Book Review: Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany

Jenny Wüstenberg. Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Germany is considered by most a prime example of a state that has been dealing effectively with its complex 20th century history. The experience of Nazism, the Second World War (WWII) and the country’s reunification in 1989 are still a subject of lively debate today. Like most conflict or post-conflict societies however, discussing the past has not always been welcome. Neither has been the establishment of aesthetically elaborate memorials, nor the critical evaluation of past historical facts. Hence, through her book, Wüstenberg gives us a detailed account of different formal and informal initiatives developed from 1945 onwards.

The book’s core objective is to offer an in-depth examination of the tense relationship between state institutions and those memory and history activists who represent different (often contrasting) views of the past (5). The book is not, however, an endless list of dates and names, but rather a chronology of developments integrated with theoretical, political and ideological insights. In this way, it not only captures the often neglected work of grassroots/civic organisations, but also captures the multidimensional nature of memory politics, culture, remembrance and history initiatives.

The author’s interdisciplinary approach, along with the variety of methodologies employed to complete the research, over a period of 11 years (2005-2016) (xi), are key to the added value of the book. For more than a decade, Wüstenberg visited archives, libraries and memorial sites in Germany, in addition to observing the work of movement participants, public hearings and expert conferences on memorialisation. Moreover, she interviewed an impressive list of almost 100 individuals, from a wide variety of fields, untangling the vast amount of available information. These persons include academics, government officials, memorial staff, artists and activists, who have offered her detailed accounts of their experience, struggles and background policy considerations. At the same time, the wide variety of primary and secondary sources, without a doubt has contributed to a rich analysis, which gives rise to detailed commentary and well-informed conclusions.

The richness of the material presented could easily become overwhelming for the reader, but this risk is mitigated by the author’s continuous effort to give as much practical and theoretical background information as necessary, skilfully guiding the reader throughout the process. The result is an effortless mixture of a detailed description of historical events, with the corresponding political and activist actions, the struggles and the boundaries encountered, all enriched with the meaningful observations and insights of the author and the interviewees.

Chapter 1 gives the reader the opportunity to become familiar with the book’s core objectives and the terminology and approaches it uses. It employs a range of methodological and theoretical analyses, with a focus on memory studies, social and political sciences. Chapter 1 elaborates on a number of general observations, by addressing early on, for instance, the complex relationship between civil society and state institutions (19-24), not neglecting to point out that popular support encompasses dangers, as well as opportunities (23).

Chapter 2 offers an analytical historical overview to memory initiatives in Germany, dividing it in four periods: (i) the post-1945 period and the 1950s, (ii) the 1960s, (iii) the 1970s and 1980s, with a clear boundary in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and (iv) the period from 1989 onwards. This allows the reader to understand how memory is an evolving process, affected by the particularities of each period, through the use of concrete examples. She argues, for instance, how that the claim for ‘complete muteness’ in the early post-war years is misleading, since the mourning and commemoration by the Germans of their own dead and prisoners of war was also a form of memorialisation (36), albeit possibly an uncomfortable one for many, which nevertheless needs to be acknowledged.

Moving on, Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the ‘Memory Movement’ and the ‘History Movement’, respectively. While in practice the two are intertwined and participants in each movement frequently interacted with each other, these two chapters clarify how the two movements enjoyed a separate framework. The two are differentiated through their aims, the needs they were called to address and the tools they used in their respective actions. The establishment of documentation centres, the erection of memorials and the setting up of museums belong to the realm of the Memory Movement, whereas the History Movement undertook the organisation of history workshops and the development of alternative archives, including a comprehensive academic analysis of the historical narrative (129), in order to give the opportunity to ordinary people to critically discuss the past. Importantly, the author illustrates the nuances of political or other beliefs within seemingly homogenous groups of activists, stressing how both movements were “made possible by a complex set of political and cultural opportunities” (141). In parallel, she elaborates how the authorities, time, history education, family and intergenerational dynamics (135-137) impacted the process.

Further, in Chapters 5 and 6 the author focuses on two specific aspects of Memory in Germany. In Chapter 5 she explores aesthetic principles, drawing from numerous indicators such as the political purpose of memorials (180) and the importance of their locations (188), while she also elaborates on the idea of “countermonuments”, which question traditional forms of commemoration, by “emphasizing the temporality of history and memory” (196). In Chapter 6, she introduces the reader to the particularities of memory politics in East Germany (GDR), where, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, not only many locations had a “double past” (214), deriving from the persecutions and the oppression under both Nazism and the (GDR) regime, but also the complexity of memory in a matrix encompassing two historically antagonistic political identities.

In the last chapter, Chapter 7, the author engages in a final discussion on the hybrid nature that many memorial institutions came to have in Germany, by being first initiated through persistent civil activism and eventually embraced by the state. The chapter closes with the impact that these initiatives and debates had on democratic values in the German society. This was not an idyllic process. On the contrary, the author acknowledges the struggles, the dangers and the emotional complexity collective memory involves (293).

Despite its very specific regional and temporal focus, this extremely well-resourced study is suitable for a broad range of readers interested in memory, including but not limited to policy and decision makers, memory workers and activists, students and academics from around the world. The book offers a unique overview of the many advantages of memory initiatives, while informing readers of the dangers and difficulties this process includes. Effectively, the book can serve as a manual in understanding and systematising the plethora of actors and factors at play in a post-conflict society, beyond the German context. At the same time, the richness of the examples and the detailed historical background given, make it a thesaurus of good practices for the discovery of innovative ways in which post-conflict societies may critically reflect on their traumatic past.

University of Central Lancashire – Cyprus