Does Collective Memory Still Influence German Foreign Policy?

By Langenbacher, Eric | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring/Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Does Collective Memory Still Influence German Foreign Policy?


Langenbacher, Eric, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


THE NUMBER OF WAYS that authors have tried to describe the impact of the past on contemporary Germany is astounding: the "unmasterable past," " the past that won't go away," " the burden of the past," and " the German catastrophe," to name a few. The country has established a culture of contrition, shame, or guilt in the land of perpetrators (Tätervolk). Postwar Germany is dominated, haunted, and obsessed by the past; it is "forever in the shadow of Hitler." As Günter Grass memorably put it in Crabwalk: "History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising." Although these proclamations are sometimes hyperbolic, it is true that there are few countries that have tried so hard and for so long to work through their history. There is hardly an institution or policy area that has not somehow been affected by such fraught processes or the more general concerns of collective memory.

Few if any policy areas have been as permeated by the concerns of memory as foreign policy. Most decisions and international relationships after 1949 have been connected to efforts to overcome the past and influenced greatly by dominant collective memories. Often deriving orienting principles or lessons from such memory discourses, policy makers articulated a basic consensus around an ideal vision of the country. Germany would be a humble power that would advocate democracy, free markets, peace, multilateral embeddedness, and commerce; a place from which war and genocide could never again emanate; and a civil and civilian state that would only use soft power. For decades this vision was largely implemented. Nevertheless, in recent years a variety of relationships and policies have deviated from this seemingly entrenched consensus. There is mounting evidence that the constraints of the past-such as self-binding constraints (the willful surrender or pooling of sovereignty)-are being replaced with more normal foreign policy in which actors are no longer shy about asserting interests and exercising power. In light of Germany's rather accommodating policy toward Russia (at least until the 2014 Ukraine crisis), evidence for the declining importance afforded to the transatlantic partnership on both sides of the Atlantic, tensions with close allies over responses to events in the Middle East and North Africa as well as its policies regarding the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone, the question arises: does collective memory still influence German foreign policy today?

This paper addresses this question in three main sections. First, it looks at the influence of collective memory on postwar foreign policy makers. Second, it outlines the evidence for declining impact. Third, it provides several explanations for why it is occurring. Generational turnover, changing demographics, and the very success of the efforts to confront the past are the most likely reasons. Yet as inevitable as these developments are, Germany will continue to be affected by its burdensome history, if only as an influence on its dominant values. In order to provide proper context for this discussion, it is necessary to first review the evolution of memory trends in contemporary Germany.

THE RISE AND INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF HOLOCAUST-CENTERED MEMORY

Although there are always several collective memories circulating and competing for influence at any point in time, from the late 1970s onward German collective memories were focused on Nazism and German crimes, or Holocaust-centered memory. Despite skepticism at the time of unification that a renationalized country would continue to support this "culture of contrition," the series of memory events starting in the mid-1980s continued and even intensified. The list is long and well known, beginning with the Bitburg Affair of 1985 when Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan awkwardly decided to commemorate the end of World War II at a military cemetery containing graves of Waffen-S. …

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