In his brilliant panorama of German cultural and intellectual history, Peter Watson draws attention to a dimension of the Holocaust tragedy which is seldom acknowledged. The Holocaust, suggests Watson, ‘operates as an obstacle, a stumbling block, a reflecting mirror, that hinders us from looking back beyond that time, which has closed minds to the Germany that preceded Hitler.’ (1) For Watson, the Holocaust has come to define German historical consciousness to the point that ordinary Germans cannot conceive of their own history without it being tainted by the telos of the Holocaust’s shadow. This is perhaps inevitable but is nevertheless a tragic reminder of yet another dimension of Hitler’s legacy of destruction.
The reality of the Holocaust as the standard typology for the interpretation of German history was made evident to me on a recent trip to a favourite bookshop of mine. I was searching for a history of modern Germany prior to the Third Reich-era. Being strongly influenced by the German philosophical and theological tradition, I wanted to increase my knowledge of the movement of German history and its corresponding political developments. Despite the richness of German genius and drama, I could not find one volume which dealt with anything other than the Third Reich. Each shelf of books flaunted the Nazi era from its own unique angle: Hitler’s secret train, the Nazi’s lost art, Goering’s drug addiction, Hitler’s alleged escape to Argentina– on and on it went ad nauseum. It would seem from all this that the Nazis have a monopoly on German history, and with each passing year a new plethora of studies emerge which dissect the intricacies of Hitlerian rule. The cumulative impact of this is to give the impression that- whatever else might have occurred in Germany’s long history- it is inconsequential when compared with the evils of 1939-45. It can therefore so easily seem that the richness of German cultural and scientific achievement has been irredeemably tainted by the sinister shadow of the Holocaust.
Yet Watson also argues that there is a solution to this unfavourable state of affairs. In response to the tyranny of the German Holocaust- manifesting as this does in the form of intergenerational guilt- Watson acknowledges the obligation to remember history but simultaneously advocates for right to forget it. Watson draws on the work of Jewish Israeli philosopher Yehuda Elkana, whose article ‘The Need to Forget’ mourns the status of the Jews as eternal victims in the wake of the Holocaust. For Elkana, this victimhood status results in the ‘tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler.’ (2) Such a stance toward historical memory is adopted in the theological sphere by Miroslav Volf, who states his position succinctly when he writes that ‘to remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.’ (3)
I can empathise with both Watson and Elkana’s position and find much to commend in the notion of historical forgetfulness. However, I also propose that a better interpretive approach (at least when it comes to analysing the significance of tragic events) is to endeavour to remember rightly. It seems to me far better for interpreters of history to enlarge their contextual perspective enough so that it engages with a broad, panoramic view of history in order to establish the normalcy oruniqueness of events. Remembering the broader sweep of history (in this case, modern German history) is useful not only for tracing the influence of the past on present day events, but also for grasping how certain contexts were unique and in no way reflective of the cultural norms which went before it. In the case of Germany, Watson’s main point- and this is something which needs to be heard a lot more than it presently is- is that the Holocaust was an aberration in German history, not an inevitable culmination of the process of historical unfolding. But this position can only be supported when looking in a broader sense to the past. In so doing, interpreters can begin to appreciate the stunning intellectual and cultural legacy Germany has bestowed upon the world. Germany is not defined by the Holocaust, nor are all ordinary Germans synonymous with Nazism. Only when German history is freed from the tyrannical grip of past guilt can its own liberty be realised.
- Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 6.
- Yehuda Elkana, “The Need to Forget,” Haaretz, March 2, 1998, http://web.ceu.hu/yehuda_the_need_to_forget.pdf
- Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 11.