Shared Memory. Buchenwald and Beyond.

I. Introduction

One could say that Germans have “difficulties” with their past. Posthumous generations have started to accept collective responsibility for the moral, political, and financial consequences of the “Third Reich”. Therefore, younger age groups still see National Socialism (and not the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) as the central historical event. German unification, rejected by some as an imaginary “penance for Auschwitz”, led to a follow-up problem called the “second past”: How are crimes committed by the SED-dictatorship to be dealt with? Comparisons force themselves to be made, although the crimes committed by GDR’s leadership and population were of less significance than the outrages of National Socialism. And whoever compared the two was attacked, although only the comparison could clear up proportions. For victims and those who had suffered at the hands of the SED, respectively the Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit, or the Ministry of State Security, this debate was too academic in any case. Again, victim and perpetrator stood face to face, this time, certainly, even more obvious within a nation, which was not joyfully united, as it turned out in the meantime.

Guilt is attributed, played down, and exaggerated and also, reparation is demanded, paid, and denied. Politico-pedagogical consequences are postulated, drawn, and postponed, which, as it happened after 1945, were supposed to prevent the recurrence of state-controlled and privately committed injustice. Thus, although each process took a totally different course, the “working out” of both German pasts can be compared and one can comprise analog processes of post-dictorial mastering of state-committed crimes by and in other democracies – from Poland to Spain, from Argentina to Russia. This expansion, prolific for analysis, of the perspective on the inheritance of fatal times does not change the specificity of the German double-burden, which cannot simply be dealt with by means of concepts which refer to a theory of totalitarianism.

There is hardly another place, where the twofold hereditary burden is so densely concentrated as in Buchenwald near Weimar, de facto as well as symbolic. As commonly known a Concentration Camp of the Third Reich used to be there. But since 1990 the awareness recurred that the Soviet “Special Camp No. 2” had been set up there right after the Concentration Camp’s liberation. From July 1937 up to March 1945 about 240.000 people, of which 56.000 were executed, were imprisoned in Buchenwald and its external camps. Between August 1945 and March 1950 28.500 people were interned in the same place anew, of which 7.000 died from hunger and malady. And as if one had to outdo the tragic of this genius loci by a direct convergence of the Nazi and the Communist dictatorship, some people were even imprisoned in both camps successively.

Such a fatal history gives rise to a “divided memory” as Jeffrey Herf called it. Consequently this is a memory, which unites the divided nation, but also divides the united nation, and which, since 1990, has developed into an issue of heated, and by no means settled conflicts of interpretation. Neither this past itself nor the historiographic re-interpretation of Concentration Camp and Special Camp, initiated in the meantime, will be issue of our reflections. We are rather interested in a third significance, which has accrued to the name Buchenwald, which the GDR had turned into a cornerstone of its anti-fascist state doctrine: the extremely difficult attempt, initiated in 1990, to do justice to both pasts by redesigning the National Memorial Buchenwald, and at the same time to correct the working out of the Nazi past by the GDR, which failed in many aspects.

Therefore, it is a matter of the “working out of the working out”, which really is no crotchet of Social Scientists bent on detail, but rather touches the core of political culture and collective identity of the united Germany and the “Berlin Republic”. To come to a point with our inquiry: Not only is the discursive formation of the dispute about this “twofold past” a desideratum of research, but more so the political decision process, which has resulted in reshaping and designing the Buchenwald Memorial. This nonconformity is no accident or a consequence of mere topicality. “Commemorative cultures” are normally considered as cultural discourses about questions of historical truth, of aesthetic design and eventually of educational consequences and are reconstructed accordingly. But the politico-administrative system is usually neglected or considered as of secondary importance. This level works off such “last questions” of true or false, beautiful or ugly, appropriate or inappropriate into mostly very profane seeming aspects of legal and financial practicability, respectively the chance to prevail by a majority vote and/or an act of administration, and has to create legitimacy in a procedural manner. We believe that neglect of the political dimension (or its classification as a more or less manipulative and disturbing appendage to “more substantial questions”) leads astray analytically.

By this, one notion, mentioned in the title, can already be better comprehended: political culture, a key notion of Political Science since the 1950s, which labels empirical research of political attitudes, values and behavioral patterns of a political system’s population. In the perspective of theoretically demanding analysis such concepts can hardly be considered as being up-to-date, especially not surveys of political attitudes carried out under this label. A culturalization of political culture research is to be stated, in so far that “culture as text” as well as the negotiation process of meanings should be set as themes. The German political scientist Karl Rohe defines it this way: “Political culture can (…), of course, not only be understood as an already existent result but must always be conceived as a process, too. (…) The analysis of politico-cultural practice therefore belongs to the analysis of political culture, and they are, of course, of equal importance” (Rohe 1994, 8).

The textual and narrative dimension of this practice is normally grasped by exegetic-reconstructive procedures. The phenomenon of representing the past in shape of memorials can be read as text also. Especially the studies of Young (e.g. 1994) have shown this. Our emphasis, however, is on the analysis of the corresponding negotiation process as described by Schwab-Trapp and Herz (1997) and recently by Wolfrum (1999). While they focus foremost on the discursive dimension of the conflict, we, on the other hand, direct our attention on the current procedures of politico-administrative decision and its often neglected relevance for the determination of meanings. Thus, politics of memory can be reconstructed as a policy of political culture.

II. Commemorative culture and historical site

The political culture of a community emerges not lastly by confrontation with history. Normally, this refers to the affirmative follow-up to an act of founding (often long ago), which permanently establishes the self-evidence of the “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) without questioning it. For the successor states of the Third Reich, however, only the demarcation from National Socialism came into question: Consequently the political culture of the Federal Republic was above all constituted through conflicts over this “Nazi past’s” interpretation, also called “mastering of the past”. At first this developed as a political and lawful working out of state-committed crimes of violence in the Third Reich. Simultaneously, the psychologic-educational process of working out Nazi felonies took place within the family, in journalistic debates, and in the general public. Furthermore, politico-historical controversies took place within the dispute about the shaping of the official sphere of commemoration. This dispute is of specific interest to us and can be conceptualized as a important part of commemorative culture(s). This above all is a matter of the past’s adequate representation in form of commemoration days and speeches, and of memorials and monuments. But it is also about compensation of damages, statute of limitation for crimes, and cleansing of and granting amnesty to perpetrators and silent accomplices, and so forth.

This perspective can be applied to the authentic historical sites also. The “physical remnants” (as one might call it) found at a Concentration Camp, for example, are not only reminiscent of those who were killed there and a “past, which does not fade” (or rather should not fade). But the interpretation of the past also manifests in the iconographic, architectural, and textual organization of the memorial, which is determined by the conception of history that underlies official commemoration. As an element of cultural memory institutionalized commemoration links up to a functional coherence, which primarily aims at the collective identity of the living (cf. Koselleck 1979).

As aforementioned, both successor states of the “Third Reich” (which the GDR never officially considered itself to be) had to be established as negative detachments of their previous past. With the unification of both states in 1989/90, totally inconsistent commemorative cultures, which now were paralleled and confronted with each other, added to this particularity. The Communist past stepped up to (and sometimes in front of) the Nazi past, as especially victims of the SED-dictatorship and of Stalinism have emphasized. Out of this resulted the demand to correct the National Socialist past’s perception through the filter of GDR-official historiography as the third historical and politically relevant level. With the upcoming reorganization of the memorials for National Socialism’s victims in the new federal states not only problems of institutional change surfaced. It was also about re-determining these memorial places’ symbolical meaning for the political culture of the “Berlin Republic”.

The exemplary relevance of the analyzed Buchenwald memorial for German commemorative culture thus results out of the three significations of this historical site. At first, the National Socialist’s concentration camp was established on the Ettersberg near Weimar in 1937. A definite presentation of the concentration camp’s structure and function proves to be difficult due to the number of inmates in the course of the camp’s history: Buchenwald prisoners came from over 30 different countries and were interned because of various reasons. This resulted in a heterogeneous prisoner’s society, from which the “privileged” positions of so-called functional prisoners stood out – over which a heated controversy has arisen in the meantime.

The Concentration Camp Buchenwald and its external camps were liberated by allied troops in 1945. Already a few weeks after the end of the Second World War, in the course of of denazification, an internment camp was erected in August 1945 on the Ettersberg site as well as further camps in other occupational zones. The internment camp on the Ettersberg was named “Special Camp Nr.2” by the Soviet local authority responsible. Because of the arbitrary internment practice of the SMAD a heterogeneous prisoners’ society formed here likewise, embracing Nazi functionaries of different ranks as well as actual or supposed enemies of the Soviet reorganization policy. Their inhumane treatment, taking death and malady into account, was only known by hearsay and spread by rumor in GDR’s further history, but was never officially recognized – not even in the course of destalinization and rehabilitation. The unmarked graves of the people hurriedly buried in Buchenwald were covered by vegetation. The existence of these Special Camps was placed under a taboo or at least was no subject of discourse.

Concerning the victims of the National Socialist camp the facts were completely different. The precondition for realizing a memorial covering the entire site was established when the camp ground was handed over to GDR authorities in mid 1951. With the foundation of the GDR the realization of a memorial had been declared a “national duty” on initiative of former Communist prisoners of the Concentration Camp. The Memorial’s design was started by minimizing the physical relics: From those buildings, which had largely survived until 1951, especially the entrance area with camp gate and guarding towers as well as crematory and warehouse were preserved. But the actual creation of the historical meaning was shifted to establishing a monumental Memorial. Those changes brought about an intended homogenization as well as a hero worshipping of the victims. The center of commemoration was always the communist opposition inside of the Concentration Camp and its significance as a legacy. This creation of function already manifests itself in the so-called oath of Buchenwald as an obligation for shaping the future. All together, the National Memorial Buchenwald, inaugurated in September of 1958, conveyed a picture of history that served GDR’s moral legitimization out of the spirit of anti-fascism.

By this concise account one can already see that by now the Buchenwald Memorial functions as a symbol of a threefold German contemporary history: The temporal and in a certain way material continuity of the camp site downright provokes a confrontation with the twofold past of National Socialism and Stalinism. Subsequently this calls for a revision of the functionalization of commemoration during GDR-dictatorship. How did the conflict about the interpretation of the past, resulting out of this intricate constellation, realize precisely and how did the actors concerned articulate their interests regarding commemoration? After defining our understanding of “politics of memory” this will be reconstructed chronologically and in view of the also perceptible transformation of political culture.

III. Politics of memory in perspective

Not only the GDR gave examples of how nonchalantly and excessively “politics with the past” was conducted (for the history of the Federal Republic see Reichel 1995). However, analysis cannot be restricted to official distortions of the past in an instrumentalizing manner and blatant commissioning. One rather has to proceed from the assumption that politics of memory is inevitable. The historian Wolfrum defines politics of memory as that “field of action and policy different actors seek to burden with their specific interests and try to use politically”. More specifically, he is interested in “how, by whom, why, with what sort of means, with what sort of intention, and with what sort of effect are experiences with the past set as a theme and thus become relevant in a political sense” (Wolfrum 1999, 25 f). This definition, however, suggests that politics mainly handles the past in a manipulative way. The author himself characterizes politics of memory as a “weapon variable in each situation steadily handled by politicians” (ibid., 29). He also differentiates, in our opinion not quite successfully, between “progressive” and “regressive”, meaning enlightening and emancipating intentions and effects and correspondingly meaning legitimizing or traditional intentions and effects. But with good reason he emphasizes that a pluralistic society like the one of the Federal Republic cannot postulate, generate, or presume a consistent picture of the past. Instead a “contest of memories” will come about necessarily and through this “dominating interpretational axes and explanational patterns” (ibid., 26) crystallize. This contest will be staged among “interpretational elites” within public culture and has an undecided outcome. In a “process, mediated publicly and by mass media, visible powers and counteracting forces are at work”, which “struggle for the hegemony of discourses and interpretational patterns” (ibid., 28).

With this extensive definition one disassociates oneself from a variant of “policy of the past” (Frei 1996) that concentrates on the cleansing of a dictorial past or on its working out in a closely related temporal, a practical-political, and a lawful manner. This allows a (not relativizing) “historization of National Socialism”, which Martin Broszat had already called for a couple of years earlier. This means that a rather formal comparison of the in-no-way-singular process is conducted, if “collective identities are constructed and reconstructed by means of public discourses about history and through conflicts of interpretation related to the past” (Wolfrum), especially after a change of regimes or turning-points in history.

Above all we want to accentuate two aspects beyond Wolfrum:

  • on the one hand discourse analysis based on the Sociology of Knowledge (or also, discourse analysis based on the Political Science of Knowledge, because this is about interpretations based on power and generating domination);
  • on the other hand the classification of politics of memory as policy analysis.

This means we want to bring politics of memory back into the customary policy-cycle and by this de-dramatize it. This political process approximately runs through the following stages:

  • First, the agenda-setting – here, for example, by publishing a tabooed past and the discussion about adequate representation of the past(s) in the local public as well as within the Memorial’s administration.
  • After this the politico-administrative settlement and canalization of conflicts, which can come about by various means: namely, by expertise (such as a historians’ commission), or by “commemoration competition” (Volkhard Knigge), and antagonistic mobilization (as by victim or advocacy groups rivaling for medial attention). Additionally, the settlement and canalization of conflicts can occur via “policy brokers” and finally by sovereign superintendence of personnel and sovereign budget supervision of agencies on municipal, state, and federal level. Here also, money and law are available as the most effective means of control. Representatives of the governmental monopoly of force, however, are only one actor among many in the field of politics of memory, and have to, above all, rely on politico-rhetorical and persuasive media as well as on procedures of “governing through discussion” (respectively moderation).

IV. The conflict in chronological perspective

During an investigation at the end of January 1990 a journalist of a local newspaper stumbled on mortal remains beneath the site of the Buchenwald memorial. These obviously belonged to common graves out of the time of the Soviet internment camp. After this unearthing, subscribers’ letters and articles started off in the local newspapers. The memorial’s staff was accused of active complicity in the imposed silence about the camp’s second history. At this point of time already the demand for a memorial for those killed in the Special Camp was raised. In comparison to the monumental Memorial for the victims of the Concentration Camp, the wooden cross set up as a makeshift at the place where the common graves were presumed to be, was anticipated as a continuation of a forgery of history with aesthetic means.

Because the administrative routine of the memorial’s management did not do justice to the articulated need of an adequate representation of this memory, an association was constituted to safeguard the interests of the Special Camp’s former inmates and their relatives. The rather revisionary attempt of the Weimar Initiative “Buchenwald 1945 – 1950” (other associations joined later) was soon taken as a reason for reformulating and simplifying the relationship of both German pasts by the West German side. Hence, the “Association of the Victims of Stalinism”, which was founded in the Federal Republic, organized a commemoration “For the victims of a 58-year-dictatorship in Germany”. The secretary of intra-German affairs at that time, Dorothee Wilms, demanded that the “former Concentration Camp Buchenwald must be extended to a memorial ‘for the victims of arbitrariness and persecution’” (Frankfurter Rundschau, 18.07.1990). Here the common de-concretization of historical experiences was already perceptible in connection to the official tradition of commemoration in the Federal Republic for the “victims of the rule by force”, which is supposed to enable an inclusive offer of identification to both groups of victims. To this, the commemoration interests articulated by the organizations of former Concentration Camp prisoners were strictly opposed. The Internationale Komitee Buchenwald/ Dora und Kommandos (IKBD) addressed the by now all-German federal government in the beginning of October 1990 with the appeal to “safeguard this Memorial against every alteration that could diminish or veil its meaning”. This includes “that the women and men, which have been for years and decades communicating the message, our oath contains, to millions of visitors from all over the world, can continue (…) to perform their meritorious vocation”.

The interpretational conflict, thus rudimentary unrolled, moved the memorial’s personnel policy, which had been the responsibility of the Thuringia Ministry of Science and Arts since the German unification, to the center of interest. The local political public alleged the continuance of an SED-ring. This allegation was reinforced by the appointment of a new manager for the Memorial, whose former membership in the Communist Party of the Federal Republic (DKP) became public only a little later. Because of this he then had to resign. The dismissal of those employees at the Memorial, who had been members of the SED, became the main criterion for an appropriate reorganization of the institution. In order to decouple the elaboration of the Memorial’s future conception from personnel-political decisions, the Thuringia Ministry of Science and Arts announced the nomination of a commission of experts, parallel to the repeated advertisement of the vacant office. This commission was supposed to relieve the new director of personnel-political decisions.

Through the means of scientific expertise competing claims on the design were rather to be clarified cognitively, which means in regard to the historiographic “state of research”. While the moral claim of the persons concerned was still recognized by the hearing of their arguments, the role of the Memorial’s employees was reduced to the implementation (which they were then responsible for) of the reached fundamental decision. This procedure did not seem to bring about a consensus between all persons involved, but increased the prospect of recognition of corresponding decisions. The institutional arrangements thus called forth the assumption that it was now possible to decide with better reason in case of disagreement.

At the center of this, the historian commission under chairmanship of the historian Eberhard Jäckel was set up in the summer of 1991. Other renowned historians from the former federal states were members, of which the majority can be regarded as experts on National Socialism. Furthermore, an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, versed in this field, and a female representative of a West-German memorial were appointed. Following an inspection of the site, a hearing of representatives of the victims’ associations and of other social groups was held, in which, for example, the IKBD as well as the Initiative “Buchenwald 1945 – 1950” participated. On the 15th of September 1991 the commission announced its fundamental decision to separate the two commemoration spheres spatially and at the same time recommended: “The emphasis should be on the Concentration Camp” (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald 1992, 10). Furthermore, the exhibition of the Concentration Camp Buchenwald was to be drafted anew because of the obvious distortions. Afterwards a corresponding exposition for an adequate commemoration of the Special Camp was to be elaborated. Moreover, the commission advocated an exhibition documenting the history of the Memorial from 1950 to 1990. The new conception thus resulted in a hierarchical presentation of now three periods of history (1933-1945, 1945-1950, 1950-1990), which were categorized under the catchwords Buchenwald I, II, and III during consultations. In this, one can make out a general trend of commemorative activities related to National Socialism: to switch from the presentation of factual knowledge about the “worked out” past to the reflexive working out of this working out itself, thus a reflexive feedback, which in this case was only possible because of the de facto ending of GDR-history.

At their second meeting on the 16th of November 1991, the historians’ commission concretized its conceptions and formulated inter alia the following recommendation: “The space for a ‘Special Camp 2’ Memorial should, if possible, be positioned within the site of the prisoners’ camp, in order to document the spatial continuity” (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald 1992, 11). This decision was especially criticized by the IKBD, who had wanted to reserve the camp’s site exclusively for the representation of the memory of felonies committed during National Socialism. In the follow-up report, which the commission had formulated subsequent to the repeated hearing of the persons concerned on the 14th of February 1992, the commission tried to take the various interests into account. In order to leave the character of the prisoners’ area as unchanged as possible, the new building for the exhibition about the Special Camp was to be constructed within the camp site, but hid by other buildings (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald 1992, 13). The revealed burial-places were essentially to be preserved in their form as woodland graveyards and a place of mourning was to be erected additionally. Besides this conceptual decision the commission recommended a legal step: with the purpose of removing Buchenwald from the grip of a single actor permanently, the Memorial should be given the legal form of an independent foundation of public law, in which the persons concerned are represented in an advisory function. These recommendations were met with approval by all parties represented in the Federal State Parliament of Thuringia on the 17th of September 1992 and were thus politically authorized.

Although the institutional transformation of the Memorial was largely settled administratively by this political decision, the controversies regarding the contents of the facility continued. One of the reasons for this was that formal claims rather than claims as to the contents were made regarding the reshaping, not only because the past of both camps still was to be investigated in full. At the same time, however, an intense demand for acting existed especially for the exhibition about the Concentration Camp, since the date, the changes had to be finished, was already set by the 50th anniversary of the liberation in April 1995. This is, in our opinion, an example of how political controversies about history can develop an internal logic of commemorative culture (here: rhythm and cycle of anniversaries) as against other valid claims on its way form deliberation to decision.

Within the now detached comparative perspective of the two German dictatorships, the conflict accumulated in an argument about the Communist functional prisoners. Their role was conveyed by document findings in the SED-archive, in the course of corresponding researches for the revision of the exposition, which goes back to the time of the GDR. Especially the manner and degree of collaboration of the so-called “Kapos” with the camp-SS was an offense, as well as the probable continuity of the conspiracy of the Communist Party’s administration in the Concentration Camp Buchenwald into the later observation apparatus of the SED-state. The corresponding findings remained controversial, but led to the resignation of a managing director of the Memorial, who had held office in the meantime. As a cause of the ongoing problems he named the impediment by employees, which had been members of the SED. In the election year of 1994 the discussion about personnel was issue of a press campaign, particularly urged on by a tabloid newspaper in Thuringia (BILD-Zeitung), in which the dismissal of former SED-members was demanded. Supposedly they had been working for the State Security and were now obstacles to a truthful working out of the past.

This discussion spread to the “Memorial Foundation of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora”, which had been constituted in the beginning of April 1994. The foundation’s council mainly consists of representatives of the politico-administrative system of the federal and the federal state level, thus of financier and personnel supervisor, as well as of representatives of the concerned county and the city of Weimar. A board of curators, consisting most of all of historians, manages the conception of the institution. Furthermore three advisory boards with the according representatives of the former prisoners are appointed to the board of curators – one prisoners’ advisory board for Buchenwald, one for Mittelbau Dora, and one for the Special Camp. These advisory boards were established in July of 1994 and the Cultural Scientist Volkhard Knigge was appointed as the new managing director of the Memorial and the Foundation. At the same time the only East-German member of the board of curators had to resign due to his proven former activity for the Ministry of State Security. The composition of the committee remained controversial from the perspective of the former Special Camp’s prisoners, too. They demanded an inclusion of historians not only working on the time frame of and the problems arising out of National Socialism but rather also on “Soviet Communism and Stalinism”.

Although further consequences concerning the personnel did not occur, the foundation’s construction enabled a relief of the Memorial’s personnel from the technical responsibility for the exhibition, which was being worked on. Simultaneously a first edition with excerpts of the documents relevant for the argument was published (Niethammer 1994). Although the evaluation of the findings was controversial, this publication enabled a review of the statements, which were to manifest themselves in the exhibition. With the opening of the new permanent exhibition about the history of the Concentration Camp – on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the liberation in April 1995 – the commemoration of the Special Camp moved into the center of interest. In June of 1995 the construction of the exhibition building had started, according to a plan a price had been awarded to by a jury. In the October following, the construction was stopped without hearing the prisoners’ advisory board concerned. This triggered a controversy because, according to Knigge, the design contained elements that lean upon the design of Holocaust Memorials. In his opinion this could have been understood as an attempt to relativize the separation of commemoration by aesthetical means. A discussion about the composition of the prisoners’ society of the Special Camp followed. In its course the chairman of the Association of the Victims of Stalinism in Thuringia filed a suit against Knigge, owing to his statement that the inmates were for the most part “civilian bearers of function” of the National Socialist regime. Subsequently the prisoners’ advisory board of the Special Camp suspended its assistance at the foundation. The participatory rights of the persons concerned were not heeded with reference to a possible endangering of the fundamental decision. Had the construction been implemented as intended, the fundamental decision to differentiate commemoration would have been neutralized by the equivalence established through the architecture. Some elements of the Special Camp’s commemoration site would have looked exactly like some of the elements of the commemorative architecture of the Concentration Camp. Due to these proceedings the decision of the historians’ commission to subordinate the commemoration of this complex was criticized again as a whole.

The inquiry commission for the “Overcoming of Consequences of the SED-dictatorship in the Process of German Unity” provided a fundamental platform for this controversy (cf. Deutscher Bundestag 1999). This commission was, among other things, assigned the “development of an all-German form of commemoration of both German dictatorships and their victims”. The victims of the Special Camp and the sciential representatives of totalitarianism theory tried to instrumentalize the discussions for a revision of the fundamental decisions made for Buchenwald. The representatives of the victims of the Concentration Camp, on the other hand, already perceived it as an affront to see their concerns actually subsumed under the overall topic “working out of SED-injustice”. This resulted in an uproar on the 14th of October 1996 in Buchenwald when the IKBD refused to sit at the table with the lobbies of post-war victims, on the occasion of a public hearing of the victims’ associations by the working group “Memorials”.

This development clearly shows the attempt to revise the differentiation of claims of validity, which underlies the foundation’s construction as well. With the rejection of their claim for a specific commemorative architecture the representatives of the Special Camp’s prisoners perceived their status as victims being questioned in general. The justification for the rejection of the claim – the reference to the composition of the prisoners’ society – was absolutely opposed to the way they perceived themselves. Only the legitimacy of the decision-making procedure could be set against this politico-moral rating. Thus, on the 25th of May 1997, the permanent exhibition on the Special Camp’s history was inaugurated in a commemorative place as a “functional building” without any architectural elements interpreting history. Even though the representatives of the victims’ associations welcomed the facility as such, they adhered to their criticism on the symbolical representation of commemoration. In their opinion this plain concrete building, which is located at a slope and cannot be seen from the camp’s site, supposedly looks like a bunker.

The last fundamental element of the Memorial’s redesign was the opening of the exhibition on the history of the Memorial in the GDR, on the 24th of October 1999. This, on the other hand, provoked the protest of the Concentration Camp’s victims, who perceived a utilization of the historic site as a means to de-legitimize the GDR in the presentation of the commemoration’s instrumentalization by the GDR. Although the institutional transformation regarding the contents of the Buchenwald Memorial is for the most part completed (and can be considered a success from a sciential and museum-didactical perspective), the controversy on the grounds of politics of memory continues. Mission Impossible – has the redesign therefore failed? The development could be just as well understood as the actual intended result of the chosen institutional arrangement: Since the disparity of the historical experiences to be represented cannot be solved discursively, the commission of experts transferred the intended process of deliberation, as a means for administrative decision-making, to the Memorial’s conception. This, however, did not settle the conflict, resulting out of the competition of commemorative claims, but regulated it at least. The symbolical significance of the historic site now exactly infers from the reflection about the various connotations, to which the memories there realized refer. Indeed, this differentiation of commemoration turns out to be an insult to the victim-groups concerned. From the perspective of the united Germany’s political culture, however, this can be characterized and accepted as a prerequisite for symbolical integration through reflective reception. A de-ideologization of commemorative cultures instead of a de-historization and de-concretization of historical events can be stated, as the heterogeneity of the historical information relevant is not preserved in a homogeneous picture of history, which could be ritually received or ritually consummated there. This is not a bad outcome for the “future of commemoration”.

V. Outlook

We have presented an example of an intervention in interpretational conflicts related to the past, which in our opinion was not awkward and rather wise. It can furthermore illustrate the, at times quite turbulent, process of politics of memory. In other policy areas a parallelism of three streams can be stated, according to the so-called Garbage-Can-Model as (1) problem accumulation and articulation, (2) the relevant policy community, including political advocates, mediators and entrepreneurs, and as (3) political increase (for instance concerning elections). These parallel streams run corresponding to each other and make decisions possible at certain intersections (windows of opportunities). Here also an analogous process has taken place, having, of course, two characteristic aspects, which could be interpreted as defects and re-actualized in a conflictual manner: first, the missing of democratic participation and legitimacy, customary with decisions related to the past – people try to keep these delicate issues out of election campaigns and try not to leave them up to majority votes in parliament. Therefore the issues are delegated to experts’ commissions and administrative authorities. The East-West-disparity could turn out as the second deficiency. Not regarding the decision as such, this contrast could become inflamed on the exclusive composition of the historians’ commission, should an equation of the under-representation of the east-German side with the marginalization of this corresponding group of victims occur.

The redesign of Buchenwald has shown very precisely that the East-West-dimension has now always to be taken into consideration in regard to the past. Up to now this dimension has not permitted a mutual perception or a unanimous problem awareness. In connection to this, overall transformations of politics of memory are imaginable, surpassing the German special case. These transformations can only be listed here in keywords:

In regard to the Concentration Camp Buchenwald, first of all, the effect of the gradual, biologically determined cessation of the immediate memory of contemporaries becomes obvious. They have played a major role in the founding as well as the legend of the GDR-memorial. But what will change, when the last survivors – victims and silent accomplices as well as perpetrators – have died and the immediate existential dimension of memory, established through experiencing and being affected, is thus thrust to the background. If the witness stand remains empty, a communicative memory based on it will drop into the cultural repertoire of commemoration of posthumous generations and will put the “mediators” in its place. This has always been the claim of historiography and Historical Science striving for objectivity, whose methodological distance excelled the claim of oral reporting for authenticity.

The passing away of contemporaries and the generational shift secondly pose a challenge to the further shaping of the “authentic site”, whose facets are still fought over. The “working out of the working out”, as the amplified incorporation of the level of reflection of commemorative cultures and of politics of memory as such, relativizes the physical remnants of the camp and shifts the attention from “monument to media”, which means to the saved and mediated memory. Their digitalization has enlarged the funds immensely and allows to have them at disposal independent of time or place, whereby rigid and vivid pictures play a more important, and at the same time more controversial role (cf. Wehrmacht exhibition). Presentational formats of popular culture become more significant as well, including fictional and collaged elements.

Connected to this is thirdly a transnationalization of commemoration, parallel to the globalization of economy, culture and politics, therefore a commemoration, which orients itself on the by far most excellent memorials worldwide. Even the “nation of perpetrators” can fall into line here, as a re-orientation of commemoration towards the prevention of genocide, racism, and xenophobia has started, which can disregard the concrete factualness of the crimes committed in Buchenwald and their asserted uniqueness.

Fourthly, as the example of Buchenwald should have shown adequately, the opportunity for an all-round instrumentalization of memory for political objectives related to the present as well as a certain degree of nationalization of commemorative rituals is given. This raises the difficult question of what lessons are to be drawn from the past with all seriousness anew.


Deutscher Bundestag [ed.] (1999): Materialien der Enquete-Kommission “Überwindung der Folgen der SED-Diktatur im Prozeß der Deutschen Einheit” (13. Wahlperiode des Deutschen Bundestages), Bd. VI: Gesamtdeutschen Formen der Erinnerung an die beiden deutschen Diktaturen und ihre Opfer, Baden-Baden.

Frei, Norbert (1996): Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit. München.

Gedenkstätte Buchenwald (1992): Zur Neuorientierung der Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Die Empfehlungen der vom Minister für Wissenschaft und Kunst des Landes Thüringen berufenen Historikerkommission, Weimar-Buchenwald.

Herz, Thomas/Schwab-Trapp, Michael (1997): Umkämpfte Vergangenheit. Diskurse über den Nationalsozialismus seit 1945. Opladen, 11-35.

Koselleck, Reinhart (1979): Kriegerdenkmale als Identitätsstiftungen der Überlebenden. In: Marquard, Odo/Stierle, Karlheinz (eds.): Identität. München, 255-276.

Niethammer, Lutz [ed.] (1994): Der “gesäuberte” Antifaschismus. Die SED und die roten Kapos von Buchenwald, Berlin.

Reichel, Peter (1995): Politik mit der Erinnerung. Gedächtnisorte im Streit um die nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit. München/Wien.

Rohe, Karl (1994): Politische Kultur: Zum Verständnis eines theoretischen Konzepts. In: Niedermayer, Oskar/Beyme, Klaus von [eds.]: Politische Kultur in Ost- und Westdeutschland. Berlin.

Wolfrum, Edgar (1999): Geschichtspolitik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Der Weg zur bundesrepublikanischen Erinnerung 1948-1990. Darmstadt.

Young, James E. [ed.] (1993): The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven.

Copyright © 2002 by the authors. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.
Tr@nsit online, Nr. 22/2002


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    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

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    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

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    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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