Reconstructing the Past and Attributing the Responsibility for the Holocaust

By Dresler-Hawke, Emma | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, February 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing the Past and Attributing the Responsibility for the Holocaust


Dresler-Hawke, Emma, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


Since the beginning of the new Federal Republic of Germany, foreigners have evaluated much of the political and social cultures of Germany in accordance with their interpretations of the Nazi past. The former German Democratic Republic's identification with the antifascist resistance against the Nazi regime permitted much of the social and political responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich to be avoided. This official position played an important role in shaping the perception of the Nazi past. Survey data gathered in the former East Germany in 1995 and 2000 reveal a complex pattern of acceptance and denial of this historical past. There was a significant shift in the attribution of responsibility for the Holocaust, but no change in the perceptions of grandparents' involvement in it. Results are interpreted with reference to social identity theory, which provides a framework for the understanding of national identity, collective self-esteem and collective memory.

As an occupied nation, partitioned between two power blocs, Germany was positioned by the Allies not only physically, but also morally, in terms of a narrative about history (Kocka, 1993; Mommsen, 1993; Schulze, 1993). The former German Democratic Republic's (GDR) identification with the antifascist resistance against the Nazi regime permitted much of the social and political responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich to be avoided. This still has important implications for the attribution of responsibility for the Holocaust and the continuing debates on the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) and the issue of Wiedergutmachung (reparations) in unified Germany. Hence, narratives of the past offer a unique opportunity not only to better understand a particular people, but also to extend the research on social identity theory more generally.

COLLECTIVE PAST, COLLECTIVE MEMORY, AND COLLECTIVE IDENTITY

Every nation has a collective past, collective memory and collective recollection process, which give legitimacy to its history (Enriquez, 1983). The collective past is created through the people's social interactions. Collective memory describes the recounting of shared experiences in remembering, forgetting, or reappropriating the knowledge of the social past. It is the people's jointly acknowledged cultural and generational identity, together with their shared ideology, which affect how the nation is collectively commemorated and remembered through a particular historical event. The shared memory is preserved, collectively recollected and passed on to form the cultural past and serve as the structural basis of belonging and connection among members of a nation (Boesch, 1991).

Tajfel and Turner's (1979) social identity theory offers a framework for the analysis of collective memory. Being a member of a social group involves the sharing of common traditions, historical experiences and social representations. Collective memory provides a context for individual and social identity (Pennebaker & Banasik, 1997). Different social groups have different relationships to a particular historical past. They also generate different memories, which shape their ideology and political actions to contribute positively to personal and social identity, and thus serve to maintain or enhance self-esteem (Gaskell & Wright, 1997).

In their collective memory, people have the capacity to forget, to reconstruct, to reelaborate, and reinvent themselves (Guerra, 1992). The actual events may not always allow for the construction of a positive image, thus it is necessary to revise the meaning of events. Baumeister and Hastings (1997) suggest that group memories are systematically distorted using strategies such as selective omission, fabrication, exaggeration and embellishment, manipulated associations, blaming the circumstances and so on, to maintain a positive image and the self-esteem of the group. This leads to a new past, creating a new historical understanding, a new present, and a new expectation for the future.

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