GHDI logo

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

In this article, the liberal social philosopher Jürgen Habermas attacks the revisionist efforts of conservative intellectuals. He points out that the identity of the Federal Republic rests on the admission of responsibility for the Holocaust and insists on the importance of critical memory as the foundation for democracy.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 4

On the Public Use of History: The Official Self-Understanding of the Federal Republic is Breaking Up

[ . . . ]

Jaspers’s Question Today

Then as now the simple fact is that those born later have grown up in a way of life in which that was possible. Our own life is connected with this context of life in which Auschwitz was possible, not through contingent circumstances, but internally. Our way of life is connected with our parents' and grandparents' way of life through a web of family, local, political, and intellectual transmissions—through a historical milieu that has made us what we are today. Not one of us can sneak out of this milieu because our identity, both as individuals and as Germans, is permanently interwoven with it, from bodily gesture through the language to the rich interplay of intellectual customs. I could never, for example, when I teach at universities abroad, deny the mentality in which the traces are buried of the very German movement of thought from Kant to Marx and Max Weber. We must therefore stand by our traditions of we do not want to deny ourselves. I also agree with Dregger that there are no reasons for such avoidance maneuvres. But what follows from this existential linking with traditions and ways of life that have been poisoned by unspeakable crimes? A completely civilized populace, proud of its humanistic culture and its constitutional state, made itself liable for these crimes. It is in the Jaspersian sense a collective mutual liability. Does something of this liability carry over to the next generation and the one after that? For two reasons, I think, we should answer yes.

There is first of all the obligation that we in Germany—even if no one else any longer assumes it—must, undisguisedly and not simply intellectually, keep awake the memory of the suffering of those murdered by German hands. These dead justifiably have a claim on a weak amnesiac power of solidarity, which those born afterward can only practice in the medium of the constantly renewed, often confused, always worrying memory. If we brush aside this Benjaminian legacy, our Jewish fellow citizens, the sons, the daughters, the grandchildren of the murdered could no longer breathe in our country. That also has political implications. In any case, I do not see, for example, how the relations of the Federal Republic with Israel could in the foreseeable future be "normalized." Many carry openly the "encumbered remembrance" in name only, while they actually denounce public manifestations of this kind of feeling as rituals of false subservience and as gestures of hypocritical humility. I am amazed that these ladies and gentlemen—if we are going to speak in a Christian way—cannot even distinguish between humility and repentance.

first page < previous   |   next > last page