Book Review: The Happy Burden of History: From Sovereign Impunity to Responsible Selfhood

The Happy Burden of History: From Sovereign Impunity to Responsible Selfhood, Walter de Gruyter & Co. Berlin, 2011
Andrew Stuart Bergerson, K., Scott Baker, Clancy Martin, and Steve Ostovich
Reviewed by Martin O. Heisler, University of Maryland

This unusual book—a mélange of disciplines, methods, authorial interjections and self disclosures and, most prominently, sweeping judgments of people, their motives and values–probes the experiences in, and responses to, the Third Reich of a small number of “ordinary” Germans.

The subjects were selected from a larger number of interviews apparently conducted with other aims in mind.

Based on their analyses of the responses, the authors speculate on the extent to which respondents were able to overcome “sovereign impunity” and exhibit “responsible selfhood.” The respondents had been children or teenagers during the Third Reich; they were interviewed many decades later.

The interpretations of their interviews are framed by imaginative, purposeful, and rather selective borrowings from prominent late-19th to mid‐20th century European intellectuals — Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, among others.

The four coauthors identify themselves as “German scholars who have devoted the bulk of our lives to seeking answers to German questions.” They preface the book with descriptions of their academic, religious, political and sexual “selfhood” [because] “[i]f we are not quite Germans, we are still Germanists, which means we must look critically at ourselves” (xii).

But while they explicitly enmesh themselves in their research and conclusions, it is difficult to see how their personal characteristics and relationships to the interview subjects relate to scholarly research in general or their findings in particular.

The analyses of the interviews are organized around the concepts of sovereign impunity and responsible selfhood, two concepts clearly explicated in the opening pages.

Sovereign impunity “presumes an arrogant disregard for any form of accountability for the violence involved in becoming who we are” (5).

Responsible selfhood is presented in a more complex, multi-layered fashion, where people take responsibility for uncovering past events and for the substantive affects of those events on their lives.

Responsible selfhood entails acknowledging the role of past wrongs —”the violence involved in becoming who we are” (8ff.).

It is not clear how far back in time, how many generations in the past, such discovery and acknowledgment must stretch.

(I return to this problem below.) The book is organized into thematic sections rather than numbered chapters.

The themes are derived from elements in the work of such major European writers as those noted above.

The first section, entitled “Myths,” is built on an interpretation of the gist of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” suggesting that it is important for people who aspire to responsible selfhood to find ways to bear the burden of their history happily as, presumably, Sisyphus carried his unremitting responsibility.

The second section, entitled “Lies,” uses Nietzsche’s thought (along with the ideas of other notable thinkers) to show how and why people deceive themselves and thus cultivate the sovereign impunity that obstructs the path to responsible selfhood.

Subsequent sections explore non‐conformity, starting with “Kant’s categorical imperative as the modern foundation for a principled use of non‐conformity” (97) and, finally, irony in which the authors argue that ambiguities residing within irony provide openings for non-°©‐conformity and for penetrating true meanings.

Thus, for instance, the authors imply that ordinary people living ordinary lives during the war availed themselves of the freedom to act with “sovereign impunity” by exploiting the ambiguity of ironic situations.

“Irony produces ambiguity. Ambiguity provides us with the liberty to act, even in constraining and violent conditions. The outcome turns on how we use that freedom. All too often, we use the freedom available to us through irony to excuse the worst kinds of violence against our neighbors and then disguise it behind an attitude of sovereign impunity.” (194).

The authors seem to conclude that their interview partners (and, it is strongly implied, ordinary Germans in general) failed to recognize that their lives were often advantaged by the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

But if they assumed that the interviews, taken collectively, could serve as a prosopographic sketch of Germans’ self-°©‐analyses of the implications of the war and the Shoah on them or their society, they have not succeeded.

The styles of analysis and presentation give rise to some problematic questions, only a few of which can be noted here.

Our present knowledge of Nazi atrocities threatens the legitimacy of the scholarly enterprise.

It appears the authors impose a ‘reverse engineering’ of interviewees’ responses-‐interpreting their past actions through subsequently garnered knowledge.

Further, does the use of deconstruction and reconstruction and the framing of the analysis of those responses by philosophical ideas in notable works of literature constitute scholarship — or is the product more akin to an extended essay on some possible implications of those philosophical ideas? Despite the invocations of Nietzsche, Kant and others, what is the basis for attributing enough insight, knowledge and agency to justify the conclusion “that too many ordinary Germans made a fateful decision sometime early in the 1930s to believe the lies that the Nazis told them” (56).

Presumably ordinary Germans were not as conversant with Nietzsche, Kant, Brecht and Camus as the authors are.

Did ordinary Germans’ failure to see through those lies add up to sovereign impunity and preclude responsible selfhood? Should Hans, twelve‐years old at the time, and the other respondents who were also quite young have understood the implications of Kristallnacht or of classmates who were gone from one day to the next in a fashion similar to the authors’ analysis decades after the event (59ff.)? And finally, how much history must be taken into our purview to gain proper awareness of “the violence involved in becoming who we are”? In the German case, must it include Bismarck’s wars of unification in the mid‐19th century —which, after all, helped to make Germans as well as Germany? One of several better places to begin to get insight into German perceptions, thoughts and actions during and after the war might be “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders.

Two final notes: It is stunning to read, from self‐identified “Germanist” historians, that “Germans probably did not top your list of successful models of historical responsibility” (10).

They might have been expected to be aware of the vast literature on the avowals, policies and educational efforts aimed at coming grips with responsibilities for and in the war.

David Art’s The Politics of the Nazi past in Germany and Austria; Alon Confino’s Germany as a Culture of Remembrance; Aleida Assmann and Ute Frevert’s Geschichtsvergessenheit – Geschichtsversessenheit: Vom Umgang mit deutschen Vergangenheiten nach 1945; or Anne Sa’adah, Germany’s second chance: Trust, Justice and Democratization are a few examples of evidence that belies their indirectly worded indictment.

Finally, readers would have been well served by an index and better editing.

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