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

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Forty years later, then, the dispute, which Jaspers was able to settle in his day with great effort, has broken out again. Can one assume the legal successorship of the German Reich? Can one continue the traditions of German culture without taking over the historical liability for the way of life in which Auschwitz was possible? Can one be liable for the context of the origins of such crimes, with which one's own existence is historically woven, in any other way than through common remembrance of that for which one cannot atone other than in a reflective, testing attitude toward one's own, identity-endowing traditions? Can it not be generally said that the less commonality a collective life-context has afforded, and the more it has maintained itself outwardly by usurpation and destruction of alien life, the greater will be the burden of repentance imposed on the mourning and self-critical examination of the following generations? And does not precisely this sentence prohibit downplaying the weight of the burden with which we are saddled by making leveling comparisons? This is the question of the singularity of the Nazi crimes. How must it seem in the mind of a historian who claims that I "invented" this question?

We conduct the dispute for the correct answer from our own perspective. One should not confuse this arena, in which there can be no impartial ones among us, with the discussion of the scholars who in their work must assume the perspective of an outside observer. The political culture of the Federal Republic is certainly influenced by the comparative work of historians and other scholars. But the results of scholarly work must first pass through the locks of the mediators and the media and then return to the perspective of the participant in the public river of the appropriation of tradition. Only here can comparisons become a kind of settling of accounts. The ruffled feathers about the confounding of politics and scholarship pushes the theme onto the wrong track. Nipperdey and Hildebrand are barking up the wrong tree, or should not be barking at all. They live, it seems, in an ideologically closed milieu no longer reachable by reality. It is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments. It is about the public use of history.

From Comparisons Come Squaring of Accounts

[ . . . ]

I accept the criticism that "annihilation," not "expulsion," of the kulaks is the appropriate description of this barbaric event. Enlightenment is a mutual undertaking. But the public settling of accounts by Nolte and Fest does not serve the end of enlightenment. They affect the political morality of a community that—after being liberated by Allied troops and without doing anything itself—has been established in the spirit of the occidental conception of freedom, responsibility, and self-determination.

Source: Jürgen Habermas, “On the Public Use of History: The Official Self-Understanding of the Federal Republic is Breaking Up”, in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? Original Documents of the Historikerstreit Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust. Translated by James Knowlton and Truett Cates. Atlantic Heights, NJ, 1993, pp. 168-70.

[Originally published in German as “Vom öffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie: Das offizielle Selbstverständnis der Bundesrepublik bricht auf,” Die Zeit, November 7, 1986.

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