Memory with no clear answers: Volkstrauertag, Opfer des Faschismus, and the politics of publicly mourning the war dead in Germany, 1945-1972 Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Williamson, James Franklin
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • Germans’ hesitance to completely remember the Nazi past after 1945 is well documented. Yet there also exists much evidence of German society’s wide-ranging political and cultural reform across these decades, with the peaceful reunification of the two German states in 1990 and the nation’s strong preference for diplomacy over military engagement representing two recent examples. When considered together, this history of Germans’ success in building democracy across the post-war decades appears to complicate the other history of Germans’ silence and forgetting of their fascist past. This dissertation presents a history of public holidays dedicated to mourning the war dead in West- and East Germany, in an attempt to reexamine the apparent tension between limited memories of the Nazi past and nearly complete recovery from that past. Official remembrance ceremonies on Volkstrauertag in Bonn and the Gedenktag für die Opfer des Faschismus in East Berlin suggested to audiences how they should understand and remember the lives and deaths of the victims of the war, yet these interpretations were neither static nor unconditionally accepted. Situating official commemorations of the dead within the context of Germans revising their attitudes toward warfare sheds new light on Germans’ collective memory of the Second World War and the Nazi regime. While the history of public mourning holidays in post-war Germany does not dispute the conclusion that Germans only slowly and haltingly confronted their Nazi history, it does suggest that Germans rather quickly adopted a skepticism toward warfare and military institutions. Despite some exceptions, German leaders presented the war and the experience of wartime death to their audiences as negative, undesirable events. To be sure, the shift away from remembering soldiers as models of patriotism and selfless sacrifices took place unevenly. Yet the overall history indicates that by the early 1970s, Germans generally agreed that peace was preferable to war. Germans had derived this conclusion partly from the pain of suffering so many dead casualties in the last war and partly from their certainty that another war would only bring the same fate.
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  • Jarausch, Konrad Hugo
  • Doctor of Philosophy
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  • 2013

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