Prisoners of War, Prisoners of Peace: Captivity, Homecoming, and Memory in World War II

By Bob Moore; Barbara Hately-Broad | Go to book overview

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Languages of Memory: German Prisoners
of War and their Violent Pasts in Post-war
West Germany, 1945–56

Svenja Goltermann

In Irgendwo in Berlin (Somewhere in Berlin) - an early post-war German film by Gerhard Lamprecht, from 1946 - Private Steidel, who has returned from war, is lying on a sofa fast asleep. Suddenly he stirs. Scenes from the past war mingle with his dreams, he jumps and wakes. He gets up, buttons up his uniform right to the collar and dons his steel helmet, which was waiting on a table in front of him. He steps up to the open balcony door, stands to attention and offers the military salute. There he stands, motionless, his eyes gazing out, silent and unassailable, a frequent occurrence since he returned from the war. But he had not yet really come home.1

It is well known that the problems caused by persistent and nagging war memories in the lives of returning soldiers figure prominently in early post-war German films. In literature as well as in film this problem was constantly addressed and welded into the more general argument about personal guilt and responsibility. Yet only a few years on, the culture of memory had changed course. In a number of popular films, soldiers were portrayed primarily as heroes who put their lives on the line for their country in spite of their often ruthless and stupidly Nazified officers.2 And in the public proclamations of the returnee organizations, soldiers were seen only as victims and prisoners at the mercy of Soviet dictatorship.3 This was in tune with a huge number of personal narratives of endless suffering at the hands of the Russians in the camps that were told and retold in the media.4 The whole theatre of war and Nazi atrocities had shrunk to a highly selective scenario of fighting without any German perpetrators. This also meant that any personal experience of 'breakdown' or biographical rupture caused by a humiliating confrontation with German atrocities was fading out of public memory in the 1950s. In West Germany, the public knowledge of genocidal war seemed to have all but evaporated.

It was Hannah Arendt who remarked in 1950 that this development was already in full swing. In her 'Report from Germany', which she wrote after seeing for

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