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The Morning After

How Germany rebuilt, and reinvented, itself.

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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In the House of the Hangman

The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949

by Jeffrey K. Olick

Chicago, 392 pp., $29

The rather cryptic title of this book is drawn from a Cervantes adage as revised by Theodor Adorno: "In the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose." An idiomatic English version might read: When you walk into the hangman's house, it is tasteless to speak of nooses.

So understood, it makes sense. For this book examines a large and awkward legacy of the Nazi era: what Germans themselves recall of the guilt ascribed to them by their World War II conquerors, and how they reacted to it. The ins and outs of that memory are, to use one of the author's favorite terms, "dialogical": One school of memory often reacts with another so that the "memory of memory" is unstable. A truism, possibly, although as our own Civil War shows, "cultural memory" following any searing conflict is a topic of unquestioned importance and power.

Perhaps, as the adage suggests, there was something a bit tasteless in demanding of the battered Germans of 1945 how they felt as citizens of a miscreant state, ruled for 12 years by a gangster regime that had started a ruinous world war and, as a matter of policy, set out to extirpate the European Jews. Any but sociopathic Germans must have felt bad about it, whether they admitted it to themselves or to their interrogators, and whether they had time or energy to pause for reflection from the struggle for mere survival in the ruins. They seem never to have been as explicit in admitting it as their conquerors might have wished. Many resented their judges and preferred self-generated rituals of penitence.

Olick borrows Ruth Benedict's distinction, in The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, between guilt (internal, individual, and conscience-generated) and shame (a response to what others might say or think about one's behavior). The former, she thought, was applicable to German culture, as to Western habits of mind generally, although the extent and nature of that guilt were debatable.

Were all Germans in some sense answerable for tolerating or submitting to Hitler and his crimes? Should guilt be limited to the 22 Nazi ringleaders tried at Nuremberg and the thousands of minor officials who did their bidding? Or was the lapse ascribable to the lurking demon in every human being, sometimes known as original sin? Many Germans preferred to view the Nazis and their works as apostate departures from the historic Germany of learning and art. A few others, notably Thomas Mann, one of the "external exiles" who spent the war years in this country and became an American citizen, admitted to some psychological kinship between themselves and Hitler. ("This man is my brother," was the title of a noted article by Mann in Esquire, though perhaps written before the depth of Hitler's monstrous works were known.)

These are all fascinating issues, as are the questions of what memory traces remain. But Olick, a specialist in the field of cultural memory who teaches sociology at the University of Virginia, would seem to have written here a rather different book from the one he says he set out to write. That is, In the House of the Hangman is actually a bit thin on the empirical data that would document popular or public memory. It focuses, rather, on what German elites--writers, politicians, clergy, historians, and others--thought, said, and wrote about the Nazi past and how it should be understood and atoned.

Implicit in the story Olick tells here is something remarkable, about which he offers no comment: The mantras of "re-education" and "denazification," high-minded and perhaps historically innocent, sound oddly like later practices that found echoes in the re-education and brainwashing enterprises of Chinese and Russian totalitarianism--even as the extension of the eastern boundaries of Poland into Silesia and East Prussia agreed to at Potsdam, leaving millions of ethnic Germans "displaced" and subject to mass transfer, might be thought to bear disconcerting resemblance to the "ethnic cleansing" that became a feature of the more recent Balkan civil wars. Not that any such parallel was intended; the precedents, if such they were, merely testify to the variety and relativity of geopolitical ambitions and ethics.