restricted access 11. “Normalization and Its Discontents”: The Transnational Legacy of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany
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Part 3 A Masterable Past? German-­Jewish Transnationalism in a Post-­ Holocaust Era 261 Chapter 11 “Normalization and Its Discontents”: The Transnational Legacy of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany1 Karen Remmler On a field trip with college students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, an eighty-­ year-­ old German woman joined us. After the tour of the section on the Holocaust, led by a Holocaust survivor, himself also eighty years old, the woman pulled him aside, looked him straight in the eye, and exclaimed : “You must admit that you encountered some good Germans!” His quiet, simple reply of “no” led to her gushing narrative about her childhood in Würzburg during World War II that included her vivid recollection of the November Program in 1938, her mother’s good deed of paying the Jewish tailor even after the boycott against his shop, and her insistence on the right to be a proud German. In other words, she was asking the survivor to listen to her story as though she were the one in need of acknowledgment and sympathy. The survivor listened patiently, allowing the woman, who towered over him, to place her hand on his shoulder. Finally, he thanked her for coming on the tour and turned to leave. The woman’s desire to receive some form of acknowledgment that good Germans existed did not involve a plea for forgiveness or expiation, but rather for sympathy. The irony of this encounter struck me as an apt image for German-­ Jewish encounters that have been fairly common since the 1980s. Having left Germany as a young woman and settled in the United States, the woman remained attached to her heritage and consistently sought out the opportunity to absolve herself and her nation from its uncomfortable past with the claim of its well-­ earned normalcy. In her plea to the survivor that she be seen as free from guilt, she enacted the very cognitive dissonance that often hampers the actual emotional working through of the impossibility of normalcy in the wake of the 262    Three-Way Street Holocaust, despite the political gains in achieving just that. I raise the question of the emotional residue of the Holocaust in contemporary German culture and the affective impact of that event on the descendants. What remains of the emotional work of memory when those who experienced the Holocaust first-­ hand are no longer alive? And how does this emotional work actually take place a generation after unification, when its presence in the public sphere of political normalization is no longer acute? Since the 1980s, writers and filmmakers have produced work on the different phases and forms of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past). In many cases, they have depicted the entangled relationships between individuals whose inherited attachment to the past atrocity continue to determine their lives. In this essay, I argue that political “normalization ,” the transformation of a once pariah nation (Nazi Germany) into a model country that employs Western notions of democracy in the aftermath of atrocity , may undermine the ability of citizens with prominent Nazi parents to take responsibility for the heritage they inherit. “Normalization” is a problematic term that coincides in part with the necessity for perpetrator societies in the West to reach a semblance of symbolic reconciliation, not between individuals caught in the matrices of victimization and perpetration, but rather for abstract expectations of civil stability through political or legal actions that hold perpetrators accountable. My goal here is not to claim that parallels exist between the political process of normalization and the ability of individuals to feel “normal ” despite their Nazi heritage. Rather, I am interested in how descendants of Nazi perpetrators express an inability to participate in the rituals of political normalization that often mask the deep unease of family ties to atrocity. I will argue that seeking a national normalization is itself a tautology that is mirrored in the experiences of those who seek to establish a sense of normality in their family genealogies through transgenerational transmission of family histories. How might we interpret complex family relations within contemporary Germany in which victim and perpetrator histories become insurmountably entangled and socio-­ psychologically burdensome for descendants against the backdrop of national attempts at reconciliation and closure recognized within transnational models of normalization?2 For all intent purposes, Germany as a nation has atoned for its guilt, though the unforgiveable crimes committed can never be expiated, even as the descendants of perpetrators can distance themselves from...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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