Volkstrauertag 2007

February 11, 2008

Back in November 2007, after watching a documentary on Stalingrad and the official address of the Bundespräsident on the Volkstrauertag (the German Memorial Day), I toured various places in Tübingen which commemorate the dead of war and persecution.

Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 Tübingen Stadtfriedhof

The first memorial remembers those soldiers who died in Tübingen during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, a war mostly forgotten these days despite its importance in leading to World War I. As you can see, a wreath (by the University of Tübingen) has been put down in front of it. Its location is the Stadtfriedhof (city cemetery) in Tübingen, near a lot of university and clinic buildings, and the gravesite for various “celebrities” including the poet Hölderlin (who spent his last 40 years in mental derangement Read the rest of this entry »

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Historical Faux-Pas, or: Better Read Your Books

February 11, 2008

For the second time around, some idealist students from the University of Tübingen are trying to convince people to boycott tuition fees (which have been introduced last year.) Maybe they should study a bit more and think a little before putting up a banner like the long one at the right:

Studiengebührenprotest 2006

(read: “The Bomb is Ticking – Tuition Fees – Students! Defend Yourselves!”)

The “sic!” about this is that it resembles this:

Judenboykott Deutsche! Wehrt euch!

(read: “Germans! Defend Yourselves! Don’t Buy Jewish Goods!”- the date is April 1, 1933, the event is the “Judenboykott” which was basically the [lawful] beginning of open hostility toward Jews by the recently inaugurated Nazi party.)

What makes it even more ridiculous is the fact that the tuition boycott banner was posted on the History Department building until last week (in the picture above it is posted on castle Hohentübingen, summer 2006) . . .

Ouch.

{x: x is a year between 1933 and 1945}

January 3, 2008
Not a single day passes without the above formula put into use on German TV. It summons topics ranging from the history of the Stuka (dive bomber) to the United State’s naval war in the Pacific to the eye witness who claims that he had never seen sperm stains on Hitler’s sheets at his Obersalzberg domicil. And these are just the documentaries: the evening news either present that the “conscience of the nation”, author and poet Günther Grass, who had always damning Germany and her bad traits, was a member of the Waffen-SS, or that the memorial day of the liberation of Auschwitz has once again taken place- which is forgotten the next second when “sectarian violence” has again claimed dozens of victims in the Fertile Crescent and other modern day holocausts.

Germans have quite a split personality when it comes to World War II. On the one hand, many people are fed up with hearing about a “shared guilt”- on the other hand, the Second World War is a perfect seller not only (but most present) on TV. Recently, some historians have put the German “victims” on the map (and pages and screens), whether it be those of Allied bombings or of post-war forced westward immigration. While Rommel, with his quasi superstar status already in his lifetime, had been rehabilitated quite early in the 1950s and then deconstructed in more recent years, the military resistance against Hitler, embodied in the group of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Henning von Tresckow, had to go over a rocky path (and be reenacted in movies and documentaries) into the collective memory. While the resistance has been mostly present in the media through the annual vow of recruits of the Bundeswehr (which has adopted Stauffenberg and his comrades as part of its ethical foundation) and the accompanying protests against it, the forthcoming Hollywood movie Valkyrie might bring this topic to a broader audience and media attention not only in Germany, but worldwide.

Probably the most common ingredient of World War II TV documentaries is the eyewitness (who has once been jokingly described as “the arch-enemy of the historian” by one of my history professors). Members of almost every group from that time have told there stories sitting in front of a black curtain and/or have been followed to battlefields, concentration camps, and the lost “Heimat”, mixed with dramatic reconstructions and an even more dramatic musical score. Former members of the opposing forces meet in peace for the first time on one of the D-Day beaches, while on the next channel Hitler’s former bodyguard shows you where the Führer’s bunker once stood. Meanwhile most of those who do not make it on the screen are getting less and less, and with them memories are lost who are priceless for history and remembrance. Carefull search and unexpected discoveries can lead to old photographs and documents, while pictures of lost family members can be found in some German living rooms. But active Vergangenheitsbewältigung of ones own ancestors remains, in relation to the majority of the population, marginal. Nonetheless, projects like http://zugdererinnerung.de/ try to confront and invite people to open their eyes and minds.

The question is how the historiography and public memory of the Second World War will develop in the coming years. The perspective in history has shifted from the topward down position of the leaders to those who received orders, who were victims- short, the mostly nameless mass of those who had to endure the war and its consequences the most. Although each topic has been discussed over and over, recently discovered primary allow new perspectives and points of view. One thing is certain: films and pictures like those of bulldozers pushing the emaciated and dehumanized dead KZ inmates into chalked mass gaves will remain in the global collective memory and continue the unfinished debate on the why in Germany and abroad.