The 'white years' of German history - the period between the end of the war and Adenauer's first government of 1949 - were notable for two blank spaces in the national consciousness. The first was the space left by community spirit: in the material circumstances that followed on the bombing of Germany's cities and the unconditional surrender of the German Armed Forces, Volksgemeinschaft, the centrepiece of National Socialist ideology and propaganda, gave way to individual interest, to the spirit of 'everyone for himself'. But this in turn was part of a larger blank, a kind of national amnesia. With Hitler's disappearance, his and his movement's tenets, its 'faith' and goals, seemed forgotten, its actions beyond recall. It wasn't merely that individual men and women were unwilling to speak of their own immediate political past: the ideology, indeed the very substance of that past, had become unavailable. Reinhart Koselleck in a recent essay recalls 'the speechlessness of the Germans when, in 1945, they were faced with the catastrophe into which they had drawn countless people and countries. And to this day,' he writes, 'every attempt to find a language adequate to the mass annihilation seems to fail. Every effort to stabilise recollection by means of language comes too late - too late for those who were its victims, too late for the event itself.' How does one stabilise such a recollection? Even today, fifty years later, the historians' question can hardly be separated from the travails of the national identity.
LRB 21 December 1989 | PDF Download