December 5, 1997, Forward

How the Two Germanys Divided History

Looking at the use and abuse of history on both sides of the Wall

Review of Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys
By Jeffrey Herf
Harvard University Press, 527 pages, $29.95

Speaking of German reluctance to discuss the Nazi past in 1959, sociologist Theodor Adorno trenchantly observed, “In the house of the hangman, one ought not to talk about the rope.” To be sure, it took years for the Federal Republic that succeeded the Third Reich firmly to accord a central place to the Holocaust in its national self-understanding. At the same time, the East German leadership that traded the fascist yoke for a communist one preferred to sidestep the issue of Jewish suffering until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

This striking division of attitudes toward the Nazi past along the fault line of the Cold War, and how history was manipulated by the protagonists in the East-West conflict is the subject of Jeffrey Herf’s ground-breaking new book. Basing his work on documents that became accessible only with the opening up of Communist Party and secret police archives in the early 1990s, Mr. Herf spotlights the role that history’s official interpretation played in building democracy and dictatorship. He concludes that a zero-sum game was frequently at play whereby recognition of one type of suffering demanded nonrecognition of the travails of others. West German criticism of the communist dictatorship in the East obscured memories of the Nazi era. On the eastern side of the split, German nation, kindling the memory of communist resistance fighters allowed no room for remembering the fascist persecution of the Jews.

Mr. Herf chronicles the struggle of a few politically courageous, albeit naïve, communists who believed that in World War II’s immediate aftermath, Marxist ideology might ease its marginalization of Jewish concerns to allow the legacy of Jewish suffering a central place in national discourse. Yet, after repudiating these communists’ efforts, East Germany went on to assist Israel’s armed enemies and was the sole East Bloc nation still to withhold recognition of the Jewish state by the time of communism’s collapse. West Germany, by contrast, signed a reparations agreement in 1952 with Israel and agreed to indemnify Diaspora survivors — World Jewish Congress leader Nahum Goldmann called this “one of the few great victories for moral principles in modern times.” The communists rejected such payments, blasting them for serving the interests of “Jewish monopoly capitalists.”

“Divided Memory” unveils important chapters in 20th century German-Jewish history, like the downfall of Politburo member Paul Merker. Soon after war’s end, Merker urged the East German regime to give restitution to Jewish survivors and argued that Jewish memory should be on a par with that of the communist resistance to Nazism. For this heresy, he was secretly tried and convicted by East Germany’s Supreme Court in 1955. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of a Zionist organization?” Merker was asked in Berlin’s counterpart to the purges of Jews and so-called cosmopolitans that culminated in anti-Semitic show trials around Eastern Europe, notably that of Rudolf Slansky in Prague.

After the proceedings against Merker, a non-Jew, some Jewish communists managed to survive and retain power, but only by assimilating to a degree that Mr. Herf maintains makes oft-criticized, prewar German Jews look like ethnic particularists. Alexander Abusch, for example, became East German Minister of Culture while virtually biting his tongue about the Holocaust and acceding to Soviet bloc attacks on Israel.

On the West German side, Mr. Herf lauds the efforts to compensate Jewish suffering by political figures from the democratic Left like Kurt Schumacher, Ernst Reuter and Carlo Schmid, without whom the Christian Democratic leadership under Konrad Adenauer would have been far less likely to push for restitution, reparations and the placement of Holocaust memory at the center of German democratic political culture. Adenauer has justly received credit for the accords with Israel. But the book vividly recalls that West Germany’s founding chancellor was at times given to circumlocutions about the past and a tentative approach to the pursuit of justice for fear of antagonizing the electorate.

Both Adenauer and East German communist leader Walter Ulbricht were acutely aware of the popularity Nazis had enjoyed among the Germans. Ulbricht thought his countrymen would be best controlled by the imposition of another dictatorship, while Adenauer inclined toward amnesia to avoid provoking resentment among nationalist voters. As a result of Adenauer’s pragmatic approach to the tensions between democratizing postwar Germany and the pursuit of justice, many thousands who should have been tried for murder were never even indicted. Pension rights were restored to former Wehrmacht officers and ex-Nazis were reintegrated into the postwar elites. (Only last month did the German parliament close a loophole under which Nazi war criminals had been able to draw pension benefits for wartime injuries.) Adenauer even appointed a former Nazi official, Hans Globke, as his chief of staff and retained his services despite strong protests about Globke’s compromised past.

“Divided Memory” admirably subjects both East and West to equal scrutiny, noting that while there were many more former Nazi officials in the Federal Republic than in the communist German Democratic Republic, “the image of a pristine antifascist government cleansed of all ex-Nazis was more antifascist mythology than East German reality.” Mr. Herf weighs Adenauer’s reluctance to aggressively pursue Nazi war criminals—in 1946 he complained that the Nuremberg trials had “lasted much too long”—against his readiness to offer restitution and reparations. The payments totaled over $55 billion as of 1997, and are likely to go well beyond that by the year 2030, when, according to the German Finance Ministry’s calculations, the last survivor will have died.

In contrast to Adenauer, West Germany’s first president, Theodor Heuss, defined the heads of state’s office as a repository of memory and a pulpit from which to advocate the idea of collective responsibility. Nonetheless, Mr. Herf finds that Heuss, too, failed to press strongly for trials of war criminals, and most of his presidential successors were even less forthright in this regard. Later chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt gave greater prominence to the Holocaust, and President Richard von Weizsücker directly challenged those who would prefer to forget, urging his countrymen to “look truth straight in the eye — without embellishment or distortion.” Despite his egregious misstep in pressuring Ronald Reagan to join him at SS graves in Bitburg in 1985, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has proven a degree of commitment to Holocaust memory.

Mr. Herf’s history is invaluable to those who ponder how a united Germany might be expected to handle its burdensome legacy in the future. Using the German example to show that coming to terms with the past is a key element of liberal democracy, “Divided Memory” underscores a message relevant to societies around the world currently undergoing difficult political transitions.