Postwar Germany and the legacy of Nazism

How did Germany’s postwar politicians deal with the legacy of Nazism and defeat?

West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, makes his farewell speech before resigning from office on 15 October 1963, with Willy Brandt, Chancellor 1969-74, on his left.

Jeffrey Olick, in his latest book, follows up on his earlier research on memory of the Nazi era in Germany. In The Sins of the Fathers, he analyses the language used by politicians at commemorative events and political speeches in (West) Germany since the end of the Second World War. He argues that such speeches were used to either deflect from (like Konrad Adenauer, first chancellor of West Germany) or acknowledge (like Willy Brandt) guilt and responsibility for the war and the Holocaust, shaping official memory.

The five-part structure of the book is simple and effective. In the first part, Olick gives a brief overview of the existing literature on the memory of the Nazi past and explains what he means by politics of memory. His excellent explanation of ‘collective memory’, based on sociological and psychological theory, introduces the layperson to a complex historical topic. The second, third and fourth parts make up the bulk of the book and divide it into three distinct time periods, in which Olick describes and contrasts West Germany’s official memory of the Nazi past. These correspond more or less with the periods of the Adenauer government, Brandt’s social-liberal coalition and the chancellorships of Kohl, Schröder and Merkel. He calls them, respectively, ‘The Reliable Nation’, ‘The Moral Nation’ and ‘The Normal Nation’.

Quite rightly, Olick makes the point that commemorative rhetoric did not change suddenly with the inauguration of a new administration but that there were nuanced transformations before a new political period began: he cites the examples of speeches given between 1945 and 1949 (before the creation of the Federal Republic), as well as the subtle change in tone introduced by Chancellors Erhard and Kiesinger before Willy Brandt’s break with convention. He also looks within such periods as the transition from Brandt to Helmut Schmidt. In the fifth and concluding section, Olick brings all his findings together and analyses them by employing the sociological theory of memory that he outlined in part one.

While the first part of the book is undoubtedly the best, there are two points of weakness throughout the overall study. The first might be described as trivial, as it does not necessarily affect the overall argument, but it is nevertheless annoying when engaging with a period of such historical importance. It concerns the number of incorrect dates for key events (including West German currency reform, the 1938 Munich Agreement on the Sudetenland, the election to the office of president of Gustav Heinemann, to name but a few). In addition, there are far too many casual and sometimes outright incorrect explanations of important events or terminology: for example, sloppy accounts of the 1962 defence scandal known as the Spiegel Affair and the issue of the ‘Flakhelfer-Generation’ of young men who fought in the desperate last defence of the Third Reich (to which Schmidt did not belong, but Kohl did).

The second weakness is more serious: especially when analysing Adenauer’s speeches. Olick sticks too literally to each statement made by the first chancellor (a man who himself had infamously stated ‘I am not bothered by my blabber from yesterday’), failing to consider that a speech was often given to a certain audience for a specific purpose. The same applies to the analysis of Schmidt’s 1977 speech at Auschwitz, made in the first instance to a Polish audience at a time when Polish-Jewish relations were still delicate.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Olick’s study of how the German political leadership dealt with the Nazi past and its legacy during the first 60 or so years of postwar (West) Germany is a valuable work of scholarship. In large part, this is because of the sheer number of speeches analysed, providing a vibrant kaleidoscope of how ‘each generation worked through the same issues in its own way’.

The Sins of the Fathers: Germany, Memory, Method
Jeffrey K. Olick
University of Chicago Press 496pp £37.50

Armin Grünbacher is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. He researches the social and economic history of West Germany and the Federal Republic in the Cold War.