restricted access Introduction: Representations of German War Experiences and the Legacy of the Second World War
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Representations of German War Experiences and the Legacy of the Second World War

The Study of German War Experiences in Context

Questions of how to represent violence and war have strongly influenced the German social, cultural, political, and historical imaginary. Particularly since the early 1990s critical discussions on German war experiences both at the front and at home and their depictions have been a dominant theme in the culture sections of German newspapers as well as in the academy. These discussions focus primarily on Germany during the Second World War with a special emphasis on the experience of German wartime suffering during the air war and during the flight and expulsion from the East (e.g. Assmann; Cohen-Pfister and Wienroeder-Skinner; Cooke and Silberman; Schmitz; Schmitz and Seidel-Arpaci; Taberner and Berger; Vees-Gulani; Wilms and Rasch; cf. also Süß, reviewed by Peter Fritzsche in this issue). While these debates specific to the Second World War are necessary and important, this special issue hopes to expand this discourse beyond its restrictive temporal focus. Taken together, the contributions offer a clearer picture of the continuations, patterns, breaks, and places of German depictions of war and violence and their cultural memorialization from the eighteenth century to the present. It is thus not the aim of the contributions simply to recall the contents of such representations of German war experiences but instead to concentrate on the processes and concerns of war representations.

In the included articles, the authors employ tools and concepts that have recently emerged in the interdisciplinary field of cultural war studies, involving numerous disciplines throughout the humanities and social sciences. Seeking a wider scope than military history, it tackles the origins, nature, and consequences of war and conflict and of the violence that accompanies them in all its complex aspects, including the connection of war to its cultural representation and memorialization. Involvement in war studies reaches from literary studies to psychology, from classics to peace and conflict studies, and is omnipresent in all fields of cultural studies, including gender studies, visual culture, media studies, and aesthetics. Seeing war through such a wide variety of methodologies opens the door to new and systematic approaches to the general representations of war in culture over time. [End Page 1]

Interestingly, while international studies bridging vast timelines and looking for general patterns have emerged, German literature usually features only marginally in these publications. To give one example, in Kate McLoughlin’s 2011 study, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the “Iliad” to Iraq, which strives to boil down the materials to possible commonalities in the practice of war representations over thousands of years, in various countries, and with a multitude of conflicts as their topics, German war representations are almost entirely absent. These exclusions seem surprising given the vast presence of German war literature and particularly the large part Germany played in the First and Second World Wars. Yet it appears that it is precisely the dominant and complex role of Germany in the Second World War that has made scholars hesitant in approaching its cultural representations within a larger temporal and geographical context and exploring parallels. It is not possible to talk about Second World War experiences in Germany in a balanced manner without also discussing the Holocaust that Germany perpetrated. This circumstance has made it more challenging to include representations of German war experiences during the Nazi period in a larger international discourse on war representations.

Much about the Second World War is exceptional, complex, and, particularly in the case of Germany, already entrenched in its own long-standing discourses. One can speculate that a fear of neutralizing this special role of the last world war via comparisons with earlier or later war representations prevents some from including such representations at all. This issue is particularly at stake when cultural war representations are based on those theoretical approaches predominantly explored and developed within Holocaust studies. McLoughlin, for example, identifies the sublime as a repeated trope in war representations and emphasizes the role of silence and authorial disavowal in war literature. An inclusion of German war literature within such an approach inspired by...