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  • Collective Memory Divided and Reunited: Mothers, Daughters and the Fascist Experience in Germany
  • Joyce Marie Mushaben (bio)

I know her: when I lay unconsciouslast night, she climbed into bed with mecalling my nameshe insists we aresisters under the same skin.

Michèle Roberts

“the fascist, when female”

Collective memory, Andy Markovits and Simon Reich assert, “is the lens through which the past is viewed,” one purpose of which is to help “both masses and elites interpret the present and decide on policy.” But as these authors also stress, any analysis of German political behavior needs to distinguish between history as a set of objectively definable events and collective memory, the subjective attribution of meaning to those key events. Collective memory becomes the more formidable influence over time, due to “its multiplicity, its murkiness, its malleability.” 1

The dilemma confronting united Germany is that the mutually exclusive ideological courses pursued by the two separate states between 1949 and 1989 left distinctive imprints on the historical memories of [End Page 7] most Eastern and Western citizens. The problem lies not so much with a need to reconcile “the facts” regarding a particularly barbaric phase of German history but rather with the very different “lessons” each side feels compelled to draw from the fascist era as a guide to future policies, domestic and foreign. Although Markovits and Reich note the importance of “geography and time” on the (re)shaping of collective memory, their own focus on “masses and elites” pays scant attention to the refractive impact of gender on both historical experience and recall. Their analysis thus obscures the fact that the national qua socioeconomic identities of women (a demographic majority in the nation united) have been most directly reconfigured by post-unity policies.

While Germany’s women have never sought to deny or downplay atrocities committed in the name of das deutsche Volk under Hitler, they have, until recently, failed to confront their own relationship to national history with the same degree of typically German Gründlichkeit with which they have traditionally excoriated patriarchy’s role in those developments. One of the ironic consequences of unification, a process many Germans would like to embrace as the peaceful finale to an especially traumatic chapter of national history, is that the persistent reluctance of many feminists (and other New Left elements) to see themselves as full-fledged members of das Volk can no longer be sustained. Paradoxically, the process of rendering the German nation whole again has produced new fault lines between Eastern and Western women as to the “meaning” of their once shared history. It has also given rise to a paradigm shift among West German feminists intent on analyzing current as well as historical manifestations of sexism, racism and nationalism.

My aim here is not to offer a “representative” sampling of women’s recollections of German history since 1945 but only to shed light on new efforts to “conquer the past” called forth by generational currents, unification and recent waves of right-extremist violence among German youth. This article begins by examining the divergent systemic lessons gleaned from history by women living on different sides of the Berlin Wall prior to 1989. It then highlights points of convergence and conflict over the specific lessons of history drawn by select female elites in Germany’s long-divided parts. Finally, it explores linkages between gender identity and historical consciousness being played out along [End Page 8] generational lines. I focus on two groups of women whose views of German identity seem to lie at opposite ends of the national spectrum: established antinational feminists whose political socialization coincided with the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a new breed of ultranational female extremists who have come of political age since 1989.

Pre-Unity Barriers to Feminist Vergangenheitsbewältigung

The diametrically opposed courses pursued by the two Germanys regarding questions of historical memory—and collective guilt—have indeed left their mark on the national identities of Eastern and Western women. Katherine Verdery holds that nation is most appropriately understood “as a construct, whose meaning is never stable but shifts with the changing balance of social forces.” 2 Yet for millions of postwar...

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 7-40
Launched on MUSE
1999-05-01
Open Access
No
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