90 years after Hitler’s ascension to power, philosopher Julia Christ takes stock of German memory. Alongside the undeniable work of reparation and repentance that has been carried out in Germany, she points out the blind spots, loopholes and memory impasses that distort the way in which the Nazi past is viewed, and the gradual erosion of the sense of guilt that ensues. Interview conducted by Rafaël Amselem in partnership with Akadem.
The event went almost unnoticed in France, but it sent a deep summer chill throughout Germany: for the first time in its history, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) party won a town council, just one week after winning its first district. Although this is a modest town (population 9,000) and the victory was narrow (51% of the voters), it carries a colossal symbolic weight. The AFD, like the Rassemblement National in France, knows how to play down its xenophobic programme by giving it a polished appearance. The essence of its ideology is based on a clear nationalist principle: it is about regaining pride in being German.
It’s a well-known fact that, after the apparent denazification of the immediate post-war period, the remembrance work undertaken, first in the FRG and then in reunified Germany, has been exemplary and sincere. In the image of the Stolpersteine paving the streets of every German village, or of Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the monument to the martyrs of the Warsaw ghetto, the memory of the war and the awareness of the immensity of the crime that was committed have become an integral part of German identity. But the desire to turn the page on the Second World War, and to stop being burdened by guilt, is becoming increasingly evident.
The victory of the AFD – and the 15-20% of voting intentions that the most recent national polls give it – is in this sense emblematic of what Julia Christ calls a memory black hole. While hardly anyone in Germany regrets or denies the crimes of Nazism, the tricks of memory are complex and devious. Julia Christ tells us how, in an unexpected reversal of the past, a growing number of Germans are rewriting their own family history: at the time of the Nazis, their ancestors were not Nazis. Many are even convinced that their grandparents or great-grandparents were opponents or even resisters of Hitlerism. So many involuntary (unconscious?) affabulations stand in total contradiction to historical reality, from the crowds cheering the Führer to the infinitesimal number of active acts of resistance in Nazi Germany. What is the source of this cognitive distortion?
In addition to the natural erosion caused by the passage of time, Julia Christ highlights another aspect: following the example of what Yishaï Sarid imagined in one of his novels, memory can itself become a monster. Reduced to the status of a national institution, memory may become a fossil. A fossil which has its place in a museum, in a research institute, but does not nourish a soul, a national destiny.
In a previous piece for K., Julia Christ analysed the national imbroglio caused by Documenta fifteen. A painting featuring caricatures of Jews depicted as Nazi pigs had been exhibited, seemingly out of the blue, in this mecca of contemporary art – before the organisers’ belated backtracking further accentuated the unease aroused by a generation of third-generation Germans who felt they had “paid their debt”.Getting away from “repentance”: this is a familiar tune playing across Europe today, but in Germany it takes on a particular significance. What Julia Christ describes as “collective schizophrenia” perhaps finds its ultimate expression in the debate that divides German historians and politicians over the “Jewish sow of Wittenberg”. The church in Martin Luther’s hometown, the birthplace of Protestantism, still bears a scatological antisemitic bas-relief of rabbis licking and suckling a sow. Should it be removed? That would be tantamount to erasing a testimony to the past. Should it remain? That would be tantamount to brandishing the validity of the insult. Such are the aporias of remembering a fault “too heavy to bear”.