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Images - Debates on Identity

The result of political ruptures, military defeat, and inhuman crimes was a fractured and insecure sense of German identity, which persisted even decades after the end of the Second World War. In a nation that had little to crow about in its recent past, the success of the Economic Miracle was an alternate source of collective pride and became a kind of ersatz justification for renewed self-confidence. Because many Germans did not really want to accept the reality of their defeat and the magnitude of their discrediting, critical psychiatrists warned that an “inability to mourn” might lead to revanchism. The GDR sought to escape this burden by defining itself as an anti-fascist new beginning, calling itself a “socialist state on German soil” that refused any connection with the troubled past. Because West German intellectuals held nationalism responsible for the catastrophes of the first half of the century, they also rejected its tarnished tradition, preferring instead to develop a more Westernized notion of “constitutional patriotism,” which based its allegiance to the Bonn democracy on human rights.

The division of the country and the development of two ideologically hostile successor states did not allow the legacy of the past to be put to rest. While conservative West Germans bridled at the de facto recognition of the GDR and opposed the designation of their own state as the FRG, the East German government repudiated its German roots in its final constitution of 1974, calling itself solely “a socialist state of workers and peasants.” Nonetheless, neither state was able to steal away from its history, since questions about their relationship to a common past resurfaced in various ways – the issue of dealing with the ambivalent heritage of Prussia is just one example. In the West, the broadcasting of the American television miniseries “The Holocaust” posed a challenge to public denials, because the dramatized presentation of the entangled fates of Jewish victims and German perpetrators, as well as bystanders, raised troubling questions about the responsibility of one’s own family members for the genocide. The director Edgar Reitz approached some of the same issues in a twelve-hour television movie that explored the mythical notion of Heimat through a fictional village in the Hunsrück Mountains, aiming to present a mixture of German perpetration and victimhood through everyday characters.

Even if there were persistent efforts to minimize guilt, the “burden of being German” hardly lightened with the passage of time. It was only several decades after the fact that society was capable of confronting the full extent of its guilt. Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker therefore tried to turn “being German” from an “inescapable fate” into “a task” for the future, one that would draw positive European lessons from past excesses of nationalism. When the revisionist historian Ernst Nolte inveighed against the deadening weight of “a past that will not pass,” he unleashed an acrimonious quarrel between academic historians [the Historikerstreit]. Progressive intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas saw this effort at relativizing guilt as undermining the critical self-image of the Federal Republic. Undeterred by such scruples, politicians of the moderate right such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl managed to push through the founding of a national history museum in Berlin and a museum dedicated to the history of the Federal Republic in Bonn, thereby giving the Germans a more affirmative sense of their past. Despite efforts to reject traditional versions of “Germanness” as corrupted by the past, a general sense of mutual belonging nevertheless remained throughout the decades of division.

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