A Jew Among the Germans
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"positions of the third generation towards the significance of the holocaust by wolfgang thierse
Wolfgang Thierse is president of the German Bundestag. In this 2003 speech given on Jan. 27, Germany's Holocaust Remembrance Day, he talks about why commemorating the Holocaust will continue to be a tortured but a very necessary process for present and future generations of Germans who must confront history and responsibility. But he believes there has to be an institutional response to the Holocaust in the name of all Germans and that the memory of the Holocaust can't simply be entrusted to the individual, as the so-called "third generation" of young Germans proposes. Thierse was a driving force behind Germany's decision to build the new national Holocaust memorial in Berlin that was unveiled May 10, 2005.

Commemoration is difficult, irritating and unpleasant, but it is one of the few possibilities to become an active participant, not a victim of history.

…This topic may seem inappropriate and inappropriate for this day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. For, if I am reading it correctly, the title of the book [Nobody Asked Us] implies a provocation, which aims at that most sensitive terrain of contemporary Germany: the persecution and mass murder of European Jewry.

The Hungarian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Imre Kertész, a survivor of Auschwitz, put it this way: "The Holocaust is a condition which is not finished. I feel it everywhere. There has been no catharsis. The Holocaust cannot be worked through." Working through, putting aside, moving on -- that is surely not possible.

The question of how such a magnitude of horror can be commemorated within German society must be posed again and again, especially between generations. Commemoration is not something static that can be carried out according to formula, as was the case -- if I may be a bit polemical -- with the anti-fascist principles of the GDR [East Germany], which many people held onto until the very end. This founding mythology amounted to a kind of ideological state doctrine which, executed in an increasingly ritualized fashion, became an ideal instrument of power. This was the Janus-headed nature of East German anti-fascism, authentic and ideological at the same time.

A democratic state, on the other hand, cannot delegate history because it sees itself as an agent of historical meaning . This has advantages and disadvantages, but most of all it means that, in an open society, historical discourse is never finished, but rather an unfinished process with political consequences that are constantly shifting. Of course the factor of time influences each generation's perspectives on memory and history. ...

True commemoration must include learning processes and contradictions: Retrospectively, one can understand why Adorno issued his famous verdict in 1951 that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric and impossible. But artistic attempts to approach the Holocaust need not necessarily lead to a repression of the past and a "normalization" of memory. The many significant treatments of the Holocaust over the years are testimony to this. But it is the current situation we are dealing with, which is so full of ambivalence.

To start with, it must be acknowledged that right-wing subcultures which glorify violence are by no means disappearing. We cannot become complacent. To use a dramatic formulation: "Such sentiments still find fertile ground." And on an international level, we cannot forget that humanity is still threatened by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. I think we all agree how much depends on the actions we are willing to take against forgetting right-wing extremism and the re-emergence of racist ideology and in support of civil courage and democracy.

Secondly, the Federal Republic of Germany has, since 1998, intensified its efforts to perpetuate the discourse on Holocaust memory. Just think of the government's overreaching concept for the authentic sites of memory, its commitment to the Holocaust Memorial, the progress made for the compensation of slave-laborers, or the opening of the Jewish Museum. But this also means that suddenly -- to the surprise of some -- there is the possibility of discussing topics such as the forced evacuations of Germans from the East, or the bombing campaigns against Germany, topics that used to be immediately associated with historical revisionism and the relativization of the Holocaust.

Thirdly, repressed memories and surviving resentments continue to surface in strange ways, whether it be that illegal party donations in Hessen are declared to be "Jewish inheritance," whether ridiculous comparisons to Nazi history are made, whether flirting with anti-Semitism is used to boost election results, whether Walser's new novel really includes a scandalous "repertoire of anti-Semitic cliché." The list of incidents in which the unfinished history of the German past resurfaces, goes on and on.

A fourth observation: The many moving feuilleton debates of recent years have clearly shown Germany's difficulties with its history. A writer had enough of the uninterrupted presence of Auschwitz as a "moral club" swinging over Germany; a historian proclaimed normal Germans to be collectively guilty perpetrators and Hitler's willing executioners. Between these extremes is a broad and diverse relationship to history and responsibility.

I myself belong to what is called the "second generation," which unmistakably recognized the singularity of the systematic mass murder of Jews by Nazis. We are emphatic in our position that there can be no forgetting, no relativization, no weakening or conclusion of the process of remembering the past. … It is my conviction that commemoration, while being a process that is inherently painful, is also something that constantly reminds us of our responsibility in the present. Commemoration is difficult, irritating and unpleasant, but it is one of the few possibilities to become an active participant, not a victim of history. …

 

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posted may 31, 2005

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