Jacob S. Eder. Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory since the 1970s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 320 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-023782-0.
Reviewed by Deborah Barton (Université de Montréal)
Published on H-TGS (April, 2018)
Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of British Columbia)
In this fascinating monograph, Jacob S. Eder explores the Federal Republic of Germany’s response to America’s growing interest in Holocaust remembrance. In the late 1970s, an extensive network of West German politicians, diplomats, lobbyists, and academics began to fear that the growing memorial culture of the Holocaust in the United States would damage the Federal Republic’s relationship with its closest Cold War ally. For Eder, this “Holocaust angst” saw the West German government make a concerted effort to shape and control the narrative of Germany’s Nazi past that was emerging in the United States.
Eder uses several cultural and political cases to trace the evolution of US engagement with the Holocaust and Germany’s responses: the introduction of Holocaust courses in American high schools, the broadcast of the NBC miniseries Holocaust (1978-79), the founding of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, DC, US President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), and the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). As Eder shows, through various initiatives the Federal Republic sought to emphasize its own democratic success story and detach itself from the shadow of the Third Reich. In focusing on how German concerns about the representation of its history abroad had a significant impact on the country’s foreign affairs and national identity, Eder sheds new and important light on the Federal Republic’s search for a “usable past.”
The book is divided into five thematic chapters. The first chapter addresses the beginnings of “Holocaust angst” in the 1970s. It traces West German reactions to the heightened American awareness of Jewish suffering, the growing prominence of survivors, the introduction of Holocaust courses in high schools, and the broadcast of the miniseries Holocaust in 1978-79. Although German officials carefully followed all of these phenomena, as Eder shows, it was not until Helmut Kohl entered office in 1982 that “Holocaust angst” became a central concern of the government. Indeed, the book covers the late 1970s to the late 1990s, but it is Kohl’s tenure as chancellor and his politics of history that dominate this account. Eder demonstrates that Kohl never sought to disown Germany’s violent past, but he feared this history would negatively influence Germany’s ability to conduct its foreign policy and achieve an equal partnership with the United States. According to Eder, Kohl and his associates actively sought to shape the discourse of German history for political intent.
Chapter 2, hence, looks at the delicate relationship between West Germany and several American Jewish organizations during Kohl’s time in office. A central focus of the chapter is the controversy surrounding Kohl and Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg. While much has been written about this political blunder, Eder is the first historian to use the correspondence of German diplomats, and his transnational approach allows us to view Bitburg from a fresh perspective. Despite intense discussions, debates, and misunderstandings, Eder reveals how Bitburg actually improved the relationship between the Federal Republic and American Jewish organizations. The controversy provided the opportunity for increased dialogue about the Federal Republic’s engagement with its Nazi past.
The third chapter highlights the decade-long discord between the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, in charge of building the USHMM, and West German officials over the creation of that museum in Washington. Eder demonstrates how the German government sought to influence the development of the museum, most significantly its permanent exhibition. Eder reinforces his argument that these (failed) attempts were again based on the fear that the museum would give Americans a negative impression of the Federal Republic by closely linking it with the Nazi state. After the museum’s opening, German politicians acknowledged that these fears had been largely unfounded.
It is in the fourth chapter that Eder offers some of the most striking insights into Kohl’s behind-the-scenes politics of history. Here Eder demonstrates how a circle of German historians and political scientists, such as Michael Stürmer and Werner Weidenfeld, played a critical part in the realm of foreign relations. By examining the chancellor’s (and his advisors’) attempt to use the American academic community to disseminate a positive historical narrative for the Federal Republic, Eder reveals how “Holocaust angst” provided the catalyst for the establishment of the GHI and three Centers of Excellence for German Studies at Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University. Eder shows that while West German politicians and academics acknowledged that the GHI needed to function as an independent institution for scholarship, tensions developed over the competing goals of academic freedom, historical truth, and German national identity. Indeed, West German officials hoped to make the institute, as Kohl’s minister for Research and Technology, Heinz Riesenhuber, put it, a “visible presence for German understanding of history” (p. 137). Despite these tensions, the GHI’s founding director Hartmut Lehmann managed to safeguard the institution from excessive government influence.
Finally, chapter 5 deals with the transformation of Holocaust memory after German unification. Hit by a wave of neo-Nazi violence and a flourishing of debates about the representation of the Nazi past, German officials began to realize that rather than attempting to shape American discourse about the Holocaust, engaging in public commemoration in the Federal Republic was the key to improving Germany’s reputation abroad. American influence was still important, however, as two American imports, Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List and Goldhagen’s controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners,advanced Germany’s confrontation with the Holocaust. Despite Kohl’s former politics of history, in the early 1990s he publically advocated an open engagement with the past that made the Holocaust the “core” of Germany’s identity and brought about an “utter transformation” of Holocaust memorial culture in Germany (p. 196).
Basing his book on a remarkable breadth of previously untapped archival sources, Eder has produced an original and nuanced analysis of the transnational politics of Holocaust memory. The book reveals the vast circle of political, cultural, and academic elites who played a part in this process. This important monograph should be read by those interested in Germany’s efforts to confront its past and in memory studies in general. Not only does it illuminate how fear and perception can drive foreign policy, but it is also a timely reminder that democratic states—not simply dictatorial regimes—have devoted significant effort and resources to shaping and rewriting the narratives of the past for contemporary political purposes. German efforts to rewrite its history were ineffective and offer an example to countries that now seek to do the same.
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Deborah Barton. Review of Eder, Jacob S., Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory since the 1970s.
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