The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Book Reviews

Silence and Repression

A review of Alon Confino’s Germany as a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History

Catherine Chatterley

Concentration camp memorial. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Memory has become a central preoccupation in historical studies over the last twenty years and is arguably the dominant theme in contemporary studies of German history. The systematic murder of European Jewry by Nazi Germany during World War II continues to weigh heavily upon the German past, present, and future. The testimony of Holocaust survivors is believed to have inaugurated this paradigmatic shift toward memory studies in the field of history. As a result, German scholars, Jewish historians, and scholars of the Holocaust alike have been forced to contend with the conceptual problems attending the meaning of memory and the challenges thereby posed for our continued study of the past.

A new collection of essays, Germany as a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History, is Alon Confino’s latest contribution to the field of German history and to the scholarly debate over the roles played by history and memory in the formation of national identity. Professor of Modern German and European History at the University of Virginia, Confino has written extensively on German history, nationhood, and the concept of memory.11xSee Alon Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871–1918 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Alon Confino and Peter Fritzsche, eds., The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002); and Alon Confino, Paul Betts, and Dirk Schumann, eds., Between Mass Death and Individual Loss: The Place of the Dead in Twentieth-Century Germany (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007). This new book, composed of ten separate essays (three previously unpublished, and a fourth available only to readers of German), written between 1993 and 2004, is divided into two main sections. The first is an extended discussion of the Heimat (homeland) idea in German history from national unification (1871) to postwar reunification (1990). The second half of the book is concerned with the various problems associated with the historical conceptualization of memory, especially as practiced by scholars of modern Germany.22xModern Germany includes the following periods: the Kaiserreich (1871–1918), Weimar (1919–33), Nazi Germany (1933–45), and the postwar division of Germany into East and West (1949–90).

The five essays that comprise the first section of the text offer a fascinating exploration of the ways in which Germans have negotiated their national identity through the modern period. In 1871 Otto von Bismarck unified the assortment of regions and states in north-central Europe into a national configuration known as Germany. To this wide regional diversity one must add religious differences (Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish), political divisions, and conflicts related to class. How, then, were the diverse peoples of these regions going to become Germans? The answer Confino provides is the flexible and inclusive Heimat idea, a concept that allowed people to identify with their region, their religion, and the German nation all at once. It is a concept that recalls the idyllic comforts of home, family, tradition, and, as a result, becomes the German repository for “fond memories, sweet dreams, and ideal relationships” (49). Regardless of the changing federal structure in Berlin (and in Bonn from 1949–90), Confino argues, Heimat allowed Germans to preserve their sense of identity by providing a stable site upon which it could rest.

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