German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past

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This book examines West German intellectual debates about the Nazi past by explaining why they were so relentlessly polarized. Germans argued about the viability of their very nationality: was it stigmatized, stained, or polluted by crimes of the Third Reich? Or was it really like any other nation? The book examines how German intellectuals either defended national traditions or condemned them and instead advocated alternative traditions. Although the book proceeds chronologically, it differs from other works, which are event-based narratives, by highlighting this underlying structure of identity and dispute.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“remarkable synthesis of public debates on German history and identity.” -Tuska Benes, History: Review of New Books

“A. Dirk Moses provides an excellent analysis and review of the sometimes esoteric and often bitter disputes between different schools of thought in Germany about the Holocaust and German guilt.” -Arthur B. Gunlicks, Holocaust and Genocide Studies

“Moses does an outstanding job of referring debates and of dealing with aspects of intellectuals that are less known in traditional accounts.” -Robert C. Holub, German Politics and Society

“Moses’s greatest contribution in German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past is his analysis of why some intellectuals believed that the German population needed to be morally transformed after the war and why others did not.” -Noah B. Strote, Theory and Society

“All research on the intellectual history of the Federal Republic will find trustworthy orientation in this book.” -Jens Hacke, H-Soz-u-Kult

"Moses has provided a masterly synthesis of West German political thought, and a work of great intellectual power. In short: his book is the most important work in English on West German memory of Nazism to have appeared in recent years." -Bill Niven, German Quarterly Book Reviews

"German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past is a splendid and original interpretation that ought to be consulted by all historians interested in historical memory, national identity, and the discourse of public intellectuals." -William David Jones, Canadian Journal of History

"Moses's study of the influence and use of memory in the West German political realm, focusing on the role of the public intellectual, is superb." -Douglas C. Peifer, Contemporary European History

"Precisely because of the questions it raises, this is an agenda-setting book, with which any scholar of intellectuals, political culture and postwar Germany's reckoning with the past will have to contend. Moreover, it should interest those who study memory, identity and transitional justice more broadly." -Sean A. Forner, National Identities

"Moses has given historians of central Europe, if not the larger historical profession, much to mull over in their writing, research, and teaching on contemporary German history. No scholar will approach the topic of Vergangenheitsbewältigung again without first coming to terms with this book." -Jason Dawsey, H-German

'"This well-informed book by Moses rewrites the intellectual history of federal Germany from the second world war to the first years of the new millennium, concentrating on the development of German national consciousness as a means to recover an "underlying structure of German emotions" -Manfred Alexander Hinz, Ricerche di Storia Politica

"...the study makes a strong contribution to the scholarship surrounding this important topic." -Eric J. Klaus, German Studies Review

"A. Dirk Moses has written a passionate book: one that combines traditional intellectual history, memory discourse, an overwhelming concern with moral judgements, and some biblical analogies." -Kenneth Barkin, Journal of Modern History

"...meticulously researched, well-written account..." -Carole Fink, Journal of Cold War Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521145718
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Dirk Moses studied history in Australia, Scotland, the United States and Germany before joining the History Department at the University of Sydney in 2000. As a research fellow at the University of Freiburg, he worked on postwar German debates about the recent past, a project which became German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past. He has edited and co-edited four anthologies on genocide, mainly on the relationship with colonialism. He has held fellowships in Austria, Germany, Israel and the USA, most recently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Currently, he is Professor of Global and Colonial History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he is finishing a book manuscript entitled Genocide and the Terror of History. He is also working on a project called 'The Diplomacy of Genocide', which studies international reactions to allegations of genocide in postcolonial conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-86495-4 - German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past - by A. Dirk Moses


The proposition that the Federal Republic of Germany has developed a healthy democratic culture centered around memory of the Holocaust has almost become a platitude.1 Symbolizing the relationship between the Federal Republic’s liberal political culture and honest reckoning with the past, an enormous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe adjacent to the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) and Brandenburg Gate in the national capital was unveiled in 2005. States usually erect monuments to their fallen soldiers, after all, not to the victims of these soldiers. In the eyes of many, the West German and, since 1990, the united German experience has become the model of how post-totalitarian and postgenocidal societies “come to terms with the past.”2 Germany now seemed no different from the rest of Europe – or, indeed, from the West generally. Jews from Eastern Europe are as happy to settle there as they are to emigrate to Israel, the United States, or Australia.3

   This rosy picture of the Berlin Republic is explicitly whiggish. Not for nothing was philosopher Jürgen Habermas hailed as the “Hegel of the Federal Republic,” because his articulation of its supposedly“postconventional” identity presented the Berlin Republic as the end point of a successful moral learning process.4 The Red-Green government of Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005) turned this philosophy into policy. Former minister for culture Michael Naumann justified the Berlin memorial by invoking the political theology of Habermas’s friend, the theologian Johann Baptist Metz: the Republic’s “anamnestic culture” of remembrance demanded such a commemorative gesture.5 Twenty years after the “Historians’ Dispute” (Historikerstreit) about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, “a culture of contrition” as the basis of German democracy seemed firmly embedded in German society.6 Since (re)unification in 1990, historians and political scientists have begun attempting to explain this unexpectedly happy end to Germany’s otherwise dismal twentieth century.7

   Yet there are good reasons to regard the narrative in which Germany was redeemed by the memory of murdered Jews with some suspicion. No consensus ever obtained about remembering the Holocaust. Consider the tortured memory debates in Germany since the mid-1990s. Many Germans opposed the new memory politics, which they felt was imposed on them by distant leaders attuned to the expectations of Atlantic political and cultural elites. Research into the intergenerational transmission of German memory revealed a considerable gap between the pieties of official statements and the intimate sphere of the family, where stories of German suffering and survival endured half a century after the end of the Second World War.8 Accordingly, the call for the “normalization” of German history and national consciousness appeared regularly in public discourse.9 Indeed, had not the writer Martin Walser complained infamously in 1998 that Holocaust memory was wielded like a “moral cudgel” to bully Germans into accepting a politically correct version of their past?10

   Nor was the decision to construct the memorial in Berlin uncontroversial; in truth, it was highly divisive.11 Then there were the many reminders of a half-forgotten past that appear regularly to rupture the moral smugness of official politics. In the so-called Flick affair in 2004, for instance, the son of a business tycoon who profited greatly under the Nazis by employing slave laborers, to whom his family has never paid compensation, moved his modern art exhibition to Berlin after protesters successfully hounded it from Switzerland. Herr Flick could not comprehend the motives of those who objected to the separation of his love for modern art and the moral issues surrounding his father’s business dealings before 1945. Neither could Chancellor Schröder, who opened the exhibition by calling for the “normalization” of German memory.12

   These were no isolated incidents. A year earlier, controversy had rocked the literary establishment when the celebrated rehabilitators of postwar German literature, the Gruppe 47, were accused of anti-Semitism. The seeming mania for uncovering apparent brown roots in public figures, particularly those with impeccable left-liberal credentials, continued with the claim that the prominent Germanists Walter Jens (b. 1923) and Peter Wapnewski (b. 1922) had been members of the Nazi Party. Historians were likewise shocked when it was revealed that Martin Broszat (1926–89), the longtime director of the celebrated Institut für Zeitgeschichte, which for decades had been at the forefront of innovative scholarship on Nazism, had joined the Nazi Party on April 20, 1944. In the same vein, the famous journalist and founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein (1923–2002), was revealed to have employed former Gestapo and SS officers in high positions in the 1950s. Then, in 2006, the Nobel Prize–winning writer Günter Grass (b. 1927), a moralist associated with the left, admitted having been a member of the Waffen SS as a seventeen-year-old.13 Even Habermas became the subject of speculation when the rumor that, in the 1980s, he had swallowed an order he had allegedly given as a Hitler Youth leader after it was presented to him by its addressee, was discussed in German newspapers.14 The accumulation of these controversies in the first years of the new century led one journalist to remark on the seemingly never-ending “virulent identity crisis of the Germans.”15

   The virulence is also evident in the theme of “Germans as victims,” which also made a reappearance after its high point in the 1950s. In 2002 the German public was treated to a heated debate about the morality of the Allied bombing campaign against German cities, a discussion saturated by graphic images of charred mounds of civilians that excited thoughts of Germans as victims of the British, the Americans, and perhaps even the Nazis.16 Grass, too, signaled the preoccupation with German suffering in his novel, Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang).17 All the while, the organizations of German expellees agitate for a memorial site for their own suffering, much to the alarm of neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic, ever alert to any sign of irredentist politics in Germany.18

   The viewpoint that the early twenty-first century marked the culmination of a collective moral learning process for Germany whose past has been successfully “mastered” seems increasingly untenable. That the “correct” answer to the Nazi past was found also ignores the proposition that such an answer is impossible to prove. Moreover, can a past such as Germany’s be contained in a comfortable way? It is striking how long the debate has been framed by stark polarities: remembering or forgetting, too much memory or too little, its cynical instrumentalization or redeeming quality, capitulation in 1945 or liberation.19 All evidence points to the fact that the meaning of memory is indeterminate, controversial, and never fully controlled by political elites.

   This book suggests an alternative way of thinking about the past sixty years of German memory debates. Rather than posit linear progress or transformations in collective memory, it tries to explain the source of controversies about the national past between 1945 and 2005 as manifest enactments of an underlying structure of German political emotions. This structure was articulated in rival memory projects after the end of the Nazi regime, and it began to dissolve only at the beginning of the twenty-first century with the change of generations. As I show in Chapter 1, this structure was inscribed in the subjectivities of Germans as individuals because their past, and therefore their collective identity, had been polluted and stigmatized by the criminal deeds of the German regime between 1933 and 1945. This structure underlay discourse because it was intrinsic to postwar German identity. There was no escaping its stain: as a German, an individual necessarily partook in a national identity. As a structure, it framed the reaction to this stain in two ways, exemplified respectively by the “Non-German German” or the “German German”: either Germans could try to convince themselves and others that they had invented a new collectivity, divorced from an unbearable past, or they could defend the viability of their collective identity by making the national past bearable through a variety of displacement strategies. (As subsequent chapters make clear, I also refer to Non-German Germans as “redemptive republicans” and leftists, and German Germans as “integrative republicans” and conservatives.) The structural gaze allows the reader to abjure the moralistic tone in some of the secondary literature. Like anthropologists, we are observing the workings of a foreign cultural system.

A Political Consensus

For all that, a consensus about German political institutions – as opposed to national identity – did develop over the past sixty years. Disputed as the meaning of the Nazi past was for the German collective self-representation, republican political institutions became secured by broad agreement in the political class and population. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, West Germany’s epochal transformation – epochal in view of its moral and cultural ruin in 1945 – is easy to take for granted. With the guiding hand of the Allied occupation and the country’s westernization and modernization, it was only a matter of time until liberalism took root and Germany became “like us,” as one American commentator reassuringly put it.20 The problem with this view is that it possesses the deterministic air of a script in which the happy ending is assured if the actors play their role. But that such a consensus would develop in the Federal Republic was not inevitable. Nor can the remarkable transformation in political culture that has taken place here be captured by the paradigms historians have employed, such as “westernization,” “Americanization,” and “modernization.”

   The modernization approach has gathered increasing adherents since the call of the Bonn contemporary historian Hans-Peter Schwarz to view the economic boom in the 1950s as a rapid modernization rather than as the restoration of an antidemocratic constellation of social forces. Was not the democratic system strengthened, rather than weakened, by this capitalist modernization, he asked?21 The most significant product of this line of investigation has been the collection of Axel Schildt and Arnold Sywottek in which Schwarz’s affirmative reading is both confirmed and differentiated.22 Rapid modernization had indeed taken place, and the new system was consolidated, as Christoph Kleßmann put it, “under a conservative guardianship.”23 The westernization paradigm, advanced by historians at the University of Tübingen, examines the intellectual and cultural reorientation of the republic to the West, and especially to the United States, in the 1950s and 1960s.24

   There is much to be said for these approaches. They moved beyond the standard leftist view that regarded the 1950s as a decade of stagnation and dangerous authoritarianism when in fact rapid technical, industrial, and architectural changes transformed the face of the country.25 Yet the processes and structural changes highlighted by these paradigms cannot account for the political consensus that has taken place among the West German intelligentsia over the past half-century.26 After all, westernization also served as a synonym for the anticommunism that had rendered the German middle classes vulnerable to National Socialism. The self-understanding that opposed the “Christian West” to Soviet communism also disdained American popular culture and other apprehended manifestations of secular “materialism.”27 Here were mental continuities with the Nazi and pre-Nazi past that hindered consensus.

   The same problem applies to modernization. Since the Sonderweg (special path of modernization) debate of the 1980s, it has become apparent that modernization and “bourgeois dominance” do not automatically issue in political liberalization. The reverse may even be the case. The Sonderweg was not an antimodern utopia, as some have misunderstood it, but an authoritarian, explicitly illiberal version of technical modernity.28 The East Asian “tigers” – Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea – are contemporary examples of countries that have successfully industrialized without liberalizing their culture and political system, although the latter two are moving in that direction. If one considers the difficulties of combining a market economy and parliamentary politics in the rapidly transforming countries of Eastern Europe, the contingent relationship between economic system and political culture becomes equally apparent. Functioning liberal democracies appear to be the exception rather than the rule.29

   What was different in the Federal Republic? The conventional view is that the Federal Republic was redeemed by the “1968 generation,” not least by journalists and academics of that generation who have dominated the public sphere and universities. Born between 1938 and 1948, the so-called sixty-eighters are supposed to have corrected the political and moral deficiencies of German public and private life with their generational rebellion. In the words of one observer, “it was only in 1968 that the Federal Republic became a Western, liberal country. In Germany… the 1968 generation is seen not just as a cultural avant-garde but as Germany’s saviour from its National Socialist past.”30 As this generation ages and the events of its youth pass into “history,” we can make an elementary, analytical distinction – namely, between the consciously pursued project of the sixty-eighters and the cultural changes of which they were the bearer. The intentions and outcomes of 1968 are by no means the same. Let it be said: the aims of the sixty-eighter intellectuals were anything but liberal. They were divorced from reality by an illusory revolutionary self-understanding and were driven by a radicalizing voluntarism.31 Wolfgang Kraushaar, himself a “sixty-eighter,” drew attention to the fundamental anti- and illiberalism of the student leaders.32 Older sympathizers of the student movement were appalled by this dimension of the protest.33 It is difficult to make a case for the proposition that the liberal self-understanding of the Federal Republic was solely the result of 1968. The system and institutions that were established in 1949 were, among other things, its very target.

   None of this is to deny that cultural modernity came with and through 1968, as it did in all Western countries. The political scientist Claus Leggewie argued plausibly that the movement was eminently successful if viewed as a “laboratory of the postindustrial society.”34 Conservatives are prepared to subscribe to this view.35 What Jürgen Habermas called the “process of fundamental liberalization” – the transformation of authority relations in the family, workplace, and classroom and the readiness for democratic participation and protest – became an integral part of the West German landscape.36

   At the same time, if we want to account for the continuity of those dimensions of the West German consensus that the sixty-eighters regarded as dubiously authoritarian – representative democracy, the social market economy, intellectual pluralism, and Westbindung (embedment in the West) – then an important factor is that 1968 failed in its explicit and avowed objectives.37 This book argues that the answer to the question about the sources of German political reorientation can be found by looking at another generation: the comparatively neglected “generation of 1945,” those young men and women (but mostly men – these were still patriarchal times) who were between fifteen and twenty-five years of age at the end of the war and who constituted the first postwar generation of university students. The “forty-fivers” became the young academics and journalists in the 1960s who commenced the task of subjecting the national intellectual traditions to a searching critique in light of their experience of the rupture of 1945 when many of them had to begin reconsidering what they had been taught in the Hitler Youth or army.

Intellectuals and Memory

This book focuses on intellectuals and public debate among the forty-fivers, in particular those disputes over university reform, because they viewed universities as the site of national defense and renewal. Simply cataloging debates is inadequate, however. Their terms need to be exposed and explained. I employ the concept of “political languages” from the history of political thought to capture the importance of background understandings of good and evil that stand behind the customary ideological differences. Because memories and ideas about Germany’s past, present, and future are expressed linguistically, it is necessary to examine what Germans most adept at deploying these political languages have said and written about their collective past.

   Postwar German intellectuals utilized two languages of republicanism in their debates, “redemptive” and “integrative,” the former expressing the Non-German German wish for a republic divorced from corrupted national traditions, and the latter articulating the German German imperative for positive, national continuities. If both languages were committed to a German republic, they entertained very different political visions of its future. Both laid claim to the German past to fashion narratives of legitimacy for their respective visions. The fact is that none of the languages of republicanism and the scholarly approaches they underwrote satisfactorily explains the development of a consensus about the political meaning of the Holocaust. As I argue in Chapter 2, the political consensus about the liberal political institutions of the new republic emerged out of a protracted and bitter public discussion about the meaning of the German past for the Federal Republic’s present and future. West German democracy, then, is a discursive achievement, not an antifascist or conservative-integrationist one.

   This book is not a conventional intellectual history. It relates the ideas of intellectuals to their political emotions. There is insufficient work linking individual subjectivity, social psychology, and intellectual life. Too often, ideas are isolated from the lives of their articulators, although it is readily apparent that the conceptual blockages and blindnesses that constitute the underlying structure of postwar German memory are bound up in the formative, adolescent experiences of the country’s leading intellectuals. Close inspection of their writings undertaken in this book shows their intellectual production can be seen as stagings of their personal histories.38 The embedding of ideas in individual and collective experiences is all the more important in Germany where the national past, guilt, shame, and democracy were of existential significance for its intellectuals. In this way, this book seeks to overcome the distinction between the history of ideas and the social history of intellectuals; the former runs the danger of denuding ideas of the existential meaning they possessed for intellectuals, and the latter tends to reduce ideas to a function of social status.39

   A note on “intellectuals.” It is customary in Germany to use the term in connection with dissident writers and/or leftist scholars about whom much has been written.40 Less has been written about the historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, and educationalists of this generation, many of whom made decisive interventions in the public sphere, served as ministers and political advisers, and liberalized German intellectual life.41 I aim to redress this imbalance. This book is a study of “professors and politics” rather than a treatment of literary figures like the important East German author Christa Wolf.42

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction     1
Stigma and Structure in German Memory     15
The Languages of Republicanism and West German Political Generations     38
The Forty-fivers: A Generation between Fascism and Democracy     55
The German German: The Integrative Republicanism of Wilhelm Hennis     74
The Non-German German: The Redemptive Republicanism of Jurgen Habermas     105
Theory and Practice: Science, Technology, and the Republican University     131
The Crisis of the Republic, 1960-1967     160
1968 and Its Aftermath     186
The Structure of Discourse in the 1980s and 1990s     219
History, Multiculturalism, and the Non-German German     229
German Germans and the Old Nation     246
Political Theology and the Dissolution of the Underlying Structure     263
Index     285
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