Reviewed by Stephen Brockmann (Carnegie Mellon University)
Published on H-Urban (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)
Urban History as National History
This fascinating book is slightly misnamed. Its title suggests an examination of Nuremberg’s relationship to the Nazi past from 1945 to the present, but, in fact, as becomes clear early on in the book, the focus of attention is on the years 1945-68, with particular emphasis on the 1950s. Anyone who turns to the book looking for analysis of what Nuremberg has done over the last twenty years to face up to its Nazi past will be disappointed. However, once one accepts the premise that the real title of the book ought to have been Nuremberg and the Nazi Past, 1945-1968, one will be impressed at the wealth of information that Neil Gregor has unearthed.
For Gregor, as for many others, Nuremberg is a kind of synecdoche for all of Germany. In studying the failures and successes of Nuremberg’s citizens in addressing the Nazi past, he is also studying the failures and successes of the West German republic more generally. Nuremberg is both typical--in the sense of being a relatively ordinary German city--and unusual--in the sense of having been a city singled out by the Nazis for their annual party rallies. Gregor is less interested in Nuremberg’s status as an unusual city--its particular Nazi aura--than he is in its typicality. Over the course of four well-researched sections, he painstakingly lays out the development of Nuremberg’s memory culture from 1945-50 as a process of contestation and negotiation among various interest groups and stakeholders, many of them with competing or even diametrically opposed claims. Among these stakeholders were former Nazi officials and party members, veterans of World War Two, refugees from Germany’s eastern territories, former prisoners of war, people injured or displaced during the bombing of Nuremberg (particularly on January 2, 1945), and, finally, the direct political and/or racial victims of the Nazis: Nuremberg’s relatively small Jewish community in the immediate postwar years, as well as Communists or Social Democrats who had been persecuted or incarcerated by the Nazis. Given the political constellation of the immediate postwar years, it was inevitable that the interests of the final group--the direct victims of the Nazis--would play far less of a role in shaping public discourse about the past than the interests of the other groups in the 1950s. The first major section of Gregor’s book is devoted to laying out precisely who these various stakeholders were and how they viewed their own interests.
The second section of the book details the ways in which these various groups sought to institutionalize memory culture in the late 1940s and 1950s. It looks at the civic associations formed by the various stakeholders; the various monuments that associations, churches, and the city itself erected during this period; and the rituals of commemoration that emerged, from commemorations of the January 2, 1945, bombing to Germany’s national day of mourning (Volkstrauertag) every November. The final part of this section examines the exhibition history and institutional politics of Nuremberg’s most important memory institution, the Germanic National Museum, which, in the postwar years, sought to stylize itself as “the fortified keep of the German soul,” a place where even German refugees from the eastern territories could celebrate their common German identity (p. 220). Gregor’s work here suggests that it is time for a full-scale scholarly history of this important German institution.
In the third section, Gregor examines the 1960s as a time of sweeping change and renewal, thanks, in particular, to the work of Hermann Glaser, the Social Democratic politician who tried, with remarkable success, to create a culture of democratic debate, for instance in the influential Nürnberger Gespräche (Nuremberg Conversations) during the second half of the 1960s. Gregor’s research in this section demonstrates how crucial particular people can be in the development of an institutionalized memory culture; it is hard to imagine that Nuremberg would have developed as lively a culture of debate and criticism without the work of Glaser. The other parts of this section explore the impact of various major public events on Nuremberg’s, and Germany’s, memory culture in the 1960s: the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, the so-called Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt from 1963-65, and a number of key historical exhibitions.
The book’s final section explores the conservative backlash to the cultural ferment of the 1960s, suggesting that even in the midst of change there were strong forces in favor of soft-pedaling Nuremberg’s Nazi past. To some observers, the late 1960s might have looked just as conservative as the late 1950s. However, Gregor shows that by the end of the 1960s the stage had been set for the widespread changes in memory culture that were to come in the following decades. He does not explore those changes in his book, but he lays the groundwork for that exploration.
Gregor situates his argument between Robert Moeller’s arguments about consensus and community as being the dominant forces in West German memory culture of the 1950s and Jeffrey Herf’s rather different arguments about contestation and political struggle as forming the core of early postwar West German memory culture. Gregor’s overall picture largely resembles Moeller’s--emphasizing a majority consensus that largely excluded the direct victims of the Nazis--but in its details it begins to resemble Herf’s: a picture of struggle and contestation in which ultimately, even the direct victims of the Nazis were heard. Gregor does not connect his arguments with recent German debates about the air war or German “victimization”--for instance, in the context of W. G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction (2003)--which is somewhat surprising, since his arguments about Germans’ 1950s “exhortations to remember ... the achievements of the rebuilding” dovetail with those of Sebald (p. 3). Gregor also largely ignores the Catholic Church in Nuremberg, focusing instead on Nuremberg’s traditional role as a Protestant city; there may be good institutional reasons for this exclusion, but the fact is that, by the late nineteenth century, Catholics made up a substantial proportion of Nuremberg’s population. Gregor also confuses the religious issue somewhat by referring to Protestant pastors as “priests,” which may be possible in the Church of England but is decidedly not possible in German (or any other kind of) Lutheranism (see p. 117). At times, I wished for more wide-ranging historical information; for instance, on page 277, Gregor mentions “the gradual return of Jews to Nuremberg during the nineteenth century” without ever having discussed the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremberg at the end of the Middle Ages; and nowhere in the book does he mention nearby Fürth’s status as a relatively Jewish city in the context of a Nuremberg that had been inhospitable to Jews for many centuries. The book could also have used slightly more careful copyediting; for instance, a “plaintiff plea” should probably be a “plaintive plea,” and “more graphic and emotive that the” should probably be “more graphic and emotive than the” (pp. 300, 197). On page 192, the word “invoke” is used as a synonym for “urge,” as in “invoking the citizens of Nuremberg to ‘fight for our Prisoners of War.'”
These quibbles do not, however, detract from my admiration for an impressively researched and important study of postwar West German memory politics, concretely embodied in a particular city. For Gregor, who did a great deal of his research in various archives, particularly in the Nuremberg Stadtarchiv, urban history comes above all from the traces of bureaucratic and administrative discourse left in city archives. The city is less an imaginative space created by writers and filmmakers than it is the product of various government and nongovernment organizations that helped to shape it. It is the slow accretion of these various bureaucratic and organizational discourses that, over time, produces the city’s memory culture. Gregor’s book is not part of the “cultural” turn in urban history, and it is not even part of the “spatial” turn, since its focus is not primarily on the city as a concrete space that helps to create discourse; rather, Gregor’s book is a highly stimulating contribution to the history of the city as a history of organizations and bureaucracies. These organizations and bureaucracies certainly have shaped culture, language, and even urban space, but they did so in response to their own concrete institutional needs. It is they who are, in Gregor’s view, the primary agents of Nuremberg’s memory culture.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Stephen Brockmann. Review of Gregor, Neil, Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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