Widukind or Karl der Große? Perspectives on historical culture and memory in the Third Reich and post-war West Germany

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


There is now a vast literature on Germans and the problems they have sometimes evaded and sometimes confronted in relation to memories of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. This chapter argues that the ways in which Germans 'came to terms' with the Nazi past, whether in displays of selective amnesia, of studied commemoration or of critical engagement have been influenced by two factors rarely considered in relation to Vergangenheitsbewältigung. First, many Germans' own pasts and sense of the past were already fragmented before 1945. Older generations of survivors of the collapse of the Nazi regime had, after all, witnessed two kinds of rule before the Nazis' own: authoritarian but constitutional governance in Imperial Germany, then the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic. The abrupt rise and fall of each successive order had demanded a realignment of the memories as much as of the behaviour of Germans. Second, there were nevertheless manifest continuities in Germany's post-war historical culture from before 1945, before 1933, even before 1918. Historical plays and novels, historicist town pageants and local history societies, museums and sites of memory developed along lines which in many respects ignored these familiar landmarks of political history. Sometimes, through their representations of more remote pasts, they provided Germans with comforting vistas onto a world seemingly untouched by the problems of the very recent past and present. The comfort was based on an illusion. The museum in the little Lower Saxon town of Enger, for instance, continued after 1945 to cultivate memories of the late eighth- and early ninth-century tribal leader Widukind. It had been built in 1938-9 by the SS as a shrine to Widukind who was celebrated by Nazis as a fore-runner to Hitler: a guardian of Germanic religiosity, race and tradition. The form and content of its exhibition remained essentially intact after 1945. On a wall of its foyer, a slogan coined by Hitler was left in place. Only the attribution of the quotation to its author was removed. Today, its exhibition culminates in a critical engagement with its own Nazi origins and with the belatedness and externally imposed nature of its ultimate de-nazification. German historical culture, itself subject to contestation, has proved itself capable both of developing strategies of evasion and of critical introspection. Finally, the chapter asks whether the enactment of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the public sphere may not also have a deeper history. Was it really the case that the repertoire of forms of symbolic communication through which Germans came to terms with the past was itself wholly new? Or did already established genres of commemoration and practices of remembrance also and immediately influence processes of coming to terms with the Nazi past?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMass Dictatorship as Ever-Present Past
EditorsJie-Hyun Lim, Barbara B. Walker, Peter Lambert
PublisherSpringer Nature
ISBN (Print)978-1137289827, 1137289821
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2014

Publication series

NameMass Dictatorship Series
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan


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