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 Studies Conference,
Minneapolis, 21 Feb. 1997; Section: "German Sites of Memory"
[only introductory pages; 5/20/97]
please do not cite without permission of the author
Former Concentration Camps and the Politics of Identity in WestGermany, 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
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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
For a brief overview, see Israel Rosenfeld, "Memory and Identity," New
Literary History 26(1995), 197-203.
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
Jürgen Habermas, "Moral Development and Ego Identity," in idem,
Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979), 69-94.
Jürgen Habermas, "Können komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernünftige
Identität ausbilden?," in: idem, Zur Rekonstruktion, 92-126.
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.