Remembering the Second World War, 1945-1965: narratives of victimhood and genocide.

Author:Confino, Alon

Abstract

In many respects, ours is an era of memory and repentance. The great convulsion that was the Second World War is often at the center of such memories, although it is not the only historical focus. If ours is the age of apology, then the first half of the century in Europe was a time when self-proclaimed civilized societies justified or tolerated terrible experiments in social engineering in the name of ideologies. Consequently, the greatest danger in attempting to understand post Second World War memory is a cultural anachronism: the attempt to impose present-day moral expectations of what should have been remembered on what actually had been remembered. The question to ask is how, in the wake of such carnage, did Europeans' "inaccurate" memories help them interpret their post-1945 world? I would like to reflect on this topic, focusing on the score of years after 1945, by discussing two postwar memories: the notion of victimhood as well as the ways in which Europeans remembered the Jews after 1945, even while keeping silent about the genocide.

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In many respects, ours is an era of memory and repentance. The great convulsion that was the Second World War is often at the center of such memories, although it is not the only historical focus. Apologies for the persecution of the Jews were heard from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (in 1994), the Vatican's half-hearted "We Remember" (in 1994), and the French bishops' "Declaration of Repentance" (in 1997). "Truth commissions" were established to investigate past regimes and crimes in democratizing Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. The United States government apologized to Japanese-Americans interned in the war, while the debate continues as to whether former slaves are owed reparations as well as an apology. The philosophical, moral, financial, and judicial aspects of reparations are a measure of our "age of apology" (Torpey 2001; Brooks 1999, 311; Ogletree 2002).

If ours is the age of apology, then the first half of the century in Europe was the age of murderous utopias to perfect society. It was a time when self-proclaimed civilized societies justified or tolerated terrible experiments in social engineering in the name of ideologies. Consequently, the greatest danger in attempting to understand post Second World War memory is a cultural anachronism: the attempt to impose present-day moral expectations of what should have been remembered on what actually had been remembered. The question to ask is how, in the wake of such carnage, did Europeans' "inaccurate" memories help them interpret their post-1945 world? I would like to reflect on this topic, focusing on the score of years after 1945, by discussing two postwar memories: the notion of victimhood as well as the ways in which Europeans remembered the Jews after 1945, even while keeping silent about the genocide.

I use in this paper the notion of memory as a set of representations of the past that are constructed by a given social group (be it a nation, a class, a family, a religious community, or other) through a process of invention, appropriation, and selection, and that have bearings on relationships of power within society. I am aware that this is a broad and admittedly somewhat vague definition, but it suffices for the purpose of this essay, namely articulating general trends in postwar remembrance of victimhood and Genocide. A discussion of the theoretical and methodological implications of the notion of memory belongs elsewhere (Confino 1997; Confino 2004).

I

A heroic memory of the Second World War in the two decades after 1945 is familiar: the Great Patriotic War in Russia, the epic Battle of Britain, the resistance movements in France and Italy, the valiant saving of Danish Jews, and America's moral crusade that received a historical legitimacy in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (Tumarkin 1994; Garrard and Garrard 1992). (1) Even the state of Israel, which seemed to have nothing heroic to commemorate when it came to the war, constituted in 1959 a national Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and its Heroism (Yom Hashoah Vehagvura) (Segev 1993; Almog 2002, chap. 2; Young 1990). (2) These heroic memories were fundamental to national recovery and to creating and sustaining national identity after the war. It is not exceptional for a war to be heroically commemorated. What is significant in the memory of the Second World War is that a second, no less important, memory was shaped that runs counter to heroic memory--one that emphasized victimhood as a pillar of national identity.

It is perhaps not surprising that after the Second World War the notions of victimhood, self-pity, and suffering became organizing metaphors to understand and explain it. Simplistic heroism could not quite capture the war experience, characterized by the humiliating occupation of proud nations, anguished or willing collaboration, forced labor, economic austerity, carpet bombing, persecution, deportations, extermination, and the transformation of combat heroes of previous wars into ordinary executioners.

The cases of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, authoritatively analyzed by Pieter Lagrou in the Legacy of Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, are illustrative. The three countries experienced military defeat and occupation that offered little in the way of national heroism. Collaboration and forced labor complicated the picture further. As a result, "glorification of the contribution of the resistance movements was the only basis available for a true national myth." But the resistance raised problems too. "The soldier-hero [of the Great War]," observes Lagrou, "was replaced by much more controversial hero-types: terrorist guerrillas, often primarily engaged in an ideological battle" (Lagrou 2000, 26, 3; Conway 2000, 133-156; Huyse 2000, 157-172; Romijn 2000, 174-193). Moreover, some of the resistance fighters were foreigners, while others were communists who were viewed as anti-national by traditional patriots. The war thus lent itself only with difficulty to the construction of a uniform national narrative of heroism. 3 And the reality of the war was that combatants, even broadly defined, made up only a minority of the victims of persecution. For the rest, "national memory imposed the paradigm of the martyr" (Lagrou 2000, 211). The martyred village Oradour-sur-Glane, whose entire population was massacred by the Germans in 1944, came to stand in France for the nation as a whole. Deportation, much more than Resistance, has developed into a central metaphor in postwar French memories (Lagrou 2000, 296; Farmer 1999).

It is not surprising that nations occupied by the Germans constructed a myth of martyrdom. But it is significant that the notion of victimhood became an organizing metaphor for perpetrators as well. West Germans, argues Robert Moeller eloquently in his path-breaking study War Stories, constructed a memory in the 1950s that embraced the war as part of their history but that simultaneously distanced them from the National Socialist regime. West Germans, like the French, Belgians, and the Dutch, remembered the war as victims. Expellees and POWs exemplified this memory. In the final months of the war some twelve million Germans fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe (Eastern Prussia, Silesia, and Czechoslovakia). In 1950, eight million of them lived in West Germany. Their suffering became the leitmotif of Germany as war victim. In addition, of the more than three million German soldiers who were in Soviet captivity at the end of the war, one million died in captivity, and the last POWs did not return home until 1955, following Konrad Adenauer's historic visit to Moscow. As a whole, Germans focused on stories of their suffering while ignoring their crimes. "They represented a Germany doubly victimized, first by a Nazi regime run amok, then by communists, and they allowed all West Germans to order the past in mutually exclusive categories in which perpetrators and victims were never the same people" (Moeller 2001, 3, 173). (4)

Postwar national memory of self-victimhood existed in West Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but significant differences were evident among the countries. In West Germany, national victims were neither Communists nor Jews, but only "good Germans," such as expellees, POWs, or victims of Allied air bombings. Thus the category of postwar "victim" largely reproduced the Nazi definition of the national community, or "Volksgemeinschaft." Also in the Netherlands the category "victim" designated neither Communists nor Jews, though for reasons different than in Germany. The Communist Party did not participate in post-'45 Dutch governments and thus had little influence. More important, Dutch memory of the war was based on traditional and patriotic memory that defined victims narrowly as combatants. Those who did not commit acts of resistance were largely excluded from the national memory (Lagrou 2000, 242-245). In France and Belgium, in contrast, memory was organized around the myth of anti-fascism, which was more inclusive. Victims of fascism were not all heroes, but they were all martyrs. Communists were viewed as national victims, testifying to the Communist political traditions and resistant activity, but Jews, who did not resist militarily, were not seen in this way.

Other nations, in different ways, also put on the mantle of martyrdom. Austria, as is well known, constructed a myth of itself as the first victim of Hitler; it ranks among the most imaginative constructions of the past in the twentieth century. Austrian provisional president after the end of the war, Karl Renner, stated that the vast majority of Hitler's followers were victims of historical consequences, economic dislocation, and coercion (Burkey 2000, 227-228). (5) Poland justifiably saw itself as Hitler's victim...

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