CIAO DATE: 10/07
Memory Still Matters
Is "memory fatigue" setting in? One often hears this question in regards to Germans whenever another Holocaust-centered or Nazi era memory event erupts. But, one also increasingly hears this question about intellectuals and scholars in the humanities. Political scientists, lamentably, never really got into the study of memory in the first place. As an overly qualitative phenomenon the study of collective memory was impervious to dominant quantitative or rationalist methodologies in the discipline. Like culture more generally, it was considered either a default category or an irrelevant factor for the core of political analysis—interests and institutions—and was best left to the humanities or sociology. Others have argued that memory never really mattered at all for the vast majority of Germans who are interested in the consumerist present or for a proper understanding of the political system. At the most, it concerned only a small circle of the German elite and media such as the feuilleton section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Der Spiegel, and, certain German studies centers and journals in the USA.
This article discusses the genre of family narratives in contemporary German literature against the backdrop of cultural memory in postunification Germany.1 Family narratives lend themselves to a critical study of memory as they enact the transmission and transformation of memories from one generation to the next. Thus, these texts serve a pivotal role as both archives for and reflections on individual and collective memories of 20th century Germany history. Since the late 1990s, i.e., almost a decade after the collapse
Benjamin's well-known emblematic description of the rememberer as an archaeologist in "Excavation and Memory" is a fitting point of departure to explore the meaning, transmission, and form of cultural memory as a methodology and a subject in German studies. In this article, I explore the shift toward a renewed materiality of memory in fields such as archaeology and disaster studies that have been tangential to the discourses of cultural memory based on trauma and on identity politics prevalent in German cultural studies. After describing current practice in these fields and their relevance to the formation of cultural memory within the context of German studies, I then read the writing of W.G. Sebald within the framework of archaeological tropes in which the spaces dedicated to the dead play a major role. The close reading of Sebald’s text serves as a model for re-reading other contemporary German literary texts within the broader context of other disciplinary approaches to the space of memory in the aftermath of atrocity.
Between the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II more than fifteen years later, Germany witnessed not only a proliferation of events and experiences to be remembered but also of traditions of memory. Before the fall of the wall, remembrance of the past in West Germany meant, above all, commemoration of the Nazi past and the memory of the Holocaust. Germany's unification had a significant impact on cultural memory not only because the fall of the wall itself was an event of memorable significance but also because it gave new impulses to debates about the politics of memory.
This article focuses on two "Holocaust" films made in Germany and Poland in the 1980s and 1990s (Bittere Ernte and Fotoamator), and also looks briefly at the more recent The Pianist. Bittere Ernte (Angry Harvest)6 was directed by Agnieszka Holland, a renowned Polish émigré filmmaker, but was made by a German production company, with German funds and for German audiences, given the language of the film, the choice of actors, and the place of its initial release. The film was selected as the West German contender for the 1986 Academy Awards in the category "Best Foreign Film." The second film, the documentary Fotoamator (Photographer), was released in 1998 in Poland. Directed by the first-time Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski, and shot predominantly in Polish (although German and Yiddish are also spoken), the film was financed in large part by German sources, presented in Germany in a German version, and received numerous German film and television awards for excellence.
Before the series of 60th anniversary commemorations of the end of the Holocaust, Nazism and World War II in 2005, the big development regarding German collective memories and political culture was the resurgence of memories of German suffering. Contrary to the opinions of prominent observers like W.G. Sebald, this memory, linked to events from the end and immediate aftermath of World War II, is not a repressed or only recently discovered trauma. Rather, the current discussions signal the return of a memory that was culturally hegemonic in the early postwar decades.1 Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding this return differ significantly from the postwar situation in which this memory first flourished in three main ways. The altered environment greatly affects both the reception and potential institutionalization of such memory, which could lead to deep political cultural changes.