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

By Simpson, Patricia Anne | German Quarterly, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Simpson, Patricia Anne, German Quarterly


Koshar, Rudy. Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P 1998. 422 pp. $24.95 paperback.

In this study, Koshar constructs a compelling narrative that begins in the late nineteenth century and extends to roughly the mid-1970s about the idioms of historical preservation in Germany and their relationship to the dominant discourse of the nation. Departing from an interest in buildings, vernacular architecture, and "documents of stone," Koshar's account of the "pasts" encompasses the motivations and ideologies of historical preservationists and the way these align with a sense of national community His study exceeds the limits of available scholarship on "intentional monuments" (Riegl) to include the unintentional or vernacular in response to the question of how structures or sites become invested with historical meaning and therefore become worthy of protection. Koshar's discussion of the institutions, preservationists, policies, public desires, and debates about preservation illuminates the relationship between the built environment, German memory, and its fraught history, for the present and future are contingent upon both the figurative and literal manipulation of the past as building and as narrative.

While informed by interdisciplinary debates about culture, the author's study is driven more by the practical considerations determined by his subject: material history, the built environment, and the management of the narratives these generate. Koshar provides one detailed empirical example of the way in which a sense of German nationhood has persisted but changed over time through the continued interactions between history, as represented here in officially prescribed and "scientifically" legitimated practices of historic preservation, and national memory, as represented in both the preservationists' and the public's embrace of historical buildings. (7)

The sustained narrative of this example draws from sources that bear witness to the intersection of history and the everyday. The discourse about national continuity is evidenced in the specific: the fate of church bells, postcards, images reproduced on butter wrappers, postage stamps, etc. What remains clear is that discourses of the regional, the municipal, and the individual (as burgerlich and masculine) are subsumed into the unstable story of nation and national continuity.

Chapter one, "Documents of Stone," begins with the emergence of historic preservation as "a significant public activity" (17) between the end of the nineteenth century and World War I. Examining the tensions between hope and memory in "modernity," Koshar charts the role the Burgertum played in the national memory-work. The key players are concerned with the "optic identity for the nation" (29); organizations formed around Heimatschutz and Denkmalpflege. Speeches and conferences from representatives of such groups constitute a substantial part of the research for this study. In this chapter, Koshar addresses issues of urbanism and ruralism, aesthetics and utility, and gender and class differences during the Kaiserreich.

Next, "City of the Unborn" examines the ef fects of World War I on preservation policy and demonstrates the persistent desire for continuity with the past. Preservationists negotiated the tensions of the Weimar Republic, the "modernist crucible," from which the third chapter draws its title: "Whether they regarded the German nation from the heights of the weathered, decaying Cologne cathedral and the mystic, legend-enshrouded Wartburg or viewed it from the streets of homely towns like Markt Rohr, the preservationists feared stepping into the cacophony of mass-based cultural politics in the modernist key" (148-49).

"Where German Hearts Are Molded," with its focus on the Nazi period, constitutes the fourth chapter and the heart of the book. The facts and legacy of the Third Reich have centered discussions about German collective memory, repression, and historical erasure. …

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