The focus of this conference was the resurgent discourse in Germany surrounding German wartime suffering, notably in relation to the Allied bombings and flight and expulsion from the East. Over three days numerous panels interrogated the construction and representations of German wartime suffering in all areas from visual arts and literature to political and social debates in Germany from 1945 to the present. The conference set out from the premise that this discourse has been present in Germany since 1945 and sought to explore how it was represented, rather than the ethics of such representations.
The conference forms a significant part of the major 3 year AHRC-funded research project “From Perpetrators to Victims? Discourses of ‘German Wartime Suffering’ From 1945 to The Present”, based at the University of Leeds in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University, and was organised by Annette Seidel-Arpaci, the project’s full time post-doctoral research fellow. The project’s principal investigator is Stuart Taberner of Leeds University, and the project brings together scholars from Leeds, Nottingham and Warwick, and has two PhD studentships attached.
Several papers re-read what have now become the central texts of the post-reunification discourse on ‘German victimhood’ offering new perspectives and interpretations. Katharina Hall (Swansea) gave a perhaps more sympathetic reading of Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang (2002) by drawing attention to its intertextuality with the author’s earlier works, arguing that this negates the text’s alleged tendency towards relativisation. Similarly, Rick Crownshaw (Goldmiths) argued for a more nuanced reading of Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (1995) as a text which problematises the moral binaries of perpetrator and victim perhaps more than has been generally accepted. Susanne-Vees Gulani (Case Western Reserve) re-evaluated Dieter Forte’s bombing epic Der Junge mit den blutigen Schuhen (1998) in terms of a ‘working-through’ of the author’s traumatic memories, in which he invokes the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Engel der Geschichte’ in the autobiographical character of ‘der Junge’. Anna Rothe (Wayne State) investigated Erica Fischer’s text Aimée and Jaguar (1994), arguing that there is a struggle over victim status between Lilli Wust and Erica Fischer, and that this is representative of the discursive distinction between witnesses and victims among the second-generation Holocaust ‘survivors’ and the (re)ignited claim to victimhood in recent years. Sonja Wandelt (Illinois) examined the narrative strategies that Uwe Timm’s novella Die Entdeckung der Currywurst (1993) and its graphic book adaptation (2005) employ to portray the Allied bombing of German cities, arguing that they succeed in bypassing ethical taboos in the writing of traumatic history. On a meta-level, Stuart Taberner (Leeds) sought to define the current trends in literary representations of ‘victimhood’ by questioning the limits of empathy- can we go so far as to empathise with perpetrators? Via an analysis of three texts, Walter Kempowski’s Alles umsonst (2006), Günter Grass’s Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (2006) and Stefan Medicus’s In den Augen meines Großvaters (2004), Taberner identified three degrees of empathetic writing. Similarly, Kathrin Schoedel’s (Leeds) insightful paper used two recent literary texts, Bernhard Schlink’s Die Beschneidung (2001) and Maxim Biller’s Harlem Holocaust (1998) as examples of what she argues is a recent tendency towards ‘secondary suffering’, that is, a German self-perception as victims of a burdened identity which is contrasted with the ‘unburdened’ Jewish identity.
The literary debate surrounding the writing of the bombing war is often cited as starting with W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999) and the enduring debate surrounding this text was evident in several papers that reassessed it. Till Geiger (Manchester) took issue with Sebald’s thesis by arguing that the airwar was an unpermissable discourse in postwar West Germany and underlined the importance of the Cold War context when examining Germany’s complex engagement with the Nazi past. In contrast, both Helmut Schmitz (Warwick) and Colette Lawson (Nottingham Trent) explored Sebald’s conception of history, influenced by Adorno and Benjamin, as his motivation for investigating the bombings, agreeing that if read in the context of this motivation the text does not endorse sympathy for German ‘victimhood’. Schmitz went on to explore the concept of mourning in the text, contrasting it to Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand, while Lawson argued that based on this concept of history Sebald sets out an ideal form of literary representation of the bombings, and analysed Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung (1956) as a model of this form.
Similarly, several other papers turned to the literature of the immediate postwar period to trace the roots of the current discourse. Karina Berger (Leeds) argued that, if read sympathetically, some expulsion novels of the 1950s offer a more nuanced version of the recent past than might be expected, for instance by linking Flucht und Vertreibung with German crimes. Stuart Smith (Dublin) gave a close reading of Gerd Gaiser’s Schlußball (1958) drawing attention to its construction of a wartime suffering narrative on a ‘spiritual’ imaginative plane. Frank Finlay (Leeds), among the editors of the nine-year, 27-volume Heinrich Böll project Kölner Ausgabe at Kiepenheuer & Witsch, uncovered an unexpected element of Heinrich Böll which is to be found in his wartime letters, where he refers to himself as a victim of ‘the prison of the uniform’.
Historiography and Memory
Several papers examined how wartime events in Germany have been recorded and instrumentalised in historical work. Bas van Benda-Beckmann (Amsterdam) illuminated aspects of the relationship between the historical interpretation of the bombing war and concepts of German national identity by drawing out the tensions in the GDR between the anti-capitalist manipulation of the memory of Dresden and the attempts of historians like Olaf Groehler to develop an alternative ‘academic’ perspective with which they could engage West German historians. Christian Groh (Stadtarchiv Pforzheim) gave a detailed account of the public memory of bombings in Pforzheim as a case study, highlighting the lack of any ‘taboo’ on the subject. Gilad Margalit (Haifa) opened the conference with a keynote that also sought to give lie to the notion of any ‘taboo’ surrounding discourses of German suffering by tracing the roots of the current narratives to the immediate postwar period and demonstrating that these narratives were consistently present to the present day. Nicholas Steneck (Ohio State) drew our attention to what he argued was a little-known milestone in the FRG’s early history: the population’s rejection of state-prescribed physical protection against the nuclear threat in the form of bunkers, which were an uncomfortable reminder of the Nazi past. Finally, Michael Heinlein (München) reported the findings of his research project which analyses the construction of ‘new generation of eye witnesses’, the Kriegskinder who experienced the war as children and who are increasingly dominating public memory discourse. His work suggests that attempts to found a new narrative of national victimhood are legitimised by recourse to global narrative frameworks of suffering.
Several papers brought attention to less-known constructions of victimhood. In her keynote, Suzanne Brown-Fleming (USHMM, Washington) explored the history of Catholic Bishop Aloysius Münch as a demonstration of the instrumentalisation of the past by the Catholic Church, whilst at the same time dispelling the myth of its distance from Nationalist Socialism. Two papers addressed the manipulation of the memory of female suffering. In her evening keynote, Pascale Bos (Texas Austin) traced the history of feminism’s use of narratives of rape, bombing and rebuilding, while Julia Garraio (Coimbra) analysed rape as a trope in Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s Der Verlorene (1998) as typical of the shame and repression surrounding the subject in West German society of the 1950s.
Despite extensive research into the history of the Soviet internment camps in postwar Germany, less is known about the public discussions of the camps during their use from 1945 to 1950. Andrew Beattie (Sydney/Florence) explored this discourse and investigated the notion of guilt and innocence in public narratives developed to legitimise the camps. Jessica Anderson-Hughes (Rutgers University) drew our attention to the complex subject of concentration camp brothels and forced prostitution, arguing that the women were given a ‘choiceless choice’ and examining the reluctance of history to class them as victims. Jeffrey Luppes (Michigan) gave a temporal and spatial analysis of local monuments to the expulsion, which were common and, though they serve as further evidence that the topos ‘Germans as Victims’ has been ever present since 1945, have been overlooked in the controversy surrounding the proposed ‘Centre against Expulsions’.
Paul Cooke (Leeds) examined Roland Suso Richter’s recent television miniseries Dresden (2006) and explored the way this and other productions have exploited both the recent surge of cultural interest in ‘German wartime suffering’ and the rediscovery of the disaster movie as a genre by Hollywood. Particular interest was placed on the manner in which Dresden uses James Cameron’s 1997 epic disaster film Titanic as an intertext and to what extent this predominantly Hollywood format, and its ideological connotations, could be seen as problematic. Cathy Gelbin (Manchester) looked at the ways in which the particular pornographic troping of the female body and its doubling in the lesbian encounter highlight the problem of Holocaust representation by considering the emerging body of lesbian-feminist visual constructions of the Holocaust, which culminated in the highly succesful 1998 film Aimée and Jaguar. Moritz Schramm (Copenhagen) focused on the recent movie Der Untergang (2004) and its concept of history. Drawing a link to the early 1950s, he argued that the film must be seen as a reactualisation of the specific semantic tradition of the notion of the ‘verführte Volk’, whereby the responsibility for German war crimes is restricted solely to the top of the Nazi regime, relieving the ‘ordinary German’ of responsibility. Julia Anspach (Haifa) made the 1950s her focus by investigating the ‘Opfermythos’ of German expellees in a selection of Heimatfilme by the director Hans Deppe.
Anke Pinkert (Illinois) and keynote speaker Sabine Hake (Texas Austin) both focused on the representation of wartime suffering in antifascist DEFA films. While Hake paid particular attention to the function of suffering as an aesthetic, Pinkert examined the traces of war memories in DEFA films of the 1960s, based on Jürgen Böttcher’s Born in ’45 (1966).
Suffering in Other Media
René Wolf (London) and Brian Hanrahan (Columbia) considered the role of radio in reflecting and shaping German public in the postwar period. Wolf explored how East and West German radio stations attempted to deal with the populist phenomenon of ‘German wartime suffering’ while at the same time serving the Allies’ aim of re-educating the public, while Hanrahan analysed Ernst Schnabel’s 1947 radio feature Ein Tag wie morgen: der 29. Januar 1947, a literary collage based on 35,000 radio listerners’ written accounts of their experiences of that day, examining its liminal position between to separate moments of German suffering: the war itself and the deprivation of the rubble years. Kerstin Mueller (Ohio) investigated the representation of Nazis in three postwar German dramas works – Erwin Sylvanus’s Korczak and the Children (1957), Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965) and Heinar Kipphardt’s Bruder Eichmann (1983) – illustrating how dramatists challenged the perpetrators’ tendency to portray themselves as victims.
Pointing to the crucial role of photographic images in the aftermath of the the Allied bombing war, David Crew (Texas Austin) examined the types of photographs that were available for Germans to use in their postwar ‘memory work’, while Helmut Schmitz argued that Jörg Friedrich’s use of photographs is an attempt at a ‘re-cathexis’ of the event.
Extending the scope of the conference, British-born Anglo-German painters Mik Godley and Henry Tietzsch-Tyler’s exhibition ‘In the Echo of a Shadow’ explored their different responses to trans-generational memory and examined the repercussions of living at a time following immense cultural conflict and mass migration.
Bill Niven (Nottingham Trent) compared memory politics in Germany to other European countries involved in the war, notably Eastern Europe, in order to provocatively argue that perhaps expectations of Germany in this matter are too high – should Germans be given more space to remember their past? In the fifth and final keynote, Krijn Thijs (Leiden) offered the Dutch perspective on discourses of German wartime suffering, which proved less black and white than might be expected and Hideko Mitsui (Leeds) discussed the use of German victim discourse in Japan’s own struggles in coming to terms with the past. Annette Seidel-Arpaci (Leeds) explored the representation of ‘German suffering’ in Israeli cinema, focusing as a case study on the depiction of ‘perpetrator trauma’ and the ‘gendered nation’ in Walk on Water (2004).
The conference was a great success and the project now plans to publish the papers in several, thematically-stranded volumes.
Dr Annette Seidel Arpaci
Department of German, Russian and Slavonic Studies
School of Modern Languages and Cultures
University of Leeds
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