Prof. Harold Marcuse
Dept. of History
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Tel: (805) 893-2635
Paper for the Upper Great Lakes Consortium for European
Minneapolis, 21 Feb. 1997; (I also presented during week
6 of this 1999
Consortium graduate seminar)
Section: "German Sites of Memory" [only introductory pages; uploaded 5/20/97]
please do not cite without notifying the author
Former Concentration Camps and the Politics of Identity
in West Germany, 1945-1995
Theoretical and Historical Background
The terms memory and identity have become standard
fare in much recent historical writing. One recent anthology calls them
"two of the most frequently used terms in contemporary public and private
discourse." However, there is a substantial imbalance
in the theoretical exploration of the two terms. While a substantial body
of work examines the concept of memory, especially in contrast to "history,"
"identity" tends to be mentioned, but not analyzed.
To name just two examples for the interest in memory: Pierre Nora's Lieux
de memoire project in France, and the international
and interdisciplinary interest in the writings of French sociologist Maurice
Halbwachs on collective memory.
This imbalance is all the more striking when we realize the heavy interdependence
of the two concepts: on the one hand the temporal and spatial continuity
expressed by "identity" derives from the preservation of aspects of the
past in the present and future implied by "memory," while on the other
hand the selection of certain aspects of the past for preservation in
memory is determined by the identity of the individual or group which
is recollecting that past. In fact, in popular discourse,
the terms are often used interchangeably, as in the recent West German
"Historians' Debate" about the role in contemporary politics of recollecting
the Nazi past. In that publicly aired discussion
among historians, representations of Germany's history were often taken
to be the primary factor shaping a unitary national conception of self.
Before delving into an analysis of the role of memories of concentration
camps in German identity politics, I would like to focus briefly on the
term identity. Its present usage to describe a given individual or group's
awareness of its unity and characteristic features became common in psychoanalytic
discourse in the aftermath of World War II. The term
was popularized by the work of Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a German emigré
who had closely studied Freudian psychology. Erikson emphasized that identity
forms in a dialectical interaction between individuals and their communal
culture. He described identity formation as a
process of assimilation of the broader culture into (preexisting) individual
identities. In his formulation, there is also extensive overlap between
identity and memory: you are what you have experienced of your cultural
environment. Recent biopsychological research confirms that both memories
and identities constantly evolve as physical and social environments change.
In the 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in the
utility of the concept of identity in educational and sociological theory.
Jürgen Habermas's discussion of the evolution of social identities
offers a conceptual framework within which the role of history and memory
in identity development can be explored. Habermas began by examining the
socialization process in which personal identity develops; he was especially
interested in comparing it to the development of moral consciousness.
Although he began to examine the relationship between individual and collective
identity in the early 1970s (in an essay entitled "Can complex societies
develop a rational identity?," his later work
focused more on theories of individual moral development.
However, as his interventions in the aforementioned Historians' Debate
show, his assumption of the applicability of theories of individual identity
development to social identity underlies much of his subsequent political
essayism.[12-missing] In my examination of the role of former concentration
camps in West German social identity, I find his categories of pre-conventional,
conventional, and post-conventional identity highly illuminating. In fact,
although I cannot develop the argument fully in this context, I think
that the identity of (West) German society has developed from a preconventional
form in the Nazi and immediate postwar years, to a conventional stage
in the 1960s, and is now, in the 1990s, showing many postconventional
[see the table of these moral categories at the bottom of this May
and these scans
from Habermas's book that I discussed in a lecture course]
- See John Gillis, "Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship,"
in: idem (ed.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity
(Princeton: Princeton University, 1994), 3-24, 3. The papers in this
volume resulted from a 1990 conference on "Public Memory and Collective
For an interesting review of the literature and a discussion the utility
of the concept of identity with relation to the broader categories of
culture, politics and economics, see Valentine Moghadam, "Introduction:
Women and Identity Politics in Comparative Perspective," in idem
(ed.), Women and Identity Politics (Boulder: Westview: 1993),
3-26.In addition to the cursory examination by Gillis in the introductory
essay cited above, see: Richard Handler, "Is Identity a Useful
Cross-cultural Concept?" in: Gillis (ed.), Commemorations,
27-40. On identity Handler refers only in passing to the discussion
of Erikson in the work of Philip Gleason, which he himself dismisses.
(back to reference)
- A translation of the introduction to the multivolume
publication of Nora's project was published in a special issue of Representations
on "Memory and Countermemory:" 26(1989). See also the introduction
to that issue by Natalie Z. Davis and Randolph Starn. (back
- See especially Halbwachs' posthumously published On Collective
Memory, ed., trans., and introduced by Lewis Coser (Chicago: Univ.
of Chicago, 1992). On the recent reception of Halbwachs' work, in addition
to the works espcially by Barry Schwartz cited by Coser, see Patrick
Hutton, "Sigmund Freud and Maurice Halbwachs: The Problem of Memory
in Historical Psychology," History Teacher 27:2(Feb. 1994),
145-58; and Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, "Collective Memory: What is
it?" History and Memory (Spr. 1996), 30-50.
The reception of Halbwachs in German has been equally
rich. See, for example, Theresa Wobbe, "Das Dilemma der Überlieferung,"
in idem (ed.), Nach Osten: Verdeckte Spuren nationalsozialistischer
Verbrechen (Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1992), 13-43, and Jan Assmann,
"Collective Memory and Cultural Identity" in New German
Critique 65(1995), 125-33 [originally published 1988]. (back
- The so-called Historians' Debate began with a critical gloss by Habermas
on recent works by conservative West German historians, published in
the German weekly Die Zeit in July 1986. The debate unfoldd
on the pages of Die Zeit and other major West German newspapers;
most major English language historical journals published discussions
of it, and several book publications resulted. A good English-language
starting point would be: Charles Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History,
Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard,
1988). Peter Baldwin (ed.), Reworking the Past (Boston: Beacon,
1990), offers a comprehensive bibliography of publications to date;
the English translation of the original texts, Forever in the Shadow
of Hitler (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1993), is unreliable.
See the review in Central European History 26:2(1993), 250-2.
(back to reference)
- Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis
(New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), 22. The following description of the
process of identity formation is taken from pp. 31f, where Erikson speaks
of "cultural consolidation" and "accomodation."
(back to reference)
- For a brief overview, see Israel Rosenfeld, "Memory and Identity,"
New Literary History 26(1995), 197-203. (back
- For an early example, see Klaus Bergmann and Hans-Jürgen Pandel,
Geschichte und Zukunft: didaktische Reflexionen über veröffentlichtes
Geschichtsbewußtsein (Frankfurt, 1975), chap. 7: "Identität
und Identifikation." (back to reference)
- Jürgen Habermas,"Moralentwicklung und Ich-Identität,"
in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion des historischen Materialismus
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976), 63-91. Translated as "Moral Development
and Ego Identity," in idem, Communication and the Evolution of
Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979), 69-94. (back to reference)
- Jürgen Habermas, "Können komplexe
Gesellschaften eine vernünftige Identität ausbilden?,"
in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion, 92-126. (back to
- Jürgen Habermas, "Moral Consciousness and Communicative
Action," published in a collection of essays under that title,
trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: MIT,
1990), 116-94. (back to reference)
- I have substituted the term "identity" for "consciousness"
because Habermas draws upon the same literature of moral identity and
development for the second essay. (back to reference)