UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133c Homepage > 133c Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Moeller, War Stories, cover

Forgetting the War: Events that are Critical in Constructing a Healthy West Germany

Book Essay on: Robert Moeller, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany
(Berkeley: University of California, 2001), 329 pages.
D820.P72 G526 2001

by Jeffrey Mercado
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 Jeffrey Mercado

I am a fourth-year history major mostly studying American history and beginning to study European history. I am curious to see how postwar Germany has dealt with the legacies of Nazism and communism from its past. I chose the book War Stories because I am interested in how West Germany used various strategies to reduce Nazism's role in causing World War II.

Abstract (back to top)

War Stories conveys the complicated tale of how West Germany dealt with its recent past after World War II. Moeller rejects the notion that postwar West Germany merely forgot or were silent about their Nazi past. Rather, he reveals how selective remembering was the active approach after World War II. In particular, West Germans remembered many crimes committed against Germans, crimes that they strongly compared to the German crimes against Jews. War Stories draws from a wide range of U.S. and German government documents, political debates, film archives, letters, oral histories, and newspaper accounts. Moeller addresses two questions: 1.) What were the strategies used by former Nazis that made other West German citizens believe that those former Nazis were victims of Nazism, communism, and totalitarianism, and 2.) How did the integration of Nazis into West German society affect the construction of their postwar collective identity? War Stories does not clearly indicate why most of West Germany decided to avoid the Nazi past. My belief is that West Germany did this to attempt to unite both East and West Germany.

Essay (back to top)


War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, by Robert Moeller, looks back into post-war Germany and analyzes how West Germany took on the collective image of being the victims in World War II. Also known as the Federal Republic, West Germany and its citizens ignored the fact that they tortured and killed as many as six million Jewish people during the Holocaust. These Germans had openly expressed their racist intentions and desires during the Third Reich, and did not take responsibility for their actions after 1945. Instead, they blamed the Soviet Union for forcibly spreading socialism to East Germany. Moeller presents two questions:

  1. What were the strategies used by former Nazis that made other West German citizens strongly believe that those former Nazis were victims of Nazism, communism, and totalitarianism, and
  2. How did the integration of Nazis into West German society affect the construction of their postwar collective identity?

There are two answers to the first question: that former Nazis used selective stories of many expellees driven out of Eastern Europe, and that prisoners of war (POWs) were depicted in many German movies during the 1950s and 60s as being harshly treated in concentration camps by the Soviets. The answer to the second question is that the integration of former Nazis back into West Germany did not have as much of a negative effect on its political culture as one might expect.

It was greatly emphasized in West Germany that Germans suffered from the war (“war-damaged”) more than the Jews they caused suffering to. Socialism was portrayed as the real agent causing the war. Moeller conveyed that former Nazis used “the experience of suffering, loss, and victimization (of the expellees and POWs, including their families), stemming from the end of the Third Reich and the consequences of defeat” to further prove their “innocence” of the crimes they committed. These selective stories were especially appealing to the West German populace. This is evidence of Moeller's thesis that “after the war the citizens of the Federal Republic largely avoided all memories of the years of Nazi rule” (pg. 15). There is no clear indication why they tried to avoid it, but it seems that Germany cannot accept the responsibility for the war in Europe. The Federal Republic wanted desperately to unite both East and West Germany by not letting these horrendous atrocities hinder its progress. Nonetheless, it is unproductive to look at only one side of the German story. West Germany must acknowledge the Nazi past so they can be accountable for their role in World War II. This would allow for the unification to proceed without any faults.

Constructing a Healthy Past for West Germany: Analysis

Moeller begins by looking through the West German perspective which places the blame solely on the Soviets for causing the war:

Individual memories shaped a public history that permitted West Germany to acknowledge the war as part of their history and at the same time to distance themselves from the National Socialist state – a state that most Germans had supported and that bore complete responsibility for the war in Europe (pg. 3).

Attacking the Soviet Union could deflect attention from Germans. “By pointing a finger at the Russians, West Germans could insist that totalitarianism was a universal phenomenon of the twentieth century, the product of the crises of modern mass societies, not a uniquely German creation” (pg. 5). West Germans ignored memories of German Jews and other people persecuted by the Nazis. Moeller states that “Germans should have come to an understanding of their deep identification with Hitler and the ‘national community' (Volksgemeinschaft), thereby acknowledging their responsibility for crimes committed by the regime they had supported in overwhelming numbers” (pg. 15). He recognizes that it is beneficial for the Germans to acknowledge the experiences of German expellees and POWs as their past for it presents Germany as a country of “collective innocence,” and not of “collective guilt.” The selective memories of the expellees and the POWs supported the German claim that they were not accountable for their crimes during the Nazi era. It was morally incorrect and hypocritical for the Germans not to be accountable and to blame the war all on the Soviets.

Next, Moeller examines which group ultimately faced the most discrimination during the war years. German POWs are considered as “the most tragic figures of the politics of the Third Reich” along with the “victims of the concentration camp” (pg. 33). In the eyes of the Federal Republic, the Jews and the German POWs/expellees received equally harsh treatment. The only difference was that in West Germany, German suffering was recorded more than Jewish suffering. Thus, the fate of POWs in the Soviet Union became the central theme in the politics of the Federal Republic in the 1950s. “Victims of Germans represented a past, West Germans sought to leave behind, the past of expellees and POWs was one they sought to embrace” (pg. 42). For the expellees from East Germany and the POWs trapped in Soviet concentration camps, the “rhetorics of victimization that emerged in debates over compensation for these groups articulated a rejection of National Socialism and Hitler's war as forces that had victimized Germany” (pg. 48). This brought attention to the threat of Communism, and reduced the threat of Nazism. This was an incredible social tool for Nazis to prove their “innocence” of their past crimes. The first step in uniting East and West Germany was getting over Nazi crimes.

Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of the Federal Republic in the 1950s, described the German war criminals as “nameless criminals.” Adenauer stressed it was “not a concession of ‘collective guilt,' but an acknowledgement of the need to make amends for crimes committed in Germany's name” (pg. 27). Adenauer wanted to move on from the Nazi past and did not want to dwell any longer on Nazi crimes. He was now faced with rebuilding and reshaping West Germany into a respectable nation-state. He began reparations for the victims with the Israel Treaty. Compensation was not an automatic process. There were debates over the proper level of payments and the scope of persecution as West Germans considered Jews as one group of victims among many, specifically expellees and POWs.

Moeller describes the “Homecoming” in 1955, in which the last of the POWs were released by the Soviets. Chancellor Adenauer traveled to Moscow to improve relations with the Soviet Union, hoping one day to unify divided Germany. He insist on the return of the POWs, also known as the nation's. The Soviets granted Adenauer his wish and sent back the last of the POWs in the summer of 1955. Moeller describes the relief felt by German wives, “they [German wives] had sacrificed themselves to ‘hard lives and the worries of endless martyrdom' as their loved ones ‘suffered an unimaginable fate in an unimaginable distant place'” (pg. 105). The entire Federal Republic felt they “withstood the infection of National Socialism, the invasion of the Red Army” (pg. 106). West Germans wanted desperately to reunite families because it was central to the reconstruction of Germany. POWs became bearers of a “pioneer spirit,” adding a “moral renewal” to the “economic renewal” that was under way in West Germany. They were allowed to testify about the horrors of the red brand of totalitarian rule, proclaiming that they were not war criminals, unless proven otherwise with concrete evidence. The Federal Republic sought the help of the POWs as their long stay in the Soviet Union gave them “insight that equipped them to make a contribution in the Federal Republic” (pg. 117). These POW fathers had restored balance and order and became role models for German youth. The threat of the Red Army and the Soviets, once again, diverted a lot of attention from the German war criminals. The experiences of POWs and expellees were used as an easy social mechanism for some ruthless Nazis to be free of their guilt. Not only were some former Nazis allowed back into West German society, but they were encouraged to actively participate in it. Focusing more on the actions of the Soviets made it easier for East and West Germany to unite as the Federal Republic overlooked the German war criminals.

Lastly, Moeller examines 1950s movies that depict numerous tales of “expulsion from the East” and “barbed-wire university.” “Papa's Kino,” a new wave of German cinema attracted to the younger audience in the 1950s, heavily contributed to “reconstructing national identity after Hitler” (pg. 124). East German expellees and POWs became key symbols in West German movies. Heimatfilm, tales of expellees' discovery of a new home in the Federal Republic, was the most popular movie genre in the 1950s. It portrayed “the German bedrock escaping the devastation of war and National Socialism” (pg. 128). These films depict Germans as the victims of the Red Army, just like Jews who were victims of Germans during the Holocaust. However, there were no movies depicting the situations of the latter. The Heimatfilm also showed how “old” and “new” citizens can make compromises to shape a new West Germany with the exchanging of traditional and modern values, helping to enrich one another. Moeller asserts that “as the ‘economic miracle' was starting to become a reality, the expellees could also claim responsibility for these developments” (pg. 139). It is ironic to see the complete transformation of the pre-war Nazi from a hated violent racist into a beloved fellow-traveler. Movies depicting German soldiers dying and the “Homecoming” portrayed their discipline, honor, and dignity; they were people very worthy of being integrated back into West German society. In addition, Heimatfilm introduced love stories that appealed to many, including POWs and returning veterans. “What movies were getting right, however, was not Soviet muck but stories of a past selectively remembered, told, and retold many times – in public policy debates, official histories, and the pages of the daily press and illustrated magazines that serialized the stories on which some of the films were based” (pg. 165-66). West Germans selectively remembered the experiences of various POWs and expellees, but they did not devote enough attention to the Jews who fell victim to racism decades earlier. The Federal Republic was trying to come to terms with the Nazi era as unification became their bigger concern. It is wrong for the Federal Republic to overlook the Nazi events in the cinema.

In War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Robert Moeller discusses the various ways in which West Germany has taken the role of being the primary victim in World War II. West Germany proclaimed its “collective innocence” during the war period. They did not want to be held liable for the six million deaths of German Jews. They diverted attention and blamed Soviet socialism as the main cause of the war. Some Germans in the Federal Republic, some former Nazis rightfully associated with committing horrific racial acts of crimes, did escape being charged by strongly using “the experience of suffering, loss, and victimization (of East German expellees and POWs)” as a way to prove their innocence. This book is especially essential to the young post-World War II German generation whom believes that socialism was entirely responsible for the war and many deaths. War Stories acknowledges that Germans were victimizers also and not just victims. This acknowledgement is critical for the construction of a healthy nation-state of West Germany.

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

Book Reviews

  • Herf, Jeffrey. "Review: [Untitled]." Central European History 36 (2003): 318-22. JSTOR. UCSB. 28 Nov. 2008.
    This review discusses the trend in studying the memories of Nazism and World War II.  It talks about how Moeller goes beyond his own evidence and beyond the state of existing scholarship.  In Herf's opinion, Moeller may be right but the evidence he presents does not support his argument.  Herf mentions how Moeller could have strengthened his case by noting that the narrators of these “war stories” intentionally misconstrued Allied policy as one of collective guilt.
  • Schissler, Hanna. "Review: [Untitled]." The American Historical Review 107 (2002): 1659-660. JSTOR. UCSB. 27 Nov. 2008.
    This review talks about the tremendous amount of remembering in the decades following World War II.  Schissler praises Moeller for his profound knowledge of his sources and an excellent talent in putting things together.  However, Schissler points out that since this is a story of memory and the construction of narratives, readers would need a bit more of a theoretical explanation of what holds the different fields – parliamentary debates, historiography, newspapers, and movies – together.

Books and Articles

  • Cohen, Deborah . The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2001), 285 pages.
    This book discusses the very different ways two belligerent nations – Britain and Germany – cared for their disabled war veterans.  At the heart of this book is a paradox.  Although postwar Germany provided its disabled veterans with generous benefits, they came to despise the state that favored them.  This book also emphasizes how disabled men proved susceptible to the Nazi cause.
  • Heineman, Elizabeth . What Difference Does a Husband Make?: Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1999), 374 pages.
    In October 1946, seven million more women than men lived in occupied Germany.  In this study of unwed, divorced, widowed, and married women at work and at home across three political regimes, Heineman traces the transitions from early National Socialism through the war and on to the developments of capitalism in the West and communism in the East.  Heineman discovers that the war made the experience of single women quite dramatic.
  • Herf, Jeffrey . Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germanys (Harvard University Press, 1997), 527 pages. UCSB: D 804.3.H474 1997.
    This book explores the ways Nazism was understood by anti-Nazi Germans during the Third Reich and how they interpreted it in the postwar era and in the following histories of East and West Germany.  Herf pays special attention to the ways in which the “Jewish question” was treated.


  • Goethe Institut , “Dossier Heimat Film” (June 7, 2007), <http://www.goethe.de/kue/flm/dos/hei/enindex.htm>
    This website presents the transformation of the Heimatfilm in Germany.  It describes the Heimatfilm in the 1950s, as it tries to forget the terrors of war.  Then, it proceeds to the socially critical Heimatfilm in the 1960s, in which many young German producers repeatedly made use of the genre.  Lastly, it looks at the Heimatfilm of the 1980s and today, in which it has changed to a lighter, more playful treatment of the genre.
  • Wikipedia , “Flight and Expulsion of Germans from Poland During and After World War II” (January 30, 2008).
    This article describes this flight as the first mass movement of German civilians following the Red Army's advance.  This was composed of spontaneous “flight” and organized “evacuation” starting in the summer of 1944 and continuing through the spring of 1945.  It mentions the background surrounding this event, the flight and evacuation plans following the Red Army's advance, and the forced labor that the German prisoners had to resort to.

(back to top)

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 12/16/08; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133c homepage, 133c Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage