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Social Philosopher Jürgen Habermas on the Meaning of Critical Memory (November 7, 1986)

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Three Sources of Discontent

First, situational interpretations of a neoconservative origin play a part. According to this interpretation, the moralizing view of the most recent past occludes the view of the thousand-year history before 1933. A repressed memory of this national history, which came about under "thought prohibition," cannot lead to a positive self-image. Without collective identity, the forces of social integration would weaken. The lamented "loss of history" is even supposed to contribute to weakening the legitimation of the political system and to endanger the domestic peace and the accountability of foreign policy. This is supposed to be the reason for the compensatory endowing of higher meaning, with which history is to serve those people who have been uprooted by modernization. The attempt to grasp self-identity through national history demands that the negative image of the Nazi period be relativized; for this purpose it is no longer sufficient to bracket out the period. It has to be leveled out in its onerous meaning.

Second, behind a trivializing revisionism there is a deeper motive, completely independent of a functionalist attempt à la Stürmer. About this, since I am no social psychologist, I can only offer speculations. Edith Jacobson once penetratingly formulated the psychological insight that the developing child must gradually learn to attach the experiences with the loving and nurturing mother to the experiences that come from dealing with the mother who rejects and says no. Obviously it is a long and painful process in which we learn to put together the originally competing images of good and bad parents to complex images of the same person. [ . . . ] Thus it is by no means the morally insensitive who felt themselves pressured to remove from the collective destiny in which their next of kin were involved the blemish of extraordinary moral mortgages.

The third motive lies on yet a different plane. It is the battle to reclaim encumbered traditions. Those who were born later, with their knowledge of the course of history, must confront the ambivalences that present themselves. When the view to appropriating these traditions is directed toward these ambivalences, then even the exemplary cannot be free of the retroactive power of a corrupted history. After 1945 we read Carl Schmidt, Heidegger, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933. For many people this is not easy to bear, particularly for my generation, which – after the war – stood under the intellectual influence of towering figures of this kind. That may, by the way, explain the rehabilitation efforts—not only in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – urgently directed toward the neoconservative heritage.

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