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Concerning the Public Use of History Author(s): J端rgen Habermas and Jeremy Leaman Source: New German Critique, No. 44, Special Issue on the Historikerstreit (Spring - Summer, 1988), pp. 40-50 Published by: New German Critique Stable URL: Accessed: 23/01/2009 17:16 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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Concerningthe Public Use of History" by Jurgen Habermas Whoever has read Ernst Nolte's level-headed contribution in the last issue of Die Zeitand has not been following the emotional discussion in the FrankfurterAllgemeineZeitung must have the impression that the ar-

gument we are involved in is about historical details. In fact, it is concerned with a political conversion of the revisionism which has emerged in modern historiography and which has been impatiently demanded by politicians of the "Wende"government (the Kohl government which in 1983 presented itself as the government of "change"/ "reversal" - trans.). It is for this reason that Hans Mommsen shifts the controversyinto the context of a "realignment of historico-political thinking." With his essay in the September/October issue of Merkur, Mommsen has supplied the most thorough and most substantial contribution to the dispute to date. In the center of his deliberations stands the question: In whichway is the Nazi period to be processed in public consciousness? The increasing distance in time, he asserts, makes a "historicization" necessary - one way or another. Today, the grandchildren of those who were too young to assume the burden of personal guilt at the end of the Second World War are growing up. This, however, does not amount to a distanced form of remembering. The focus of modern history remains fixed upon the period from 1933 to 1945. It remains firmly within the horizon of our own life histories,entwined with sensibilitiesand reactionswhich, admittedly, * This article appeared in Die Zeit, 7 November 1986. It has been republished in Jiirgen Habermas, Eine Art Schadensabwicklung (Frankfurtam Main: Suhrkamp, 1987) and appears here with permission of the author.




are spread over a broad spectrum according to generation and political attitudes, but which all have the same point of departure: the images of that unloading ramp at Auschwitz. It has only been in the 1980s that a wider public has become conscious of this traumatic refusal of an ethical imperfection, which has been branded into our national history, to disappear: on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power on January 30th, 1933, on the 40th anniversariesof the failed coupdetat of July 20th, 1944, and the capitulation of May 8th, 1945. And yet today barriers are breaking down which until yesterday had stood fast. TheMemoryof the Victimsand the Culprits In the last few years, a steady stream of memoirs has appeared, written by those who for decades had been unable to speak about the things they had suffered: Cornelia Edvardson, the daughter of the Langgassers,or Lisa Fittkocome to mind. Likewise,through the scenes in which Claude Lanzmann relentlessly loosens the tongues of the victims of Auschwitz and Maidanek, we have been able to share the almost physical process of the work of remembering. In the case of the barber, the horror which had become rigid and mute is expressed in words for the first time - and one is not sure whether one is still supposed to believe in the liberating power of words. From the other side as well, words have been pouring out once again from mouths that had long been kept shut, words which for good reason had not been used since 1945, not at least in public. The collective memory on the side of the culprits unflinchingly produces different phenomena than on the side of the victims. Saul Friedlander has described how, in recent years, a dichotomy has opened up between the desire on the part of the Germans to normalize the past and the increasingly intensive preoccupation with the Holocaust on the part of the Jews. As far as we are concerned, a glance at the West German press from recent weeks can only confirm this diagnosis. In the Frankfurttrial against two doctors actively involved in the AktionGnadentod(the Nazi euthanasia campaign against mentally and physically handicapped people - trans.), the defense lawyerjustified his claim of prejudice against a G6ttingen psychiatristwith the argument that the expert had aJewish grandfatherand was possibly emotionally biased. In the same week in the Bundestag, Alfred Dregger expressed similar worries:


Public Use of History We are concerned about the lack of history and the lack of consideration towards our own nation. Without an elementary patriotism, which is quite naturalto other people, our people too will not be able to survive. Whoever misuses the so-called "overcoming of - which was certainly necthe past" ("Vergangenheitsbewdltigung") essary - in order to make our people incapable of a future, must meet with our opposition.

The lawyer introduces a racist argument into a criminal trial; the chairman of the parliamentary party (of the Christian Democrats trans.) demands the crude relativization of the encumbered Nazi past. Is the coincidence of both utterances mere chance? Or is an intellectual climate into which they quite simply fit gradually becoming more widespread in our Republic? Then there is the spectacular demand by the well-known art patron to stop applying "censorship" to the art of the Nazi period. And the Federal Chancellor with his sensitive appreciation of history draws parallels between Gorbachev and Goebbels. In the scenario of Bitburg, three motives had already come into play: the aura of the military cemetery was supposed to awaken national sentiment and thereby "historical consciousness"; the juxtaposition of the mass-grave mounds in the concentration camp and the SS-graves in the memorial cemetery, Bergen-Belsen in the morning and Bitburg in the afternoon, implicitly denied the singularity of Nazi crimes; and the handshake of the veteran generals in the presence of the American president was finally a confirmation of the fact that we had always been on the right side in the struggle against Bolshevism. In the meantime, we have experienced torturous discussions, which have had a festering rather than enlightening effect, in relation to the planned historical museums, the staging of the Fassbinder play (criticized for its apparently anti-Semitic features - trans.) or concerning a national memorial which we need as much as a hole in the head. Despite this, Ernst Nolte complains that Bitburg has not yet opened up the flood gates wide enough and has not sufficiently de-inhibited the dynamic process of squaring accounts: The fear of being accused of a "settlement of accounts" and the fear of any comparisons did not allow the simple question of what it would have meant if, in 1953, the then Federal Chancellor had refused to visit the Arlington military cemetery and had justified this decision with the argument that men were also buried there who had taken part in the terror bombing raids against the German population. (Frankfurter AllgemeineZeitung,6 June 1986).



Whoever thinks through the presuppositions of this curiously construed example will marvel at the ingenuousness with which an internationally acclaimed German historian sets off Auschwitz against Dresden. This mixing of the still mentionable with the unspeakable reflects a clear reaction to a need which grows stronger with the growing interval of time. The authors of the series on TheGermansin the SecondWorld War,produced by BavarianTelevision, detected a need in their older viewers which is certainly unmistakable: the desire to release the subjective experience of wartime from that frame of reference which in retrospect had to provide everything with another meaning. This desire from the veterans' point of view for unframed memories can now be satisfied by reading Andreas Hillgruber's account of events at the Eastern front in 1944/45. The author is confronted with the "problem of identification," which is unusual for an historian, only because he wishes to include the perspective of the experience of the fighting troops and the civilian population affected. It may be that Hillgruber's overall work leaves a different impression. But the little book pubis not meant lished by Siedler (Zweierlei Untergang[TwoKindsof Collapse]) for readers who have specialist knowledge of the subject, which might enable them to shift a contrasting consideration of the "smashing of the German Reich" and the "end of European Jewry" into the right context. These examples show that, despite everything, history does not stand still. The natural order of dying makes no exceptions, even of damaged lives. Our situation has changed fundamentally compared to forty years ago, when KarlJaspers wrote his famous tract on TheGuilt Question.Then it was a question of differentiatingbetween the personal guilt of the perpetrators and the collective liability of those who, for whatever understandable reasons, had failed to do anything. This distinction no longer applies to the problem of those born later who cannot be charged with their parents' and grandparents' failure to act. Does this generation indeed have a problem of shared liability in any way? Jaspers'sQuestionsJlday Now as before, the simple fact remains that even those born later have grown up in a form of existence in which thosethingswere possible. Our own life is linked inwardly, and not just by accidental circumstances, with that context of life in which Auschwitz was possible. Our


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form of existence is connected with the form of existence of our parents and grandparentsby a mesh of family, local, political and intellectual traditions which is difficult to untangle - by an historical milieu, therefore, which in the first instance has made us what we are and who we are today. No one among us can escape unnoticed from this milieu, because our identity both as individuals and as Germans is inextricably interwoven with it. This extends from mimicry and physical gestures through language right up to the subtle capillaryramifications of our intellectual habitus. As if I could, for example, when teaching at foreign universities ever deny the mentality in which the traces of the very German tradition of thought from Kant to Marx and Max Weber are deeply embedded. We thus have to stand by our traditionsif we do not want to disavow ourselves. I even agree with Herr Dregger that there is no reason for such evasive maneuvers. What follows, however, from this existential link with traditions and forms of existence which have been poisoned by inexpressible crimes? At one time, it was possible to hold a whole civilized people, proud of its constitutional state and humanistic culture, responsible for these crimes - in Jaspers' sense of collective co-responsibility. Is something of this co-responsibility even now transferred to the next and the next-but-one generation? There are two reasonswhy I thinkwe should answerthis question affirmatively. Firstly,there is the obligation we in Germany have - even if no one else is prepared to take it upon themselves any longer - to keep alive the memory of the suffering of those murdered at the hands of Germans, and we must keep this memory alive quite openly and not just in our own minds. These dead have above all a claim to the weak anamnestic power of a solidaritywhich those born later can now only practice through the medium of the memory which is alwaysbeing renewed, which may often be desperate, but which is at any rate active and circulating. If we disregard this Benjaminian legacy,Jewish fellow citizens and certainlythe sons, the daughters and the grandchildren of the murdered victims would no longer be able to breathe in our country. This also has political implications. At any rate, I do not see how the relations between the Federal Republic and Israel, for example, could be "normalized" in the foreseeable future. Admittedly, some now only use the "indebted memory" in their titles, while the text denounces the public manifestations of a corresponding feeling as rituals of false submission and as gestures of feigned humility. I am amazed

that these gentlemen - if we have to talk in Christian terms - cannot

even distinguish between humility and repentance.



However, the current dispute is not concerned with the "indebted memory," but with the more narcissisticquestion of how we are to relate to our own traditions for our own sake. If that does not succeed without recourse to illusions, then the memorial to the victims also becomes a farce. In the officially presented self-image of the Federal Republic, there was hitherto a cear and simple answer. It is the same for (the present Federal president) Weizsacker as it was for Heinemann and Heuss: afterAuschwitz, we can only create national self-consciousness from the better traditions of our history, traditionswhich we must appropriatecriticallyand not blindly. We can only continue to shape a national context of existence, which once allowed a unique injury to the substance of human commonality, in the light of such traditions which stand up to the suspicious gaze made wise by the moral catastrophe. Otherwise we will not be able to respect ourselves or expect respect from others. These premises have been the basis up to now of the officialself-image of the FederalRepublic.And it is this consensus that the right renounces today. They are afraid of one consequence: A critical appropriation of tradition does not in fact encourage the naive faith in the morality of relationships to which one has merely become accustomed; it does not help towards identification with models which have not been subject to prior examination. It is here that Martin Broszat, quite correctly, sees the point where minds must differ. The Nazi period will be much less of an obstacle to us, the more calmly we are able to consider it as the filter through which the substance of our culture must be passed, insofar as this substance is adopted voluntarily and consciously. Dregger and his ideological allies resist this continuity in the self-image of the Federal Republic. As far as I can see, their uneasiness derives from three sources. ThreeSourcesof Unease Firstly,neo-conservativeinterpretationsof the present situation play an important role. In this reading, the moralizing resistance to our most recent pre-historyobstructs the free view of Germany'sthousand year history before 1933. Accordingly, without a memory of national history,which has been subjected to a "thought ban," we cannot create a positive image of ourselves. Without a collective identity, the argument continues, the forces of social integration would disappear. The bemoaned "loss of history"is held accountablefor the political system's problems of self-legitimationand purportedlyendangers both domestic


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peace and the country's reliabilityin foreign relations. This argument then supplies the reasons for the compensatory"provisionof meaning" with which historiography is supposed to serve those ("Sinnstiftung") who have been uprooted by the process of modernization. However, the identificatory grab at national history requires a relativization of the importance of the Nazi period, filled as it is with negative associations. For this purpose, it is no longer sufficient to place this period in parentheses. Its significance has to be levelled out. Secondly, there is a more profound motive for a revisionism which renders the period harmless, a motive which is quite independent of functionalist considerations a la Sturmer. Because I am not a social psychologist, I can only make tentativeobservations about this motive. EdithJacobson once developed, in a very penetratingway, the psychoanalyticinsight that the developing child has to learn graduallyto connect its experiences of the loving and giving mother with other experiences deriving from the relationship with the mother who denies herself to, and withdrawsfrom, the child. Obviously it is a long and painful process during which we learn to combine the at first competing images of the good and the bad parent to make complex images of the sameperson.The weak egogains strength only from its non-selective association with an ambivalent environment. Among adults as well, the need to defuse appropriatecognitive dissonances is still strong. It is all the more understandable, the further apart the two extremes become: for example, on the one hand, the positive impressions of one's own father or brother, which are saturatedwith experience, and on the other, the disquieting information which is provided by abstract reports about the contexts of these persons' actions and their entanglements, persons so intimately connected with oneself. Thus it is in no way those who are morally insensitive who feel forced to liberate that collective fate, in which close relations were involved, from the blemish of extraordinarymoral legacies. The third motive operates on a different level - the struggle to reclaim encumbered traditions.As long as the appropriatingeye of the late-bor observer is directed towards the ambivalences which reveal themselves to him through the course of a history without personal merit, it will be impossible to make even outstanding figures immune to the retroactivepower of corrupted historical reception. After 1945, we read Carl Schmitt, Heidegger, Hans Freyerand even ErnstJunger in a differentway than before 1933. This is sometimes difficultto tolerate, especially for my generation, which - after the war, in the long



period of latent development up to the end of the 1950s - was under the intellectual influence of towering figures of this kind. This may, incidentally, explain those persistent and ardent attempts to rehabilitate the neo-conservativeheritage - and not just in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Fortyyears on, therefore, the dispute which Jaspers for his part was able to settle, albeit laboriously, has broken out again in another form. Can one assume the legal succession of the German Reich, can one continue the traditions of German culture without also assuming historical liability for the form of existence in which Auschwitz was possible? Is it possible to remain liable for the context in which such crimes had their origins and with which one's own existence is interwoven, in any way other than through the solidarityof the memory of that which cannot be made good, in any way other than through a reflective and keenly scrutinizing attitude towards one's own identity-creatingtraditions? Is it not possible to say in general terms: the less communality such a collective life-context allowed internally and the more it maintained itself by usurping and destroying the lives of others, the greater then is the burden of reconciliation, task of mourning, and the self-critical scrutinyof subsequent generations.Moreover, doesn't this very sentence forbid us to use levelling comparisons to minimize the nontransferabilityof the shared responsibility imposed on us? This is the question concerning the singularityof Nazi crimes. What can be going on in the mind of an historian who claims that I had somehow "invented" this question? We are conducting the dispute about the right answer from the perspective of the first person. One should not confuse this arena, in which it is not possible to be a disinterested party, with discussions between scientists who, in the course of their work, must adopt the perspective of the third person. The political culture of the Federal Republic is without doubt affected by the comparative work of historians and other academics within the humanities; but it was only through the sluice gates of publishers and the mass media that the results of academic work, with its return to the perspective of the participants, reached the public channels for the appropriation of traditions. Only in this context can accounts be squared by using comparisons. The pompous outrage over an alleged mixing of politics and science shunts the issue onto a completely wrong track. Nipperdey and Hildebrand either get the wrong message from the wrong pigeon-hole or they get the addresswrong. They obviously live in an ideologicallyself-contained


Public Use of History

milieu that is no longer accessible from the real world. It is not an issue of Popper versus Adorno, it is not a question of disputes about scientific theory, it is not about questions of value-free analysis - it is about the public use of history. Out of ComparisonsCome Settlementsof Accounts If I judge it correctly as a non-historian, three basic historiographical

positions have developed with regard to the Nazi period: one describes the period from the point of view of the theory of totalitarianism; one focuses on the figure and world-view of Hitler; and the third concentrates on the structures of the power system and the social system. To be sure, each position is more or less appropriatefor externally inspired intentions to relativize and level out the significance of the period. But even the view which concentrates on the figure of Hiter and his militant racism only becomes effective - in the sense of a trivializingrevisionism, which in particularexculpates Germany'sconservative elites - if it is presented from an appropriately one-sided perspective and with a particular rhetoric. The same applies to the comparison of Nazi crimes with the Bolshevist liquidation campaigns, even to the abstruse thesis that the Gulag Archipelago was "more original" than Auschwitz. It is only when a daily newspaper publishes an articleon the subject that the question of the singularityof Nazi crimes assumes the significancefor us which makes it so explosive in the given context, for us who appropriatetraditions from the perspective of participants. In public, as an issue of political education, as an issue of relevance to historical museums or to the teaching of history, the question of the apologetic production of images of history is an unequivocally political question. Are we to undertake macabre settlements of accounts by means of historical comparisons in order to escape surreptitiously from liability, from that hazardous community which the Germans appear to represent? In the FrankfurterAllgemeineZeitung of

August 29th, 1986, Joachim Fest complains about the insensitivity "with which certain incumbents of professorial chairs go about selecting victims." This most appalling sentence from an appalling article can only rebound onto Fest himself. Why, in the full public gaze, confer an official gloss on that kind of squaring of accounts which up to now had been exclusive to radical right-wing circles? This, God knows, has absolutely nothing to do with forbidding certain questions in academia. If the dispute - which has now gotten underway with ripostes from Eberhard Jackel, Jurgen Kocka (in the



Rundschauof September 23, 1986) and Hans Mommsen (in Frankfurter Politikof October 1986) - had the Blatterfiirdeutscheund internationale taken place in a professionaljournal, I would not have been able to object to it; I would never even have laid eyes on it. Admittedly, the mere Allgemeine Zeitungis no publication of the Nolte article by the Frankfurter sin, as Nipperdey states mockingly, but it nevertheless marks a turning-point in the political culture and self-image of the Federal Republic. Abroad, the same article is also perceived as such a signal. This turning point is not rendered harmless by the fact that Fest makes the moral significance of Auschwitz dependent for us on preferences for more pessimistic or more optimistic interpretationsof history. Pessimistic interpretations of history suggest other practical consequences according to whether the constants of catastrophe are ascribed to the evil in human nature or are understood as being socially determined - Gehlen versus Adorno. The so-called optimistic interpretations of history are also by no means alwaysfixed on the image of the "new human being"; it is acknowledged that American culture cannot be understood at all without reference to its meliorism. There are ultimately less one-sided intuitions. If historical advances consist in alleviating, eliminating or preventing the suffering of vulnerable creatures, and if historical experience teaches us that finite advances are only followed by new catastrophes, then it is fair to presume that the balance of tolerability is only maintained if we try our utmost to achieve any advances possible. In the first two weeks of this dispute, my opponents evaded a debate about substantive issues with the attempt to render me academically untrustworthy. I don't need to return to the incredible accusations in this context, since in the meantime the discussion has tured towards the facts. However, in order to acquaint readers of Die Zeitwith a diversionary technique which one might expect from politicians in close combat, rather than from academics and serious journalists, I will cite one example. Joachim Fest claims that in the central issue I impute a completely false proposition to Nolte. According to Fest, Nolte does not deny "the singularityof National Socialistacts of destruction in any way whatsoever." Nolte had indeed written that Nazi mass crimes had been far more irrational than their Soviet-Russian models. "All this," Nolte writes, summarizing his reasons, "constitutes their uniqueness," only to continue: "but this does not alter the fact in any way that the so-called destruction of the Jews during the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy, but not a first act or an original." Their benevolent


Public Use of History

colleague Klaus Hildebrand also praises this very same essay of Nolte's in the HistorischeZeitschriftas pioneering, because it "attempts to ex-

plain away the seemingly unique characterof the history of the Third Reich." My reading of Nolte's arguments, which reads all assurances to the contrary as mere escape clauses, has been reinforced all the more by the fact that in the meantime Nolte had written that very sentence in the FrankfurterAllgemeineZeitungwhich got the controversy go-

ing in the first place; Nolte had reduced the uniqueness of Nazi crimes to the "technical procedure of gassing." Fest, in question form, does not even let this difference rest there. Referring expressly to the gas chambers he asks: Can it reallybe said that those mass liquidationswith bulletsin the backof the neck, such as were common for yearsduringthe different?Is not the comRedTerror,are somethingqualitatively parableelement,for all the differences,in fact stronger? I accept the comment that "destruction" ratherthan "expulsion" of the Kulaks is the appropriate description for this barbaric event; enlightenment is a reciprocal enterprise after all. However, the balancing of accounts, like that which Nolte and Fest have conducted in full public view does not serve the purpose of enlightenment. They touch on the political morality of a community which - having been liberated by Allied troops without any German assistance - was established in the spirit of the Western understanding of freedom, responsibility and self-determination. -

TranslatedbyJeremy Leaman

Concerning the Public Use of History Author(s):  
Concerning the Public Use of History Author(s):  

Concerning the Public Use of History Author(s): Jürgen Habermas and Jeremy Leaman Source: New German Critique, No. 44, Special Issue on the...