Michael Klundt. Heldenmythos und Opfertaumel: Der Zweite Weltkrieg und seine Folgen im deutschen Geschichtsdiskurs. Köln: PapyRossa Verlag, 2004. 191 S. EUR 13.50 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89438-288-9.
Reviewed by Matthew Stibbe (Department of History, Sheffield Hallam University)
Published on H-German (November, 2005)
The sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the gradual aging of the last participants in that conflict have inevitably given rise to an increased output of historical and commemorative studies. In Germany in particular this process has been accompanied by new debates over whether "ordinary Germans" should be seen as victims of the war rather than as perpetrators of war crimes. Recent books such as Günter Grass's Crabwalk, Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, and Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand have attracted a great deal of media interest, and have prompted considerable debate within the international academic community as well. In the process, a number of old taboos seem to have been broken, including criticism of the Allies' bombing campaign in the final months of the war, and discussion of the plight of German expellees from the East in the years 1944-1947.
Heldenmythos und Opfertaumel, a collection of essays by left-wing writers and scholars, sets itself firmly against this new trend and offers instead a radical critique of the representation of the Second World War in contemporary German culture. Unfortunately, though, several of the contributors are guilty of the same tendencies that they oppose in others, namely the substitution of personal perspectives and emotion-laden styles of argumentation for sober and balanced forms of analysis. This necessarily undermines the impact of the volume as a whole.
This can be seen in particular in the essays written by Michael Klundt (the editor) and Kurt Pätzold (a respected East German historian). In the view of both of these authors, the recent discussion of the Allied bombing campaign over Germany between 1940 and 1945 offers no fresh insights into the historical causes of the war, but simply provides a new ideological justification for the "militarization" of German foreign policy since the late 1990s. If Germans were "victims" too, so the argument goes, then they have a moral right or even duty to intervene to save others around the world from the terrible consequences of civil war, dictatorship and "ethnic cleansing." According to Pätzold "Was sich an den Zeiten wirklich geändert hat, war der Schritt ins größere Deutschland und die Neuverwendung seiner Streitkräfte. Der Wandel hieß Jugoslawien und heißt Afghanistan und Irak" (p. 28). Klundt puts this even more bluntly: "Sichtbar wird ... bereits, dass die Debatten bis zum Ende der 90er Jahre (Holocaust-Denkmal, Goldhagen, Wehrmacht etc.) eher von deutschen Tätern und Mitläufern handelten, während die neuerlichen Kontroversen (Bombenkrieg, Vertreibung, Stalingrad, deutsche Kriegsgefangene) stärker den Charakter der kollektiven deutschen Opfergemeinschaft hervorheben ... Dazwischen liegt ein völkerrechts- und grundgesetzwidriger Angriffskrieg gegen Jugoslawien (1999)" (p. 8).
The problem here is that the authors offer absolutely no hard evidence to support their claims. The fact that Konrad Adenauer was declared to be the "best German of all time" ("Unsere Besten") in a poll conducted by the German television network ZDF in November, 2003, can hardly be taken as concrete proof of a sudden return to the conservative views of the 1950s, let alone of a desire for the emergence of a new "Greater Germany" in the twenty-first century. Economic problems at home have not led and will not lead to an increased aggressiveness in German foreign policy, particularly as Germany is now fully integrated into the structures of NATO and the EU. The authors also completely overlook the impact of the Brandt-Schmidt era (1969-1982) on (West) German historical consciousness, and of the Second World War itself in turning Germany into a predominantly pacifist nation. After all, Germany did not take part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, in spite of considerable pressure to do so.
Conversely, the authors say little about the "militarization" of East German political culture under Ulbricht and Honecker and the development of an SED-sponsored Opferdiskurs which continues to have underlying echoes in today's discussions. As Josie McLellan has shown, from the 1950s onwards "ordinary East Germans were relieved of their responsibility for Nazi war crimes" through the historical myth of a "communist-led anti-fascist German nation," which was also used to justify rearmament and the creation of a National People's Army against the supposed threat from "fascist" West Germany. Admittedly Pätzold does touch on this subject, but only very briefly and without linking GDR criticisms of Anglo-American imperialism and Kriegsbarbarei to East Germany's own reluctance to engage in an open confrontation with the Nazi past. Instead, his main target seems to be Jörg Friedrich and liberal newspapers like Die Zeit, and while I agree with many of the points he makes, they are hardly convincing as a general indictment of German politics and historical discourse today. The same must be said of the contributions from Klundt and from Gerhard Zwerenz on the recent discussion around Wehrmacht deserters.
Some of the essays, it is true, develop a more critical distance from current polemics over German foreign policy and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Erich Später, for instance, discusses the historical background to the expulsion of some 2.5 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia in the late 1940s, which he puts down to the role played by the Sudeten Germans in the destruction of the first republic in 1938/9 and in the mass murder of their fellow citizens (including 260,000 Czechoslovak Jews) between 1939 and 1945. The astonishing speed with which Jewish property was "aryanized" in the aftermath of the annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 is a case in point, paving the way for the near complete annihilation of the Jewish community a few years later. As Später shows, the participants in and beneficiaries of this process included significant numbers of local Germans who were supporters of Konrad Henlein's pro-Nazi Sudetendeutsche Partei. Some of them went on to play leading roles in West German political life after 1945, especially in organizations representing the expellees and their descendants.
Gerd Wiegel offers a critical look at the work of the television documentary maker Guido Knopp, who has gained consistently high audience ratings for his remarkable run of films on the German experience of the Second World War (as well as successfully sponsoring Adenauer as the "best German" in the ZDF poll). In Wiegel's view the main problem with Knopp is not that he has sought to popularize history as a form of prime time family entertainment, but rather the manner in which he deals with historical explanation and causation. Taking the 2001 series and accompanying book Die große Flucht as an example, he shows how a presentation of history that relies on individual tales of suffering without considering the broader context can lead, perhaps unintentionally, to a "Dämonisierung Hitlers" and the "implizite Freispruch der Bevölkerung durch die Delegierung der Schuld auf die enge Führungsspitze" (p. 85). "Hitler's war," for instance, is juxtaposed against "Germany's pain" after 1945, brought to life by pitiful images of defenseless German civilians in flight. As a result, the viewers--mostly older Germans--are offered only a limited framework within which to consider their own responsibility for Nazi war crimes and for the fate which befell their communities in the East after 1944/5.
Similar themes arise in Bernd Kleinhans's contribution on the portrayal of the Second World War era in (West) German cinema since 1945. The "triumph of entertainment," which began under Goebbels and survived, in only slightly altered form, into the Adenauer era and beyond, has led, he believes, to the reproduction of a familiar narrative (familiar, that is, to successive generations of Nazi and West German cinema audiences) in which the human consequences of the war (adventure, comradeship, sacrifice, betrayal, despair and ultimately defeat) are separated from its structural causes (fascism and German imperialist aggression). The result is a constant, if latent, reinforcement of the authoritarian agenda of the 1930s, shorn of its more blatant ideological and racial messages. Sadly, those films which have sought to break entirely from the "entertainment" paradigm, such as Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946) and Volker Schlöndorff's Die Blechtrommel (1978), based on the Günter Grass novel of the same name, have not been able to match the box office success of their mainstream rivals (although they are occasionally still shown in art house cinemas in the UK and perhaps elsewhere).
Finally, Silke Schneider offers a competent and clear summary of recent debates on the status of women as victims or perpetrators in the Third Reich, covering both academic and more popular forms of writing (and filmmaking). However, like Später and Wiegel she offers no evidence, direct or indirect, to support the Klundt-Pätzold hypothesis of a link between changing perceptions of the Second World War in German culture and new foreign policy objectives since the late 1990s. Indeed, as she convincingly argues, while women's autobiographical accounts of everyday life in the Third Reich are increasingly popular, there are numerous examples of this genre today which do not fit at all easily into the neat categories of (female/German) "victim" and (male/Nazi/Soviet) "perpetrator." Even the most harrowing accounts of rape and violence committed by Red Army soldiers display some awareness of historical context, although, as with all texts, multiple meanings and interpretations are possible. "Wir Deutschen sind kein Partisanenvolk. Wir brauchen Führung und Befehl," wrote the unnamed diarist whose stark depiction of life in Soviet-occupied Berlin between April and June, 1945, has sold thousands of copies since being republished in a new edition in 2003, and on another occasion: "Verbrecher und Hasardeure haben uns geführt, wir haben uns führen lassen wie die Schafe zur Schlachtbank" (p. 149). Once again, though, no serious comment is made in this account, or others like it, on the causes of the war (and in turn on the real causes of Germany's defeat at the hands of the Red Army).
Having read the contributions discussed above, I am more convinced than ever of the need for a robust and hard-hitting response on the part of the German left to the recent Opfertaumel ("victim-frenzy") in the German media and German history writing. Otherwise Pätzold's warning might well turn out to be prophetic: "Geht das so fort ... so werden die Nachgeborenen in der BRD eines Tages 'alles über diesen Krieg wissen,' ausgenommen, warum er geführt wurde" (p. 29). Erich Später's essay on the Sudetendeutsche, which privileges factual evidence and critical analysis over sensationalist rhetoric, does suggest a positive way forward and might be considered as a useful model for others to follow. However, in general this volume falls some way short of what is required to meet the challenge.
. See Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang (Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 2002); Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 (London: Penguin/Viking, 2002); Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand. Deutschland im Bombenkrieg, 1940-1945 (Munich: Propyläen Verlag, 2002); H-German forum on WWII bombing at <http://www.h-net.org/~german/discuss/WWIIbombing/WWII-bombingindex.htm >.
. For a useful set of German and international responses to Friedrich's 2002 book on the Allied bombing campaign, see Lothar Kettenacker, ed., Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg, 1940-45 (Berlin: Rowohlt Verlag, 2003).
. Josie McLellan, Antifascism and Memory in East Germany. Remembering the International Brigades, 1945-1989 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 74-75. See also Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 35ff.
. Guido Knopp, Die große Flucht. Das Schicksal der Vertriebenen (Munich: Econ Verlag, 2001).
. Anonyma, Eine Frau in Berlin. Tagebuchaufzeichnungen vom 20. April bis 22. Juni 1945 (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn Verlag, 2003). This diary was first published in English translation in 1954 and then in a German edition in 1959, but interestingly these earlier versions did not attract the same levels of media or scholarly attention as the 2003 reprint. See also the H-German review by Bianka J. Adams at <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=177891114106557 >.
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Matthew Stibbe. Review of Klundt, Michael, Heldenmythos und Opfertaumel: Der Zweite Weltkrieg und seine Folgen im deutschen Geschichtsdiskurs.
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