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Authority without Foundations: Arendt and the Paradox of Postwar German Memory Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2014


Hannah Arendt argued that the American Revolution revealed for the first time that all regimes require a reference to an absolute, while the French Revolution revealed that not all absolutes are equal. The American Revolution took as its absolute the act of founding itself, upon which the authority of the constitution could be grounded. By contrast, the failure of the French Revolution to establish an authority stemmed from its reference to the transcendental absolute of the nation. Beginnings, for Arendt, are historically determining. How then are we to explain the present view of authority in Germany which takes as its absolute referent the Holocaust? And how does this inform our understanding of the relationship between absolutes and new foundations? We argue that the key to understanding the German case is found in the particular nature of postwar German memory politics and that authority is not statically related to positive foundations.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2014 

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8 Moses, A. Dirk, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)Google Scholar. Moses starts his book with the assertion that “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).

9 One initial caveat is in order. Our discussion of authority being derived from the Holocaust should not be taken as an apologetic and uncritical celebration of Germany's new (post)national imagination, and even less as a laudation for incorporating the Shoah into a progressive narrative for Germany or Europe more generally. In our argument that authority is being derived from a negative absolute we employ authority as a descriptive term. In this regard, our analysis has strong analytical affinities with, for example, Dubiel's argument. However, Dubiel claims that in the case of the Holocaust, “the transformation of a historical occurrence into a political and moral criterion . . . [had] a doubly ‘negative’ nature” (“Rememberance of the Holocaust,” 60.) By this he meant that no positive precept could be established on its ground, and that the criterion emerging from it followed a logic of prevention and avoidance. Which particular principles of avoidance are derived from this view is not always immediately clear and the potential range of answers seems vast. Faced with a similar argument, the historian Peter Novick has remarked “that there is something absurdly ‘minimalist’ about a moral consensus based on affirming that, indeed, murdering six million men, women, and children is an atrocious crime” (Comments on Aleida Assmann's Lecture,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 40 [2007]: 31Google Scholar). Furthermore, Dubiel notes that “these imperatives are viewed negatively in view of their social genealogy” (“Rememberance of the Holocaust,” 60), which is to say that they are built on the premise of avoiding conflicts in increasingly pluralistic societies, rather than on the premise of integration based on new positive values, which is closer to our analytical concern here.

10 BPF, 92–93.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 122.

13 Ibid., 104.

14 Ibid., 105.

15 Ibid., 107–9.

16 Ibid., 111.

17 Ibid., 120.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 121.

20 Ibid., 120.

21 Ibid., 91–92.

22 Ibid., 138.

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27 Arendt writes: “in conspicuous opposition to man's age-old dreams [of fratricidal beginnings] as well as to his later concepts, violence by no means gave birth to something new and stable but, on the contrary, drowned in a ‘revolutionary torrent’ the beginning as well as the beginners” (OR, 209).

28 Ibid., 204.

29 See Villa, Dana, Public Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 95101Google Scholar.

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31 It is worth quoting Arendt at length: “Jefferson's famous words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ combine in a historically unique manner the basis of agreement between those who have embarked upon revolution, an agreement necessarily relative because related to those who enter it, with an absolute, namely with a truth that needs no agreement since, because of its self-evidence, it compels without argumentative demonstration or political persuasion. By virtue of being self-evident, these truths are pre-rational—they inform reason but are not its product—and since their self-evidence puts them beyond disclosure and argument, they are in a sense no less compelling than ‘despotic power’ and no less absolute than the revealed truths of religion or the axiomatic verities of mathematics” (OR, 192).

32 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (hereafter, HC) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 178Google Scholar.

33 However, it is worth noting that Arendt equivocates on this point, noting later that the foundation of Rome was in fact not definitive, but itself a refoundation. Arendt calls this “the profoundly Roman notion that all foundations are re-establishments and reconstructions” (OR, 211).

34 Ibid., 204.

35 As Sieyès writes, “The nation exists prior to everything; it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is the law itself” (Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph, Political Writings, ed. Sonenscher, Michael [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003], 136Google Scholar).

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44 Moreover, Germany's enthusiasm for European integration in the postwar decades (among political elites as well as the general population) can be partly read as another “exit strategy,” which allowed Germany to leave behind its bleak options in the national context. See Weidenfeld, Werner and Korte, Karl-Rudolf, Die Deutschen: Profil einer Nation (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1991)Google Scholar. Haller, Max has spoken of European identification as a “compensation” for weak national identity (“Voiceless Submission or Deliberate Choice: European Integration and the Relation between National and European Identity,” in Nation and National Identity: The European Experience in Perspective, ed. Kriesi, Hanspeter [Zurich: Rüegger, 1999], 263–96Google Scholar). Cohen claims that “for Germans [the] adoption of a neutral Europeanism in place of a historically-loaded and burdening Germanness is a collective form of displacement therapy.” He even links an openness with regard to the national past to the very possibility of transcending nationality: “To the extent that Germans ponder their own actions, Germans did so only after they set in place a mechanism that would sever any tie with Germanness through adoption and nurturing of a European identity” (Cohen, Yehuda, The Germans: Absent Nationality and the Holocaust [Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2010], 115, 116Google Scholar).

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46 See, for example, its discussion in the works of Margalit, Avishai, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Blustein, Jeffrey, The Moral Demands of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

47 Herf, Jeffrey, “Multiple Restorations: German Political Traditions and the Interpretation of Nazism, 1945–1946,” Central European History 26, no. 1 (1993): 47Google Scholar.

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52 Including from, among many others, Arendt herself, who in the 1967 preface to part 1 of OT, Antisemitism, criticized Norman Cohn's claim that “the mass of the German population was never truly fanaticized against the Jews” (OT, xi n1). Interestingly, in 1968 Arendt wrote her piece on the problem of collective responsibility, Responsibility and Judgment (hereafter, RJ) (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), 147–58Google Scholar.

53 Alexander, “Social Construction of Moral Universals,” 34. Arendt's own account of the Eichmann trial was one of the momentous “events” that added to this new focus (38).

54 Olick, “What Does It Mean to Normalize the Past?,” 551.

55 Levy and Sznaider, Holocaust and Memory, 104.

56 Moses, A. Dirk, “The Non-German German and the German German: Dilemmas of Identity after the Holocaust,” New German Critique 34, no. 2 (2007): 4594Google Scholar.

57 Ibid., 65.

58 H. A. Winkler, “Lesarten der Sühne,” Der Spiegel, December 24, 1998.

59 Olick, “What Does It Mean to Normalize the Past?,” 553.

60 Ibid.

61 See, for example, Levkov, Ilya, Bitburg and Beyond: Encounters in American, German, and Jewish History (New York: Shapolsky, 1987)Google Scholar.

62 Brandt, Susanne et al. , Erinnerungskulturen: Deutschland, Italien und Japan seit 1945 (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2003)Google Scholar; Bohn, Robert, Cornelissen, Christoph, and Christian Lammers, Karl, Vergangenheitspolitik und Erinnerungskulturen im Schatten des Zweiten Weltkriegs: Deutschland und Skandinavien seit 1945 (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2008)Google Scholar; Cornelissen, Christoph, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung—Ein Deutscher Sonderweg?,” in Aufarbeitung der Diktatur—Diktatur der Aufarbeitung? Normierungsprozesse beim Umgang mit diktatorischer Vergangenheit, ed. Hammerstein, Katrin et al. (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009), 2136Google Scholar; Levy, Daniel, Heinlein, Michael, and Breuer, Lars, “Reflexive Particularism and Cosmopolitanization: The Reconfiguration of the National,” Global Networks 11, no. 2 (2011): 139–59Google Scholar.

63 Gudehus, Christian, “Germany's Meta-Narrative Memory Culture: Skeptical Narratives and Minotaurs,” German Politics & Society 26, no. 4 (2008): 101, 103Google Scholar.

64 In part, this phase can be put into the context of a generational shift “away from the experiences of affected generations (victims, perpetrators and bystanders) towards the long-term institutionalization and representation of this memory regime and the possible de-activation or de-functionalization of the memory” (Langenbacher, Eric, “Twenty-First Century Memory Regimes in Germany and Poland: An Analysis of Elite Discourses and Public Opinion,” German Politics & Society 26, no. 4 (2008): 51Google Scholar. We propose, however, that this memory is not necessarily deactivated owing to the generational change, but rather rechanneled.

65 Olick, Jeffrey K., “The Guilt of Nations?,” Ethics & International Affairs 17, no. 2 (2003): 114Google Scholar.

66 Frei, Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past, introduction.

67 Nora, Pierre, Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, vol. 1 (Columbia University Press, 1996), xxivGoogle Scholar.

68 François, Etienne, “Meistererzählungen und Dammbrüche: Die Erinnerung an den Zweiten Weltkrieg zwischen Nationalisierung Und Universalisierung,” in Mythen der Nationen: 1945—Arena der Erinnerungen, ed. Flacke, Monika (Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2004), 1328Google Scholar; Lindenberger, Thomas, “Governing Conflicted Memories: Some Remarks about the Regulation of History Politics in Unified Germany,” in Clashes in European Memory: The Case of Communist Repression and the Holocaust, ed. Blaive, Muriel, Gerbel, Christian, and Lindenberger, Thomas (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2011), 7387Google Scholar. This is already apparent in the Historikerstreit in 1986, which, as Wilds has observed, focused on two central questions: “interpretations of the locus of National Socialism within German history and . . . perceptions of the social use of history in contemporary political culture” (Identity Creation and the Culture of Contrition: Recasting ‘Normality’ in the Berlin Republic,” German Politics 9, no. 1 [2000]: 84Google Scholar, emphasis added).

69 Gudehus, “Germany's Meta-Narrative Memory Culture,” 104; Levy, Daniel and Dierkes, Julian B., “Institutionalising the Past: Shifting Memories of Nationhood in German Education and Immigration Legislation,” in Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past, ed. Müller, Jan-Werner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 244–64Google Scholar; Miller-Idriss, Cynthia, Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

70 Gudehus, “Germany's Meta-Narrative Memory Culture,” 104.

71 Young, James E., “Germany's Holocaust Memorial Problem—and Mine,” The Public Historian 24, no. 4 (2002): 6580Google Scholar.

72 Wilke, Christiane, “Remembering Complexity? Memorials for Nazi Victims in Berlin,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 7, no. 1 (2013): 136–56Google Scholar.

73 Renan, E., “What Is a Nation,” in Becoming National: A Reader, ed. Eley, Geoff and Suny, Ronald Grigor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4155Google Scholar.

74 Gudehus, “Germany's Meta-Narrative Memory Culture,” 109. See also Wilds, Karl, “Identity Creation and the Culture of Contrition: Recasting ‘Normality’ in the Berlin Republic,” German Politics 9, no. 1 (2000)Google Scholar: 95.

75 Waldron, “Arendt's Constitutional Politics,” 213. Arendt wrote that “amendments to the [American] Constitution augment and increase the original foundations of the American republic . . . the very authority of the American Constitution resides in its inherent capacity to be amended and augmented” (OR, 202).

76 Ankersmit, F. R., “The Sublime Dissociation of the Past: Or How to Be(come) What One Is No Longer,” History and Theory 40, no. 3 (2001)Google Scholar: 318.

77 Ibid., 322.

78 An important qualification is necessary, however. The latest phase we describe here is by no means the only current tendency in German memory politics. Much has been said and written about the recent and not so recent debates around German victimhood, whether triggered by literary contributions, as in the cases of the novelists Friedrich or Grass (Taberner, Stuart and Berger, Karina, eds., Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic [Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013]Google Scholar), or around the issues of German expellees that continue to strain relations with Poland. Eric Langenbacher, for example, claims that the “Bonn regime” of public Holocaust memory has been challenged by new discourses about other German crimes (in the GDR) and about non-German perpetrators and German victims during World War II (“Twenty-First Century Memory Regimes”; see also Langenbacher, Eric, “Changing Memory Regimes in Contemporary Germany?,” German Politics and Society 21 [2003]: 4668Google Scholar). This only goes to show that these phases are anything but neatly divided, subsequent developments. Such a claim would mean dismissing the underlying politics persisting in the view that these different strategies cannot coexist or are mutually exclusive, both of which are claims we would hope to avoid. While the latest phase of German memory discourses has functional implications in the light of the problems highlighted here in Arendtian language, the trajectory is an outcome of real political struggles that involve pressures on official government discourses both from “below” (i.e., alternative narratives emerging from civil society) and “above” (i.e., reactions from international actors).

79 Olick, “What Does It Mean to Normalize the Past?”

80 Interestingly, this discourse also links back to Germany's European “exit strategy” discussed earlier (in footnote 44), albeit not in a straightforward manner. Often, Germany's “politics of regret” are presented by political actors on the ground as an example of a new European memory paradigm. See Katrin Hammerstein and Birgit Hofmann, “Europäische ‘Interventionen’: Resolutionen und Initiativen zum Umgang mit diktatorischer Vergangenheit,” in Aufarbeitung der Diktatur; Nienass, Benjamin, “Postnational Relations to the Past: A ‘European Ethics of Memory’?,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 26, no. 1 (2013): 4155Google Scholar. Yet, the European dimension by no means inevitably transcends national imaginaries, but often becomes part of it or indeed acts as its very source (see Frevert, Ute, “Europeanizing Germany's Twentieth Century,” History & Memory 17, no. 1 [2005]: 87116Google Scholar; Stråth, Bo, “Introduction: Europe as a Discourse,” in Europe and the Other and Europe as the Other, ed. Bo Stråth (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2010), 1344Google Scholar. Lorraine Ryan claims, for example, that “external collective memory mandates may quite possibly be incidental or self-interested” (Cosmopolitan Memory and National Memory Conflicts: On the Dynamics of Their Interaction,” Journal of Sociology 48 [2012]: 12Google Scholar.).

81 Arendt appears to have understood this task as paradoxical as well. In January of 1945, in an essay published in Jewish Frontier, Arendt remarked famously that “for many years now we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human.” At the heart of the problem, as Arendt saw it, was that the notion of humanity—and the concomitant love of the world that the notion itself demanded—as a universal moral concept had been supplanted by the race thinking of Nazi totalitarianism. The break, Arendt believed, was so definitive as to invite concern as to whether the war was only the first salvo in a coming age of race warfare. The only salve—which Arendt in 1945 could only imagine as an expressly private apolitical phenomenon—was in those who “in fear and trembling, have finally realized. . . what man is capable of” (Portable Hannah Arendt, 154–55). For a discussion of Arendt's dismissal of guilt in politics and her conception of political responsibility as an ethic of worldliness, see Schaap, Andrew, “Guilty Subjects and Political Responsibility: Arendt, Jaspers and the Resonance of the ‘German Question’ in Politics of Reconciliation,” Political Studies 49, no. 4 (2001): 749–66Google Scholar.

82 Kalyvas, Andreas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, part 3.

83 Waldron, “Arendt's Constitutional Politics.”

84 Barash, Jeffrey Andrew, “Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Remembrance,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 10, no. 2 (2002): 180Google Scholar.

85 OT, chap. 13.

86 Honig, Bonnie, “Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 1 (1991): 106Google Scholar.

87 Arendt, OT, 459.

88 Dietz's essay on Arendt's political-theoretical response to the Holocaust, for example, centers on this need to “[leave] the factual territory behind and national pasts surmounted,” in other words, to avoid the constant direct confrontation with it (Mary Dietz, “Arendt and the Holocaust,” in Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, 89). She views Arendt's turn to the public space of appearance as a “healing illusion and a disruptive countermemory, attempting to reach over the historical abyss created by Auschwitz, and break the mastery of the Holocaust” (ibid., 100.).

89 OR, 213.

90 Ibid., 214.

91 Young, James E., “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1992): 267–96Google Scholar.

92 OR, 232.

93 Buckler, Steve, “The Curtailment of Memory: Hannah Arendt and Post-Holocaust Culture,” European Legacy 6, no. 3 (2001): 300CrossRefGoogle Scholar, emphasis added.

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid., 301, emphasis in original.

96 See, for example, Robinson, Benjamin's discussion of the debate between the writer Martin Walser and Habermas on regimes of German Holocaust memory in which the notion of sacredness was central (“Against Memory as Justice,” New German Critique, no. 98 [2006]: 135–60)Google Scholar.

97 Arendt, BPF, 121.

98 Moses, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past, 41.

99 Ibid.

100 See footnote 80.

101 Beck, Ulrich, German Europe (Cambridge: Polity, 2013)Google Scholar, 3.

102 Ibid., 4.