Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century

Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century

Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century

Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Over the course of the twentieth century, Germans have venerated and maintained a variety of historical buildings from medieval fortresses and cathedrals to urban districts and nineteenth-century working-class housing. But the practice of historic preservation has sometimes proven controversial, as different groups of Germans have sought to use historical architecture to represent competing versions of their nation's history.

Transient Pasts is the first book to examine the role that the historic preservation movement has played in German cultural history and memory from the end of the nineteenth century to the early 1970s.

Focusing on key public debates over historic preservation, Rudy Koshar charts a trajectory of cultural politics in which historical architecture both facilitated and limited Germans' efforts to identify as a nation. He demonstrates that historical buildings and monuments have served as enduring symbols of national history in a country scarred by the traumas of two world wars, Nazism, the Holocaust, and political division. His findings challenge both the widely accepted argument that Germans have constantly repressed their past and the contention that Germany's intense public engagement with history since reunification is unprecedented.

Excerpt

This is a book about old buildings and memories of national community. Although I did not know it then, the idea for this study began in the 1970s, when I was still researching my doctoral dissertation on Marburg, a small university town in Germany. It was obvious in those years that Marburgers, like their counterparts in similar cities throughout West Germany, were much more concerned about the historical ambience of their community than at any time since the end of World War II. Involved in a research project with a quite different focus, I had little opportunity to pursue this observation then. My interest in how people enhanced the historical qualities of their towns and cities took on more distinct shape only in the early 1980s, when as an assistant professor of history in Los Angeles, I observed what appeared to be a most unlikely movement to preserve historic landmarks, from Craftsman houses to McDonald's hamburger stands, in this, the most unhistorical of U.S. cities. By the middle of the decade I became fascinated with the revival of the concept of Heimat in German culture. Inadequately translated as "home" or "homeland" or even "nation," Heimat had become the leitmotif of so many cultural practices, encompassing cinema and literature as well as architecture and urban planning, that it was necessary to focus not on the phenomenon in its entirety, but on specific strands. The preservation of historical buildings, a movement with modern roots in the nineteenth century that gained impetus from the recent Heimat revival, was a fitting candidate.

I remembered that in the 1970s large parts of the historic core of Marburg had become construction sites as many half-timbered houses and other buildings underwent a costly and time-consuming renovation. I was inter-

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