Insa Eschebach. Öffentliches Gedenken: Deutsche Erinnerungskulturen seit der Weimarer Republik. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2005. 225 S. EUR 24.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-593-37630-1.
Reviewed by Michael Meng (Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Published on H-German (April, 2006)
The Sacralization of Memory
In this short volume, the religious scholar Insa Eschebach analyzes the continuities and discontinuities in German memorial culture from the Weimar Republic to the present day. Building on the now sizeable literature concerning German memory in the twentieth century, she understands memory largely as a social and cultural construct that sheds light on how German society has dealt with the mass violence and death that has so dominated the century just past. She adds to the literature a relatively new perspective by exploring the ways in which German society has used various traditions from Christianity to come to terms with and comprehend mass death. Her analysis relies heavily on what she calls sacralization (Sakralisierung).
In a lengthy theoretical section that begins the book, Eschebach outlines in depth what she means by this term. She understands sacralization largely as a process in which "ein Alltägliches in den Status des Heiligen transportiert wird" (p. 11). Giving examples such as moments of silence, the display of candles, ceremonies and commemorations, she argues that sacralization involves the application of the symbols, gestures, traditions and language of Christianity to a public, non-religious context. As Eschebach puts it, "Sakralisierung als analytische Kategorie meint diesen Prozeß der Übertragung religiös tradierter Deutungsschemata auf (zuvor) nicht-religiös Kontexte.... Sakralisierung, so die These, ist eine Kulturtechnik zur Erzeugung des Heiligen, die sowohl von kirchlichen Institutionen als auch von anderen sozialen Gruppen als eine spezifische Bearbeitungsform historischen Geschehens in Anspruch genommen wird" (p. 49).
Eschebach claims that the sacralization of memory has two broader consequences. First, it serves as a way of dealing with the past by creating a stable framework for understanding mass death; it makes an unbearable past bearable and helps to heal and overcome the trauma of mass violence. "Sakralisierungsprozesse," she writes, "sind diese Prozesse einer Überführung, einer Transformation realgeschichtlicher Ereignisse in einen 'krisenresistenten, stabilen Ordnungsrahmen" (p. 51). Second, Eschebach argues that the sacralization of memory creates an imagined community: a "we" that transcends the boundaries of both time and space. She illustrates this point perhaps most clearly in the opening vignette of her book that describes the outpouring of grief in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Returning to notions that surfaced at the time about how "we are all Americans" or "we are all one world," she notes that cataclysmic events such as September 11th--and the silent moments and memorials that follow them--create an imaginary "we" that blurs divisions of space and time and effaces the differences between those who are live and those who are dead.
But Eschebach is also quick to point out that memory is often highly selective and exclusive; memory is as much about forgetting certain elements of the past than it is about remembering others. Moreover, Eschebach notes that memories of past traumas can easily become trivialized (here she is indebted to George L. Mosse's pioneering work on the memory of World War I). The production of souvenirs creates a kitschy, trivialized image of the past that is reduced to something normal and everyday. It is thus largely different from the sacralization of memory: "Während das Sakrale das Nicht-Verfügbare signifiziert, das wirklich Wirkliche, das die Massentötungen zweiter Weltkriege zusammenfaßt und glorifiziert, wurden in der Trivialisierung diese Tode zu etwas Vertrautem, mit dem man umgehen kann" (p. 58).
Eschebach fills out this theoretical framework in a series of chapters that explore public expressions of memory (mostly commemorations at monuments and concentration camps) from the Weimar Republic to the present. Taking such a broad approach to Germany memory is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately Eschebach does not make complete comparisons across the twentieth century. The only main exception to this criticism is her chapter on commemorations of the Marine-Ehrenmal in Laboe during the 1920s and 1930s (there is also a very short, two-page section on the 1950s). Here she shows how the Weimar Republic--faced with a profound loss of political legitimacy in the wake of World War I and the economic crisises of the 1920s--used memory for political purposes that emphasized the honor and renewal of Germany. Relying on religious symbols, music and language, commemorations at the monument attempted to compensate for the economic and political problems of the Republic. In contrast, the Nazi party used the same monument to emphasize the "heilige Vermäctnis der Toten" in a commemoration that took place in 1936. By this point, the Nazi party had successfully achieved what the Republic had failed to do: revising significant portions of the Versailles treaty. The monument was now used to reinforce the policies of the Third Reich; a militarization of the site followed and explicit use of religious traditions faded.
But while these insights are intriguing and important, Eschebach could have provided an even deeper comparative analysis of German memory in the twentieth century. Instead she has produced a book largely of individual essays that focus mostly on the post-World War II period (even though her subtitle "seit der Weimarer Republik" seems to promise otherwise). And yet it is here--in the postwar period--that Eschebach's analysis is the richest. In two chapters about concentration camps in West and East Germany, Eschebach makes several important conclusions. For one, she shows how Christian symbols, language and dogma permeated the memory of the victims at Dachau. Eshebach claims that this memory culture fit into the broader, "national-konservativen politischen Interessen" of the early Federal Republic. In dealing with the SBZ/GDR, she clearly recognizes that such an overtly religious memory of the victims was simply not possible. The party controlled the official representation of the concentration camps and used it to reinforce its antifascist memory of the Third Reich that emphasized the victimization of communists. Moreover, she shows how gender played an important role in the formation of memory in the GDR. In a chapter on Ravensbrück, she uncovers how the image of victimized mothers became a dominant trope in commemorations at the camp. Since few historians use gender to analyze memory (though this is now changing), Eschebach's analysis is innovative and perhaps could have been fruitfully extended to other parts of the book.
Eschebach's general argument about the sacralization of memory adds new, important insights to the large body of literature on German memory. Eschebach also often provides probing and compelling analysis of memory sites that have already received extensive attention (Buchenwald, for example). But her approach to memory overlooks some key questions. Eschebach understands memory largely as a cultural construct that is manipulated and instrumentalized by political, cultural and intellectual elites. This approach leaves out, however, the issue of how this "memory" is received. Or, to put it another way, it overlooks the relationship between "public" and "individual" memories. How much is an imaginary "we" sustained through official, public memories? One could argue, for instance, that the inability of both the Weimar Republic and the GDR to create a sustainable memory of the wars from which they emerged partly explains their ultimate collapse. Nevertheless, historians of German memory will profit from Eschebach's attempt to understand the continuities and discontinuities in how Germans have confronted, reflected upon and understood mass death across the ruptures of war, genocide and dictatorship.
. For recent gendered analyses of memory, see Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Elizabeth Heineman, "The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany's 'Crisis Years' and West German National Identity," American Historical Review 101 (1996): pp. 354-395. There have also recently been a number of workshops on gender and memory that have been reported on both H-German and H-Soz-u-Kult, and Eschebach herself has co-edited a volume on gender and memory.
. See Alon Confino, "Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method," American Historical Review 102 (1997): pp. 1386-1403; Confino, "Telling about Germany: Narratives of Memory and Culture," Journal of Modern History 76 (2004): pp. 389-416.
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Michael Meng. Review of Eschebach, Insa, Öffentliches Gedenken: Deutsche Erinnerungskulturen seit der Weimarer Republik.
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