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Herf, book cover

Different Ways of Remembering

Book Essay on: Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory:
The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 527 pages.
UCSB: D804.3 .H474 1997

by Catherine Molly Doubleday Fishman
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Catherine Molly Doubleday Fishman

I am a third year political science major with an emphasis in international relations. I enjoy studying the governments and cultures of other countries and in particular seeing how our government interacts with the governments of other countries. In order to understand how the current governments run I believe it is important to also study the political and social histories of those countries. Nazi Germany has always been a particular point of interest for me, especially since all of my family originally came from Europe. I chose to write about Herf's book because I wanted to see how the Nazi past affected the abilities of East Germany, West Germany and the united German governments to establish new systems for themselves.

Abstract (back to top)

In this book Jeffrey Herf examines the way that the Nazi past was remembered by political leaders after the end of World War II. Through an examination of different time periods, Herf comes to the conclusion that this Nazi past was remembered quite differently in East Germany than it was in West Germany and even more so in unified Germany. He argues that the West German government was more willing to incorporate discussions of Nazism, the Holocaust and restitution for Jewish survivors into political memory. He also argues that doing so coincided with the political agendas of prominent German political leaders and went along with the occupying powers' Cold War initiatives. Despite the reasoning of the author, I maintain that neither West nor East Germany was really willing to incorporate discussions of Nazism and the Holocaust into their political memory. In my essay I prove this by examining what I deem to be the three main indicators of this lack of willingness which are: the inefficient failure of denazification, the failure of political leaders to actively recognize the part that German citizens played in Nazism, and the focus of political leaders on Germans as victims themselves.

Essay (back to top)

In his book Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, Jeffrey Herf argues that the West German government was more willing to incorporate discussions of Nazism, the Holocaust and restitution for Jewish survivors into political memory. He also argues that doing so coincided with the political agendas of prominent German political leaders and went along with the occupying powers' Cold War initiatives. In order to come to this conclusion, Herf addresses the following questions (Herf, 1997: 2):

First, given the depth and breadth of support for Nazism among the Germans, why did German politicians after 1945 raise the issue of the Holocaust and other crimes of the Nazi era at all? Second, why did the memory of the Nazi past emerge as divided along political lines? That is, why did public memory of the Holocaust, and a sympathetic hearing for the concerns of Jewish survivors, emerge and find a home in West Germany? And why, after the early contentious months and years of the occupation era, were such views and their advocates suppressed in “antifascist” East Germany? Third, what was the relationship between memory of the crimes of the Nazi era and liberal democracy in the West and a Communist dictatorship in the East? That is within West Germany, how did the democratic left and the democratic right approach the issues of memory and justice? Fourth, how did the Cold War affect discussion of the Jewish catastrophe in both Germanys?

After examining specifically Herf's second question in the context of the early occupation era from 1945-1949, I found that I disagree with his thesis . Despite his above reasons, I maintain that neither West nor East Germany was really willing to incorporate discussions of Nazism and the Holocaust into their political memory. The three main indicators of this lack of willingness are: the inefficient failure of denazification, the failure of political leaders to actively recognize the part that German citizens played in Nazism, and the focus of political leaders on Germans as victims themselves.

Although immediately following the end of World War II it appeared that conditions in East Germany would allow for Nazism and the Holocaust to become forerunners in political discussion, many elements including media coverage of the Nuremberg Trials as well as statements made by the political elites foreshadowed what was to come. One reason that Herf suggests as to why the memory of the Holocaust was not as prominent in East Germany as in West Germany had to do with the fact that, “In 1945, there were only about 4, 500 Jewish survivors in the Soviet zone of occupation” (Herf, 1997: 70). This number was much lower than the number of survivors who settled in West Germany. Obviously then, as Herf points out, in order for the Holocaust to make headlines in East German politics there needed to be support from “non-Jewish German political leaders” (Herf, 1997: 70). A point that Herf does not mention in great detail is that because the East German government claimed itself to be antifascist, they should have been more willing to publicly denounce the atrocities committed during the Nazi period. Instead, the government went to a different extreme and maintained that the entire country had been antifascists and had actively resisted Nazism to the best of their abilities (Marcuse, 2008: 2). Unfortunately, the non-Jewish political elite in East Germany seemed ill inclined to speak up for the returning Jewish survivors, whether it was due to lack of free speech or an unwillingness to risk their political careers by going against the official stance of the party.

Another reason that Herf presents to explain the differing mindsets of East vs. West regarding Nazism and the Holocaust is the much quicker and more organized process of denazification carried out by the Soviet occupying forces in East Germany. Denazification included the Nuremberg Trials, which took place from October 1945 to October 1946, and which were publicized in Soviet-run newspapers that circulated throughout East Germany. Herf found that newspapers in the West gave more coverage to crimes against Jews than did the Soviet papers in the East, which tended to focus on Nazi crimes against the Soviet Union (Herf, 1997: 72). After the trials ended, stories related to the Holocaust and war crimes were no longer as forcefully publicized, which allowed “silence or marginalization” to reign in East Germany, thereby eliminating the public's awareness of Nazism to a certain degree (Herf, 1997: 71). By February of 1948, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany declared that denazification had been “successfully completed” (Herf, 1997: 72). Due to this hastened process, the people of East Germany were led to believe that they could put their past behind them. In fact, Herf points out that it was “with pride” that “Communists would point […] to the purge as evidence of a commitment to overcoming the Nazi past” (Herf, 1997: 74).

Herf forgets to mention that speedy denazification also meant that some former Nazis were overlooked in order to allow the Soviet government to further its goal of establishing a socialist system within East Germany. As Mary Fulbrook coveys in her book, History of Germany 1918-2000: The Divided Nation, the Soviet-backed East Germany government was less strict on Nazi “small fish” then the Western powers as long as the “small fish” were “not war criminals” and were willing to aid in building a new society (Fulbrook, 2002: 120).  In fact the restrictions on the rights and mobility of former Nazis were removed as early as 1948 (Fulbrook, 2002: 120). Because the East German government was most concerned with jumpstarting a nation that had a clean slate, they did not want to leave room for memories of Nazism or openness to discussions of the Holocaust which would have placed the blame on their supposedly antifascist citizens. Unfortunately, such discussions could have actually allowed the denazification process to really be successful.

Despite the above evidence, one should not think that every communist in East Germany wanted to forget the Holocaust and the deeds committed by their fellow Germans. For example, prominent figures like Franz Dahlem, a communist imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp, gave a speech in East Berlin in 1945 addressing the “ ‘collective guilt' of the German people” (Herf, 1997: 74). Dahlem did not agree with the Soviet perspective that the purging of former Nazis would suffice in cleansing the German society of Nazism. He felt “shame and rage” that “the German people silently tolerated the extermination of millions of Jews […], viewed Jewish fellow human beings as inferior and accepted their destruction with great indifference” (Herf, 1997: 76). Dahlem was not satisfied with the East German government's inability to address the Holocaust and definitely did not feel that the path taken would allow Germany to “gain the trust of humanity again” (Herf, 1997: 75).

A final point of Herf's that one should address are the differences in political memory of the Holocaust and Nazism due to the differing ideologies present in East Germany vs. West Germany after the end of World War II. Historical connotations between Jews and capitalism in Marxism resulted in a backlash for survivors of the Holocaust (Herf, 1997: 80). Debates regarding “who was a victim, a hero, or even an enemy of the working class” (Herf, 1997: 80) were common and developed a “moral hierarchy” (Herf, 1997: 80) of survivors in East Germany where communists reigned supreme, followed by Jews who beat out ordinary citizens due to the racial persecution they had suffered (Herf, 1997: 80). Although Jewish survivors did receive some benefits such as additional sick days, earlier retirement and free use of public transportation, the East German government refused to outright acknowledge the part East Germans had played in Nazism and never set up a formal system of restitution (Herf, 1997: 80). Such trivial benefits were hardly what the survivors were looking for and were in my opinion insulting. Since the East German regime never formally accepted responsibility for their share of the Nazis actions, the benefits given to Jewish survivors were meaningless.

Another unfortunate consequence of the ideological differences between East and West Germany was that discussion regarding legislation to include Jewish restitution led to a political battle with the West so that the “memory of the Nazi past had already become intertwined with political battles over money” (Herf, 1997: 91). Concepts such as the acknowledgement of Jewish hardships, as addressed by Matthew Berg in his review of Herf's book in the Historian, also became difficult when East Germany saw Zionism as “part of a broader Western imperialist initiative and even equated [it] with fascism” (Berg, 2000: 1). A few in East Germany like the proponents of the Merker-Lehmann draft (Merker a member of the SED Central Committee and Lehmann the secretary of the department) did continue to lobby for restitution laws to be passed during the late 1940s and early 1950s (Herf, 1997: 86). They were however unsuccessful due to the official response by the Justice Division of the SED Central Committee, which contained some particularly disturbing decrees (Herf, 1997: 91):

3. The [German] refugees don't receive anything. Why should the Jews get anything? That isn't just. The Jews must also share in the general impoverishment brought about by the war.

4. The Jewish immigrants don't belong to the working class. In the Eastern zone we are taking the path to socialism. As a result, we have no interest in shifting new burdens on the working class […]

6. Today the Soviet Union rejects the idea that the German people were responsible for Hitler's war. It acts on the basis of other principles.

The first decree mentioned above highlights the victimization complex that was present in East Germany, and the third decree shows the inability of many Germans to accept their responsibility for being followers of Hitler's Third Reich. Herf makes clear that this document shows that the government in East Germany was attempting to create a socialist system and was willing to ignore the memory of Nazism at all costs in order to make their system succeed, even if this meant getting in the way of making right what was wrong through simple measures such as restitution for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Although the political climate in West Germany during the early post-war years (1945-1949) may have been somewhat more open than the political climate in the East, it was by no means completely open to recognizing the full consequences of Nazism as Herf claims. First of all, although the Western powers tried to impress upon the German people the notion of “individual political and moral responsibility” (Herf, 1997: 208) rather than the more simple notion of collective guilt during the Nuremberg Trials, not all German citizens were held accountable for their actions during the Nazi period. As Fulbrook points out in her book, the extensive five category classification system created by the US and Western powers, which was intended to prevent the lesser Nazis from slipping through the cracks, backfired (Fulbrook, 2002: 121). The system instead created a back log of paper work which let many of the lesser Nazi elites go free (Fulbrook, 2002: 121). In contrast to Herf's thesis, which argues that the Nuremberg Trials in West Germany taught individual responsibility, I would argue that the inefficient system instead allowed citizens to escape by claiming to have resisted Nazism to the best of their ability. The drawn out process in the West allowed the citizens of West Germany the time to separate themselves from those other Germans who had participated in the atrocities of World War II.

Second, Herf proposes that by contributing to the success of the West German economy, political leaders like Adenauer created a populace that was more conducive to discussions of the Holocaust and Nazism then the populace created in the East. By contrast, I would argue that although West Germany was more willing to pay restitution to Jewish survivors, it was equally as unwilling as East Germany to formally recognize the role Germans had played in Nazism and the Holocaust. As early as the spring of 1946, Adenauer (who was not yet in charge of the West German government, but was a prominent political figure) began to put forth an economic policy because he felt that “in order to avoid a renewal of German nationalism and Nazism, economic recovery and political democratization must take priority” (Herf, 1997: 209). By helping the Western powers to create a thriving economy in West Germany, Adenauer was able to “strongly [support] measures that were far less threatening to the voters, namely, restitution for Jewish survivors and good relations with the state of Israel” (Herf, 1997: 209). However, creating a populace that was more willing to discuss restitution for Jewish survivors was not the same as creating a populace willing to accept responsibility for following Hitler. Similar to Anthony Glees in his review of Herf's work in The Journal of Modern History, who criticizes Adenauer for being too cautious in his punishment of the German people with his tendency to let the “past be the past” (Glees, 2000: 274), I too would agree that Adenauer did not do all that he could have done with regards to the Nazi past. Like Glees, I view Adenauer as one who “knew he could rely on the United States and Britain to do what he believed the Germans themselves would never do: decisively criminalize Nazism” (Glees, 2000: 275). Adenauer therefore refrained from open criticism of his country in order to keep his political career in good standing. Although as Herf points out, Adenauer was willing to look at Germany's history and was not afraid to criticize actions that had led to the creation of National Socialism (Herf, 1997: 215), he did not override the tendency of the German people make themselves victims of their own history. Although Adenauer's tactics did succeed in gaining the majority of West Germany on his side with regards to restitution for Jewish survivors, he was not as successful at incorporating discussion of Nazism and the Holocaust into West Germany's political memory as Herf claims.

In his book Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, Jeffrey Herf concludes that the West German government was more willing to incorporate discussions of Nazism, the Holocaust and restitution for Jewish survivors into political memory than the East German government because of the way in which the denazification process was conducted. He also argues that doing so coincided with the political agendas of prominent German political leaders and that doing so also went along with the occupying forces' Cold War initiatives. I have shown that although West Germany was more willing to discuss the Holocaust in the sense of restitution for Jewish survivors, West Germans were just as unwilling to incorporate the full responsibility for Nazism and the Holocaust into their political memory as was East Germany. The three main indicators of this lack of willingness can be deduced from the inefficient failure of denazification, the failure of political leaders to actively recognize the part that German citizens played in Nazism, and the focus of political leaders on Germans as victims themselves. All in all, Jeffrey Herf's book presents an argument that will interest students, professors and the intellectual elite who want to learn more about this very divided period in German political and social memory.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)


Book Reviews:

  • Berg, Matthew Paul. "Divided Memory (Book Review)." Historian 63.1(2000)
    198. 15 Oct 2008 <ebsco>.
    Berg agrees with Herf's thesis and feels that part of the strength of Herf's book comes from its “basis in primary documentation”. However, Berg also comments that some may find Herf's book “overly researched and an exhausting read”.
  • Glees, Anthony. "Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys by Jeffrey Herf. (Book Review)" The Journal of Modern History 72.103/2000 (274-276). 16 Oct 2008 (jstor).
    Glees writes that “Herf's concept of ‘memory' will prompt persistent fruitful debate”. However he criticizes Herf for some spelling errors and wordiness. Glees also disagrees with Herf's unconditional praise for Adenauer.
  • Marcuse, Harold. "Lecture 11/4: Confronting the Nazi Past.": Santa Barbara, California, 2008.


  • The Library of Congress Country Studies , “Germany: The Nuremberg Trials and Denazification” (Aug. 1995), <http://www.workmall.com/wfb2001/germany/
    germany_history_the_nuremberg_trials_ and_denazification.html
    This website gives a summary about how and why the Nuremberg Trials were conducted. It also goes onto explain how political parties were recreated in Germany after the trials ended.
  • Harvard Law School Library, “Nuremberg Trials Project--A Digital Document Collection” (Feb. 2003), <http://nuremberg.law.harvard.edu/php/docs_swi.php?DI=1&text=nur_13tr>.
    This website gives specific accounts of the accusations during the Nuremberg Trials. It details person by person the charges and explains how the trials were conducted. It also gives a description of the person accused, what he did and what his sentence was.
  • Wikipedia, “Denazification” (accessed Dec. 1, 2008), <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denazification>
    An overview explaining what denazification was and when it took place. Also includes the differences between the implementation of denazification in the Western vs. the Soviet zones.

Related Books:

  • Fulbrook, Mary . History of Germany 1918-2000: The Divided Nation . 2 nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. (amazon) <http://www.amazon.com/History-Germany-1918-2000-Blackwell-Histories/dp/0631232087>
    Fulbrook's book is a wonderful way to get an overview of Germany history from the end of World War I to the end of the 20 th century. Her text is clearly focused and in each chapter she gives specific reasons for her arguments. This book is an easy read, yet is at the same time very informative.
  • Moeller, Robert G. . War Stories: the Search for a Usuable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. UCSB: DD820.P72 G526 2001.
    Moeller argues against the popular notion that after World War II West Germany forgot their immediate past and instead argues that West Germany instead focused on something he calls “selective remembering”. In his book he examines the way in which West Germany did remember the Nazi past including crimes committed against both Germans and Jews.
    [Hist 133c review by Jeffrey Mercado (2008)]
  • Moses, A. Dirk . German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. UCSB: DD256.5 .M569 2007.
    Moses discusses the ways in which West German intellectuals debated the Nazi past. This includes causes of Nazism and responsibility for it. The book also addresses the debates of intellectuals about the future course of their democratic country.

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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 12/14/08; last updated: 12/15/08
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