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  • Die Ungnade der späten Geburt: Challenges in the Twenty-First Century for Central EuropeansGerman Studies Association Presidential Address 2016
  • Irene Kacandes (bio)

I've given my comments the title "Die Ungnade der späten Geburt." You all recognize my pun on Helmut Kohl's phrase, "Gnade der späten Geburt," used first in a television interview aired on ARD a few days before Kohl was scheduled to go to Israel in Fall 1983 to meet with Menachem Begin and then in the speech he gave to the Knesset on January 24, 1984 when he actually did take that trip. I could spend the rest of my time reviewing the phrase and the controversies it engendered—for example, that it did not originate with Kohl but rather with Günter Gaus,1 or that when Kohl gave the speech to the Knesset that phrase did not attract particular attention,2 even though today it's practically the only thing people remember about that speech. However, that era and Kohl's career are neither my areas of expertise nor my target tonight. Rather I'm borrowing this phrase mainly to reference the generations born in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and elsewhere in Europe too late to be directly responsible for Nazi crimes, for the purpose of asking what kind of memory work those generations should be engaged in. To put it otherwise and to parse my subtitle, I am asking myself if the analysis and terminology that I and other Holocaust scholars of traumatic memory have been developing over the last decades can help us get any clarity on the "Ungnade" of the present times and what we might do about it. By "disgrace" of the present times I am referring to phenomena like our tolerance of war, terrorist violence, and also acts and expressions of racism, including attacks on refugees as well as on central Europeans of color. I use the term "central Europe" loosely, it should be noted, to refer to a large swath of territory in the approximate center—considered east-west—of what geographers refer to as the European continent. As GSA president I have been emphasizing the association's commitment to studying the cultures and histories of all German-speaking territories and peoples, past and present; and "central Europe" serves me as a convenient shorthand for this focus. I hasten to add, [End Page 389] however, that what constitutes central Europe is a moot point in terms of my topic tonight, since our globalized age rarely allows problems to be remain in one region of the world. I'll deploy frequently the first person plural pronoun, "we," and I definitely mean it to include North Americans, who are experiencing their own Ungnade on top of the ungraciousnesses they share with the rest of the world.

My plan is to present seven important lessons I have learned from memory studies of the Holocaust and then to suggest how those lessons inflect my understanding of the behavior of some contemporary Europeans. My strong hope is that as I deliver the first part of the talk, you will yourself be weighing the relevance of my remarks for the dilemmas of today. Like my mention of "die Gnade der späten Geburt," any one of the terms or examples I'll cite deserves much more elaborate treatment than I can offer now. There are numerous experts on contemporary Europe present, and I am relieved and gratified that so many other people have spoken or will speak on these topics during the course of this conference.

Lesson One: "Never again" and "Never forget" are not optimal logically, rhetorically, or politically

With the commemoration of various anniversaries related to the catastrophes of the mid-twentieth century, we are admonished on a regular basis that we must ensure those crimes never happen again. Last June, for instance, we were reminded to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Wehrmacht invasion of the Soviet Union.3 The world must never forget the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust even after the last perpetrators and survivors have died.4

On the one hand, it is perfectly persuasive when survivors tell us that they...