War and Memory in the Twentieth Century

By Martin Evans; Ken Lunn | Go to book overview

15
Memories of the Second World War and National Identity in Germany

Gerd Knischewski and Ulla Spittler

This chapter will focus on the relationship between memories of the Second World War and the creation of a national identity in post-1945 West Germany. It will argue, firstly, that in Germany, commemoration of the Second World War in relation to the construction of a national identity cannot be separated from the debate about National Socialism (NS). Secondly, it will argue that the development in Germany after 1945 of a national identity comparable with that of Great Britain or France was difficult if not impossible. Within the context of the Cold War, however, the political conflict with East Germany (the GDR) became an important part of the West German national identity. Thirdly, it will be argued that the way in which the Second World War is remembered has passed through several phases, in which different political interests have in turn gained the upper hand. Our final conclusion is that official war commemoration in Germany cannot have a unifying character but is always polarizing.


Perspectives on the Second World War

War memory and commemoration are problematic notions in Germany: the Second World War cannot be perceived as an isolated phenomenon. In the German collective memory, it finds an extension on the time-scale in both directions: backwards to the start of the NS regime in 1933 and forwards to the division of Germany during the Cold War.

There are, therefore, essentially two ways in which the Second World War is commemorated. In the first of these, the war is perceived and categorized as part of the NS crimes against humanity. Within such a framework, official commemoration can concentrate on either the victims of persecution (such as the Jews, mentally handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies, 'inferior races' as defined by the Nazis, the political Left, etc.) or on the various opposition groups and forms of resistance. In this perspective, the guilty can clearly be identified, and indirect political

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