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Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany

Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany by Maja Zehfuss. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 310 pp.

This book enters the decades-old debate over how Germans ought to recall their wartime past by presenting a new approach to remembering, one which the author believes not only will free Germans from a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination but also serve as a model for how others may deal more sensitively (and, in her view, more sensibly) with questions of war and peace. It examines the operation of memory as it interacts with current political choices and policy decisions, in particular with respect to war. The focus is less on policy, however, than on the complex manner in which memory operates. Memory here does not refer to personal recollection (though that is also a part of it), but rather to historical memory, to the ways in which societies relate to their collective pasts.

Zehfuss is concerned over the tendency (especially among politicians) to invoke certain memories of past historical events, as if those memories were singular and uncontested, as a tool in support of a particular policy direction. In response, she seeks to “destabilize the certainty” about our memories of the past and thereby undermine the sense of self-righteousness over what we should do in the present (xiii). More specifically, “this book [is] focused on memories which undermine the . . . categorization of the Allied Second World War as the good war” (237). To accomplish this, Zehfuss turns to a lengthy examination of six novels dealing with Germany’s wartime experiences. She asserts that novels are a useful instrument for questioning established memories because they both reflect those memories while simultaneously challenging their validity, thereby promoting critical thinking.

As part of this exercise, Zehfuss examines controversies over the meaning of 8 May 1945 (defeat or liberation?), the Wehrmacht exhibit, the forced expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of the war, and the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Her particular concern is to dispose of the perpetrator-victim dichotomy, which she believes has produced an unproductive pattern of remembering. Applying a postmodern, deconstructionist analysis, Zehfuss asserts the “impossibility of depicting the past” (59). She believes that we must abandon the “simplistic notion” that anything is clearly knowable about the past, since the past (which is everything but the present moment) is so full of ambiguity and differing perspectives that we can never say anything conclusive about it. Our knowledge of the past is not the past itself, she says, but rather an invention of the present; meaning is created ex post facto through varied interpretation. Therefore, knowledge of the past will not help us make decisions regarding current problems, because there is no meaning inherent in past events that can be directly applied to contemporary concerns.

Zehfuss’ analysis produces a nuanced and highly complex text. One wonders if it is perhaps a bit too nuanced and complex. The complexity is compounded by a tiresome fastidiousness, by awkward phrasing, and by the occasional unmistakable Germanism. In short, it is not light reading. Furthermore, the presentation often reminded this reviewer of Celtic art or an Escher print, with lines of argument snaking in and out and through each other in such a fashion that it was difficult to tell precisely how one emerged from the other, let alone where it all might be leading.

The main problem, however, arises from Zehfuss’ proposition that “concern with the experience of ordinary Germans in the Second World War is more to do with a concern with the fate of civilians in war generally” (66). The distinction between German perpetrators versus non-German victims is no longer clear, she says, when German civilian experiences are included. Zehfuss asserts that, especially with respect to expulsions and strategic bombing, the roles of perpetrator and victim were reversed, with Germans taking the role of victim and the Allies becoming the perpetrators. This may be true, in a strictly limited sense, but Zehfuss takes it further, rejecting the notion that “acknowledging” German suffering “muddies the moral waters” (252). But what exactly does “acknowledging” German suffering entail? It seems altogether likely that most people are aware that Germans suffered in the war. But how central should that fact be to our understanding of the conflict as a whole? How much moral weight should it have? Zehfuss seems to suggest that, in terms of pure human suffering, it be granted the same moral weight as that of Holocaust victims and other victims of Nazi aggression. This sort of moral calculus does indeed muddy the moral waters. The question is, is all suffering created equal, regardless of the circumstances in which it arose; accordingly, should our sympathies be equally distributed?

Zehfuss pursues a fundamental shift in historical perspective in service of contemporary political choices. “German memories” of the bombings, Zehfuss claims, “lead to looking at air strikes from the position of those suffering them” (120). “[H]ow the Second World War is remembered affects how war is imagined today” (252). Our failure to acknowledge German suffering, she believes, carries over into current and future wars, allowing us to declare and conduct war without proper regard for the suffering it causes. However, it seems more likely that it is precisely our awareness of the suffering caused by the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan that directs our current attitudes toward the conduct of war and, in particular, our concern over civilian casualties.

For Zehfuss, however, it is war itself that is the central problem. She asks “whether killing in war is not itself an atrocity” (253), adding that “atrocity seems to lurk within war” (emphasis in the original, 254). She goes on to say that it “seems less than clear that war and the supposedly justifiable killing that happens as part of it can be distinguished satisfactorily from illegitimate violence” (259). She is particularly concerned that the memories of the “glorious Second World War” (as seen from the perspective of the erstwhile Allies), with its emphasis on “heroism, of ‘being on the right side,’ of defending not only one’s country but civilization” (234), have been sanitized of all the brutality and atrocities committed by the Allies. The notion of the “good war” must be abandoned, Zehfuss insists, because wars cannot be good and thinking them so only blinds us to the invariably evil things we do in conducting them. Allowing greater space to memories of German suffering in World War II, she thinks, will serve as an antidote to this tendency.

Zehfuss’ propositions amount to the attempt to use German suffering as a basis for a new moralism, central to which is its antiwar component. It inflates the German wartime experience into an archetype that can be applied to any and all wars. This tendency in postwar German thinking, by no means limited to Zehfuss, might be likened to a Jesus complex: the idea that Germans suffered for all our sins that we might see the light and turn from the destructive errors of our ways. But there remains an essential difference between the German war experience and our own: the German experience can never emerge from the pall cast over it by both the cause for which the Germans sacrificed and the final pointlessness of that sacrifice. Why should German memories of suffering be privileged in the way Zehfuss insists they should? Others also recognize the cruelty and horror of war—they have seen it up close, but seeing it has not obscured their awareness of the purpose and purposefulness of the sacrifices it demands. Although some may dismiss Zehfuss’ views as those of a small European intellectual elite, they are actually quite mainstream in Germany and across much of Europe and must be taken increasingly into consideration in the formulation of American foreign and security policies.


K. Michael Prince, PhD


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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