Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust

By Axelrod, Toby | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust


Axelrod, Toby, Shofar


by Thomas C. Fox. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999. 177 pp. $55.00.

As Germany agonizes over its latest wave of neo-Nazi violence, many fingers have been pointed at former East Germany. In the ten years since reunification, a higher proportion of violent xenophobic attacks have taken place in the former communist zone than in the west. Unanswered questions have resurfaced: Did the totalitarian East German state not only fail to destroy Nazi ideology, but actually ensure its survival? Is there a connection between today's right-wing skinheads and the East German approach to Holocaust education?

In his book, Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust, Thomas C. Fox goes a long way toward answering these questions. The book provides a concise and thorough overview, both in a technical and interpretative sense, of how the Holocaust was seen in divided Germany from 1945 until today. The analysis, which calls upon other recent works such as Jeffrey Herf's 1997 book, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, is both fascinating and depressing.

Fox aims to "show that the East German state, with its highly controlled public sphere, attempted to reorganize, censor, and orchestrate Holocaust discourse in a massive effort to utilize the `Jewish question' for its own political ends...". Ultimately, the author suggests that a "new history" will have to be written by the united Germany, overcoming the "lingering power of East Germany's self-staging as an antifascist state".

This complicated topic is only beginning to be researched, but facets have proved tantalizing to historians, journalists, and social scientists. Much thought has been given to the fact that East Germany's official relationship with Nazi history differed markedly from that in the west. Fox's book is one among several recent works by non-German scholars confronting the topic. Among the others are Herf's book, as well as Tina Rosenberg's 1995 book, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism, and Ian Buruma's thought-provoking 1994 work, Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (Vintage). Of these titles, Fox's is among the most concise and scholarly, while the others have the advantage in style and accessibility to the general reader.

There is a pervasive belief among western historians that East Germany did not exorcise its Nazi ghosts as successfully as did the west. Some in the east have taken issue with such conclusions. But the fact is that East German schoolbooks have been scrapped, teachers have been reeducated, and memorial sites revamped since the reunification in 1990.

In his book, Fox, Associate Professor of German and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Classics at the University of Alabama, examines three main vehicles for transmission of the political message: historiography, concentration camp memorials, and literature and film. The stamp of socialist ideology may be seen in all three realms. Among Fox's conclusions are: that East Germany's "state-organized discourse" used the Holocaust to promote an image of the Socialist straggle against fascism; that the "foundation myth" of anti-fascist straggle enabled some Jewish survivors to remain loyal to the East German state; and that the state used "the language of traditional European anti-Semitism," whether through anti-Zionist propaganda, refusing to recognize the genocide against the Jews and to pay restitution to survivors, or the persecution of Jewish citizens in the 1950s.

Mr. Fox does not excuse West Germany for its whitewashing of Nazi crimes in the first two post-war decades. But he points out that, while the East German system quickly became rigid and fixed, West German society gradually became more flexible and open. "[I]t is possible to argue that, despite denial and ever-present resistance, the West Germans indeed developed an important dialogue on the subject" of the Holocaust, writes Fox.

In the west, guilt may have been minimized or denied in the 50s and 60s, but in the east guilt was shoved westward. …

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