Germany had won the war (a good thing) Hitler would still be in power (a bad thing); however the reverse side of this is that if Hitler is to be removed from power (a good thing), Germany must be defeated by the Allies (a bad thing). Chapters two and three continue this train of thought and demonstrate how the issues of guilt and responsibility were discussed in Germany, from the halls of parliament to the street corners of Berlin. Readers learn that while under Adenauer some positive steps were made toward acknowledging Germany’s terrible past, these attempts all stopped short of an admission of guilt, and German politicians and people alike seemed content to live in a world where the Jews of the Holocaust and the German people themselves were “both casualties of Hitler’s Germany” (Moeller, p.33).

Chapter four deals with the policies of Adenauer, his trip to Moscow and fight for the return of German POWs there, and the almost cult-like popularity he achieved among the vast majority of German people. The joyous occasion of the long awaited return of German POWs, which for many people in the Federal Republic “finally marked the end of the war,” is also discussed here (Moeller, p. 45). Finally in chapter five Moeller concludes his work by conducting in depth research into the types of movies that were made in immediate post-war Germany and the huge role that these films played in helping Germans to “remember” the past. These movies arguably played the biggest role in West Germany's quest for a usable past. Since these films focused almost exclusively on German suffering, it was a past that a new and economically prosperous Federal Republic of Germany was more than ready to embrace.

The Constructing of a Past: Analysis

Upon entering Germany in the spring of 1945 the Allies were confronted with a sea of horrors that few could have imagined. However for every starved Jewish body unearthed, for every brutal concentration camp discovered, a corresponding Nazi perpetrator could not be found, and thus a policy of “collective guilt” was adopted, whereby all Germans were deemed as having been at least partially responsible for the atrocities committed under the Nazis. As mentioned earlier, the newly liberated West Germans indignantly rejected this assertion by claiming that “they could not be collectively guilty for crimes of which they [claimed to be] ignorant” and thus they set about fashioning their own version of what had occurred under the Nazi regime (Moeller, p.24). Perhaps somewhat ironically, one of the few West Germans who did not seek to completely ignore Germany’s terrible Nazi past was the first chancellor of West Germany, Adenauer. While not necessarily buying in to the Allies’ “collective guilt” theory he did at least believe that some steps must be taken to address all the victims of German aggression and hatred within the last decade. Stopping short of admitting guilt and instead “acknowledging the need to make amends for crimes committed in Germany’s name” Adenauer ceremoniously recognized that the Holocaust had in fact occurred and he spearheaded a movement to pay Israel $41 billion dollars in the form of reparations (Moeller, p.25). In the face of what the Nazis did in Europe these two offerings on the part of West Germany seem rather pathetic, and the fact that even these limited moves were “not applauded…by other West Germans” goes a long way to showing how little West Germans wanted to acknowledge or even remember the past (Moeller, p. 27).

If, as the previous paragraph demonstrates, West Germans did not seek to atone for their past, one must ask what did the Federal Republic do to unburden itself of its Nazi legacy? The sad answer to this question put forward by Moeller is that far from seeking the forgiveness of their victims, Germans instead, through a combination of ignoring and self-pity, actually inverted the world until they, not the Jews, became victims of Hitler's reign. One of the primary outlets through which Germans accomplished this remarkable and despicable feat was through careful exploitation of the POW situation. Due to the rapid and devastating defeat of the German armies on the eastern front, at the war's end well over a million German soldiers became POWs in brutal Soviet camps. Forced to work long hours of strenuous physical labor, sleep in freezing barracks, and survive on a miserably small amount of food, many German soldiers languished in these terrible conditions for ten years after the war's end. These POWs represent one of the greatest ironies of the post-war period, for although the West Germans in the Federal Republic undeniably wanted their loved ones back, at the same time these suffering soldiers allowed their families back home to forget about the victims of the Holocaust and see themselves as victims instead. Choosing to forget that a war of aggression on Germany's part was the only reason that these POWs were in the Soviet Union in the first place, West Germans made numerous comparisons between POWs and concentration camp victims, claiming that German POWs “were also victims of ethnic hatred and racial prejudice” (Moeller, p.33). Under this incredibly false and misguided light, these POWs who were wasting away in Soviet prison camps helped to “[balance] accounts at the end of the war” (Moeller, p.41), with their prison sentences not being seen as entirely justified but instead as “reparations to the Soviet Union” (Moeller, p.41).

After being in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade the German POWs finally started to return, and while this was obviously an incredibly joyous occasion, numerous events testified to the volatile tensions that lurked just beneath the surface in the newly created Federal Republic. Little effort was made by government officials to discover if any of the returning POWs had participated in the numerous crimes against humanity that were perpetrated by Germans on the eastern front. Indeed, in a clear slap in the face to all non-Germans who had survived Hitler’s genocide, the press “devoted far more attention to those charged with betraying the fatherland than to those charged with crimes against humanity,” thus clearly illustrating to all where West German sympathy lay (Moeller, p.113). Further evidence of Germans prioritizing their own suffering, which they brought upon themselves, over the suffering of Holocaust survivors, which was caused by Germans, can be seen in the two dramatically different receptions given to returning concentration camp survivors and returning POWs. Although their only offense was to possess a trait or characteristic that Hitler deemed “undesirable,” the cool reception of Holocaust survivors at the war’s end dramatically contrasts with the enthusiastic welcome with which the German people greeted returning soldiers, many of whom were “implicated not only in a destructive war in the east but also in the attempt to murder all European Jews” (Moeller, p.121). However protests such as this were voiced only by a few communists and German Jewish organizations, and sadly these isolated voices were lost in the numerous festivals that celebrated the return of these supposed “heroes” from the east.

Another consequence of Allied victory in WWII that the people of West Germany did not hesitate to exploit to their advantage was the enormous refugee problem that resulted from the Red Army’s expulsion of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe. These millions of people who were expelled from their homes and forced to walk hundreds of miles to their relocation zones faced incredible hardships on which West Germans were eager to capitalize. As with the POWs, the status as “heroic survivors” was quickly conferred upon these so-called victims of Hitler as well (Moeller, p.8). Because of the trials that they had endured these expellees foolishly began to assert that they too understood what the victims of the Holocaust had experienced, all the while failing to realize that the anger against them had been provoked, while the aggression against the Jews had not. So caught up in their own suffering that there was “little space [left] for reflecting on the suffering Germans had caused others” (Moeller, p.17), these expellees bemoaned not the death of six million innocent Jews but instead “the loss of the German east” (Moeller, p.17). Thus cocooned in their own little world of suffering that denied the suffering of all others, Germans felt they had paid their dues for “what a handful of fanatics who did not truly represent the German people” had done (Moeller, p.4).

While so far this essay has discussed the various ways in which West Germans reconstructed the past to suit their personal needs, the important issue that has not been addressed is the way in which this reconstruction was presented to the populace at large in order to create a national consciousness. While at first readers might search in vain for a government ministry or national newspaper that was created to do this job, the answer is in fact much more simple; “to hear tales of the expulsion from the east or to learn the lessons of the ‘barbed-wire university,’” West Germans needed only to go to the movies (Moeller, p.166). It was here in the crowded, dim-lighted theaters that Germans could go night after night and learn all about how the Allies were wrong, how in fact they, not the Jews, were the true victims of the Nazis. Films like Tiaga, Suchkind 312, and Der Arzt von Stalingrad told one of three stories time and time again by “[dramatizing] parts of the past that West Germans wanted to see” (Moeller, p.162). First there was the suffering and homeless refugee who had been cruelly expelled from his land in the east and forced to endure numerous hardships until, against all odds, he finds happiness and a home in the West. Then there was the story of the brave and loyal German soldier who fights not for the Nazis but instead in defense of the Fatherland, however due to the extreme incompetence of his Nazi officers he is sadly sent to death in battle “just as the Nazis had sent Jews to their death at Auschwitz” (Moeller, p. 172). Finally there is the tale of abandoned and hopeless POW who brutally suffers at the hands of the barbaric Russians although his only crime was to love his family and country. Regardless of their artistic merit, in the post-WWII era these films attracted West Germans by the thousands because more than any other single factor in German society it was these films that enabled them to “clear away messy memories, celebrate uniquely German values, and present a reassuring version of the past” (Moeller, p.178).

When reading this book it is easy to become angry with the post-WWII West Germans for their attempt to simply shrug off their Nazi past. It is not surprising that the elaborate exploitation of German POW and expellee suffering raises cries of indignation from readers since it was the German people themselves who, by their support of Hitler, allowed WWII to be started in the first place. However by taking a step back from the intense emotions surrounding this issue and objectively studying the situation, one realizes that doing this was the only likely path for Germans to take. In the late 1940s, faced with the daunting task of rebuilding their ravaged and war-torn country, it would have been utterly inconceivable to expect the Germans to also simultaneously confront their terrible past. Already robbed of all pride and dignity due to their devastating defeat by the Allies, accepting the charges of a “collective guilt” was simply too much for them to bear. It was only by selectively remembering the war years that Germans could distance themselves from the Holocaust and prevent another moral and economic depression, such as the one that enabled Hitler to come to power in the years following WWI. With Nazism safely, if somewhat irresponsibly banished to the past, Germans could now set to work rebuilding Germany into the proud and economically prosperous country that it has become today.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)

Book Reviews

  • Rebecca E. Wittman. “War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany.” Ethics & International Affairs 15.2 (October 2001): 154(4).
    Wittman describes this work as “fascinating” and talks about how Moeller breaks with other historians by claiming that West Germans engaged in a universal “selective remembering” of their past, as opposed to a “willing forgetfulness”.
  • Peter Fritzsche. “War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany.” The Journal of Modern History 75.1 (March 2003): 217(3).
    Fritzsche describes this work as “brilliant” and discusses how Moeller puts forth the relatively original idea that far from simply rejecting their past, West Germans instead twisted events until they became the victims and were thus able to cope with the Nazi atrocities in this way.
  • UCSB Hist 133c review by Jeffrey Mercado (2008)
  • UCSB Hist 133c review by Sean Murray (2008)

Books and Articles

  • Birgit Maier-Katkin, Silence and Acts of Memory: A Postwar Discourse on Literature, History, Anna Seghers, and Women in the Third Reich (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007), UCSB: PT2635.A272745.
  • Michael J. Bazyler and Roger P. Alford, Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and its Legacy, (New York: New York University Press, 2006), UCSB: KF6075.H65

Web Sites

  • Helge Grabitz, “Problems of Nazi Trials in the Federal Republic of Germany”. <http://hgs.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/3/2/209>
    This article deals with the conflict that arose between the old and young generation over the Nazi war trials. The older generation who had lived through and participated in the war were eager for the past to be kept silent and left in the past while the younger generation felt a need to try to understand the Nazi atrocities and achieve some sort of closure.
  • Friso Wielenga, “An inability to mourn? The German Federal Republic and the Nazi Past”.
    Rejecting the popularly held idea of the 1960s as a time when the West German youth broke taboos by asking the older generation about their roles during the Nazi years, Wielenga instead explores the various ways in which memories of the Nazis were not exposed but instead repressed during the 1960s and beyond.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/12/07; last updated: 12/16/08
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