The power of public memory: The Third Reich in all-German communicative memory


This study asks about the “sustainability” of memory regimes, using the example of Third Reich commemoration in reunified Germany. Are there differences in remembrance between East and West Germany – and if so, how do these differences relate to the GDR? What traces have the bearers of public memory – such as mass media or education – left behind in the memory of former GDR citizens? Did GDR remembrance have any effect on historical consciousness at all?

These questions become increasingly relevant against the background of the growing importance of the right-wing party “Alternative for Germany” and increasing incidents of right-wing extremism in East Germany. To this day, there is a persistent belief that East Germans, unlike West Germans, have never really come to terms with the National Socialist past, reinforcing right-wing tendencies. In the GDR, anti-fascism was part of the founding myth of the republic, which proclaimed real socialism, whereas National Socialism was considered an outgrowth of capitalism and imperialism.

To answer the research questions, in-depth interviews with more than 50 interviewees and focus group discussions with nearly 200 participants from East and West Germany were conducted between December 2018 and November 2019. The theoretical tool is provided on the one hand by Jan and Aleida Assmann by referring to their concepts of communicative and cultural memory as part of collective memory. The present study focuses on the question of which elements of cultural memory – such as mass media, museums, art – are reflected in the communicative memory of the East and West German population. On the other hand, we argue with Michel Foucault that memory is a discursive construction that follows certain rules. The question here is whether East Germans construct memory in their communicative memory according to rules other than West Germans.

The results show that Germans, despite socialization in different political regimes of memory, end up with the same frame of assessment, which is reflected not least in the desire to forget the crimes of National Socialism and to regain national pride. Here, East and West are in no way inferior to each other. Although this indicates that the respective public memory regime (East/West) has had little effect, this is refuted by the second result: People are aware of the prevailing West German public discourse of memory (We must not forget!) and adjust arguments accordingly. Although the majority of West Germans are no longer interested in Nazi remembrance, they use their hegemonic memory discourse as a continuous “Cold War weapon” against Easterners, whom they accuse of not having dealt with the Nazi past properly. East Germans with GDR socialization, to some extent, evaluate the GDR discourse of remembrance as the better one, but at the same time they reinterpret it in such a way that it again fits into the current hegemonic discourse of memory. The study provides foundations for the development of a theory on the influence of hegemonic memory practices (cultural memory) on the discursive construction of memory in the population (communicative memory).