Lars Broder Keil, Sven Felix Kellerhoff. Deutsche Legenden: Vom Dolchstoss und anderen Mythen der Geschichte. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2002. 283 S. + 12 Abb. EUR 16.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-86153-257-6.
Reviewed by Drew Bergerson (Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
Both academics and journalists often relish the chance to cast out the serpents of falsehood from the island of truth. Lars-Broder Keil and Sven Felix Kellerhoff banish a score of big ones. Based on a wide reading of secondary literature, this book serves as an excellent, concise, summary of the "state of the debate" for twelve of the most significant legends of modern Germany's political history. Editors for the Berliner Morgenpost in contemporary and cultural history, the authors are naturally interested in how journalists read these historical myths and played a role in creating them. Crossing Europe as well as the Atlantic, their book tells a rich tale of political (mis)representation in the local, national, and international public sphere.
Most of their claims reflect the consensus of historians. In 1914, the Wilhelmine political elite used the July Crisis to orchestrate a war. By 1918, the German military lost the war because of its misguided commitment to a decisive breakthrough and decisive victory. The authors often suggest how earlier legends influence later events. The "stab-in-the-back" was revived not only by the Nazis but also by the CDU: in the 1958 "reckoning with Adenauer" to defend his policy vis-a-vis Stalin's note of 1952. The myth that the NVA invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 fueled the cultural opposition to the GDR that generated the Wende. In this sense, Keil and Kellerhoff have written an episodic history of modern Germany, as seen through the lens of the politics of memory.
The authors suggest that these myths have such staying power in part because they are often based on a core of correct information that is nonetheless misrepresented. Consider the fascinating case of the Dresden civilians who swear that just after the bombs fell on 14 February 1945, devastating the city, they were hunted through the streets with machine guns fired from U. S. P-51 "Mustangs." Keil and Kellerhoff sympathetically demonstrate how these traumatized citizens could have misinterpreted the sights and sounds of the attack. Similarly, they insist that the Dutch communist, Marius van der Lubbe, acted alone when he started the Reichstag Fire in 1933. Yet they recognize that the Nazi regime used his crime as an excuse to terrorize its political opponents.
Keil and Kellerhoff try to distinguish between different types of legends (pp. 8-10). Though ultimately political in purpose, the myth of the "lost chance" for German reunification in 1952 exaggerates the policy options available to Adenauer, while the myths of Honecker's surprise at the crisis in Poland in 1980-81, as well as Kohl's alleged efforts towards reunification, whitewash these policymakers of responsibility for their actual policies. Less intentional in character are the legends designed to minimize collective guilt, such as the alleged "preventive war" against the Soviet Union in 1941. Of course, it is precisely this collusion of elites and masses in mutually convenient self-deceptions that can best account for the birth and the longevity of these myths. In all five of the myths designed to salvage the German military's honor (dating from 1914, 1918, 1941, 1945, 1968), the official myth-makers were clearly speaking with the vox populi.
The authors explicitly chose to avoid the most controversial myths of modern German history (pp. 9-10): those disguising genocide and terror directed at neighbors, as well as those promoting anti-Semitism and totalitarianism in the first place. Keil and Kellerhoff come closest to dealing with the Holocaust in the context of the debates about Switzerland's role in perpetuating the life the Third Reich and the German Army's role in executing Nazi genocidal policies. They come less close to thinking critically about everyday life in the GDR when they discuss the NVA's role in stopping the Prague Spring of 1968 and Helmut Kohl's activities to stabilize the GDR in 1983 by arranging for billions in credit from West German banks. They insist that the events in Dresden cannot be set off against the Holocaust (p. 142). To the contrary, many would argue that ordinary Germans, like many of their leaders, invented these self-deceptions to make it easier to achieve their sundry goals of power, status or simply survival, even if this meant taking part in inhumane systems of terror, destruction, and murder.
Scholars had challenged many of these myths long before public opinion changed. Several of these myths were only put to rest, and others were reincarnated, during the 1980s. Keil and Kellerhoff account for this change in terms of a "rise in historical consciousness" (p. 116), aided in turn by the Wende, which made new documents available. At the same time, they realize that journalists now face the same challenge with which academics have long been familiar: of attracting the attention of the popular reader, of controlling the discourse over memory. As they repeatedly show, the World Wide Web has kept several of these myths alive artificially because this medium is not subject to the journalistic rules of critical review. Thanks to the broadcast of the mini series, The Holocaust, in 1979-80, scholars in German studies learned that our typically dry academic monographs more often than not fail to communicate our findings to a wider audience. By contrast, this diligently researched, well-written book carefully differentiates between various layers of lies, takes reasonable positions in heated historical debates, and still makes these stories accessible to the popular reader. Even without the fascinating forensic examinations of explicitly falsified documents, both popular and academic readers will be informed and entertained by the way that Keil and Kellerhoff dispel these longstanding myths of German history.
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Drew Bergerson. Review of Keil, Lars Broder; Kellerhoff, Sven Felix, Deutsche Legenden: Vom Dolchstoss und anderen Mythen der Geschichte.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.