In a lecture delivered in 1882, the French philosopher Ernst Renan already articulated the relationship between national identity and historical memory. The “essence of a nation,” he explained “is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.” In post-1945 Germany the crimes of the Nazi regimes were initially deliberately “forgotten” or better perhaps ‘disremembered’ and attributed to an alien force – the Nazis -that had descended up on the nation, seduced, lead it into war and left it with a shameful history of violence and genocide. But then, the Germans seemed to try to prove Renan wrong. While many continue to forget the genocide against the Herero and Nama people at the beginning of the 20th Century, since the 1960s the memory of the Nazi past, the history we are studying in this class, moved to the core of German national identity: The history of the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust as German history and the recognition, remembrance and atonement for this history has served as a legitimizing force of the civic culture of the reunified Germany. In other words, Germans took pride and based their national legitimacy not so much in the presumed glory of a more distant past but in their ability to critically engage with and own their shameful history of war, extermination, racism and genocide.
It seems that this trajectory is increasingly called into question by a resurgent far-right now coalescing as the Altnerative für Deutschland or Alternative for Germany. Just last the party’s spokes persons, Björn Höcke, complained about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in the city center as “a monument of shame” and as proof for the “mentality of a totally vanquished people,” so the New York Times reported yesterday.
Perhaps, Höcke, who apparently studied a bit of history in addition to obtaining a law degree, has read Renan and is trying to suggest – in appallingly provocative terms that German national identity and national unity – are only possible if the histories of internal violence and oppression are expunged. But what purpose does the resurrection of the “alternative fact” of a glorious past serve other than the self-righteousness exclusion of those who are marked as fundamentally and inalienably different?
I doubt that Höcke and other like him in Germany and elsewhere actually believe that the sanitized memories of a glories past breed a glorious and prosperous future. Rather, such language recognizes the political weight and power of history and agitatedly screams in its face when confronted with uncomfortable similarities.