Memory, Fidelity, Appropriation

A Response to Jonathan Bach’s What Remains

When observers of German politics tried to make sense of the success of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the aftermath of the recent federal election,[1] discussion swiftly became repetition. Specifically, it became a rehash of the somewhat artificial dispute between materialist and identity-based interpretations, with certain parallels to the post-election analyses in the United States. However, any tendency to engage in causal reductionism was undermined by the stark regional differences in voting behavior, as more than a fifth of voters in the east cast their vote for an openly Islamophobic and anti-immigrant party. Since this discrepancy could not simply be read as a function of regional economic or demographic differences, supplemental explanations were needed. Attention increasingly turned to questions of public memory: Was it possible that eastern voters felt less constrained by Germany’s history than their co-citizens in the west who had been socialized in the Federal Republic’s “politics of regret” (Olick, 2007)? How else could they be enticed to support a party whose members labeled Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame,” and described Germany’s fidelity to its past as “crippling”? In Die Zeit, columnist Mely Kiyak proclaimed: “Never again ‘never again’” — memory had failed to safeguard Germany’s political system against the return of a völkisch ideology.

And yet, the fact that all major parties refused to view the AfD as a legitimate contender — let alone a potential coalition partner — indicates that German public memory still somehow “works.” However, the attempts to make sense of the election through the prism of memory serve as a strong reminder that, almost three decades after unification, Germany still faces urgent questions about how its past shapes its political possibilities in the present, and perhaps especially the question of how this past is inflected in the east. This broader question relates not only to geographically different legacies of addressing the Holocaust, legacies arguably made visible in last month’s election, but perhaps even more so to the memory of the German Democratic Republic.

In light of such questions, Jonathan Bach’s superb analysis of how state and non-state actors make sense of, display, and appropriate the material remains of the GDR in What Remains: Everyday Encounters with the Socialist Past in Germany could not be more timely. His careful attention to materials that became obsolete almost overnight — consumer goods, the Berlin Wall, the “People’s Palace” — has enormous relevance for the pressing questions regarding the schism(s) in German memory. We know today that assumptions about the seamless economic and political incorporation of the former GDR into the Federal Republic, based on “end of history” scenarios in the early 1990s, have proven to be spectacularly wrong. Bach’s book contributes to a deeper understanding of ongoing contestations related to the end of state socialism, particularly by prompting us to see that any notion of a relatively coherent, ritualized, and rigid German “memory regime” needs serious adjustment. What Remains shows that, particularly when it comes to the socialist past, no settling of meaning has occurred.

Bach’s starting point is a focus on the material objects inherited from state socialism, which carry with them a symbolic excess; they are, in his terms, “restless items.” This excess, in turn, invites actors to actively infuse these material remains of a failed political system with new value by letting them circulate in various “economies of the present”: GDR products formerly considered inferior re-enter the market as commodities for nostalgic and ironic consumption; everyday household items of the socialist past get collected and exhibited in private museums to wrestle them away from “hermeneutic guardians” (historians, professional curators, state actors); the Berlin wall gets framed and rebuilt to fit complex and sometimes contradictory commemorative and touristic functions; and the ruins of the former People’s Palace in Berlin become the site of performative interventions that celebrate the fleeting nature of memory against attempts to permanently fix the meaning of the city’s architectural heritage. To do justice to the subtlety with which Bach traces each of these struggles over material remains, and thereby demonstrates the ongoing fault lines in German politics, is beyond the scope of this response. Suffice it to say that the processes described in his book lay bare more than just regional differences. They challenge the reader to place the contestation of German memory into numerous force fields at once: east/west, private/public, commercial/commemorative; citizen/expert.

In addition, Bach’s ethnographic approach manages to complicate the kind of normative assumptions that implicitly guide many studies of public memory. To name just a few of the book’s invitations to rethink our toolkit: The aesthetic employment of kitsch, as in the marketing or exhibiting of GDR products, can be subversive rather than just a dangerous manifestation of moral laziness; nostalgia, as portrayed by the collectors of everyday GDR objects, not only reveals escapism but also empowerment vis-à-vis the public custodians of memory; and ambiguity about the remains of the past, as actively summoned by the artists that repurpose former GDR buildings, can be liberating rather than simply an impediment to truth and accountability.

It is a truism in memory studies that actors engage in struggles over public memory with present interests in mind, and that we shape the past according to current needs, desires, and anxieties. And yet, we use the term memory to describe a presence of the past that is not fully up for grabs, a presence that includes legitimate truth claims and presents actual constraints that reach out to us from a temporal distance. In his recent book The Sins of the Fathers, sociologist and memory scholar Jeffrey Olick (2016) combines the maxim of Austin’s speech act theory with Marx’s famous insight from the Eighteenth Brumaire, declaring that “The guiding principle for my sociology of collective memory… is that people do things with words, but not always in circumstances or with materials of their own choosing.” In Bach’s account of memory struggles, however, people do things with words and with things. Still, Olick’s central premise remains intact: Memory is both structure and agency, stable and in movement, a form of fidelity to the past and an appropriation for present purposes. Rather than resolve these seemingly contradictory features, as many studies of memory are prone to do, Bach keeps their tension alive, displaying the pulls of the past and the present at once.

In fact, there is a certain normative insistence on keeping the past from congealing by letting it circulate in present economies of memory in Bach’s book, which places it in the company of memory scholars who have questioned one of the central normative underpinnings in the field of memory studies, namely the injunction “not to instrumentalize memory.” This admonition generally implies that all usage of memory for narrow political (and other presentist) purposes makes a mockery of the past and, by extension, a mockery of past victims. In a debate with the German memory scholar Aleida Assmann, for instance, the historian Peter Novick (2007) powerfully questioned this implication. He insisted: “If it can be shown, as I believe it can, that collective memories rise and fall following changing assessments of communal needs — that they are always ‘instrumental’ for some perceived need — the charge of ‘instrumentalization’ is quite empty.” In this view, all public memories are, to a certain extent, ‘instrumental.’ If Germany’s politics of regret have something to do with keeping the AfD out of power, many on the left would hardly want to undermine this sort of instrumental purpose. What we shouldn’t do, however, is assume a public memory’s inherent meaning or power. The differentiation between a proper lesson, a “true fidelity” to the past on the one hand, and a pragmatic, self-interested, instrumental repurposing of memories on the other, is the stuff of memory politics, not its underlying axiom.

In a similar vein, Benjamin Robinson (2006) has suggested that we should seek “[n]ot to free memory from instrumentalization but to free instrumentalization — understood the political contestation of power — from any finalizing claims memory makes to justice.” Robinson proposed to let memory be “articulated in the undignified vernacular of politics and economics,” in order to open it up again to proper contestation and to counteract our tendency to sacralize the past or presume its present implications. Bach is a master of such a practice, letting memory circulate in undignified vernaculars — from amateurishly curated home museums, to shameless attempts at commodification, to ironic performance pieces. He shows that none of these seemingly-banal modes of appropriating the past are void of deeper political meaning, even if some of them are declared to be decidedly “apolitical” by the actors. Potentially all the practices described in What Remains are marked by a certain openness and multidirectionality (Rothberg, 2009), a focus on movement and circulation, and a fidelity not just to the past but to an enhanced democratic access to the past against notions of totality or sacralization. Bach’s quote of Rem Koolhas, who contributed to the debate about the legacy of the People’s Palace, is programmatic in this regard: “[T]oo much meaning paralyzes thinking.”

To be clear, a focus on openness and circulation does not mean that the past doesn’t, at times, present genuine and relatively stable demands. The celebration of ambiguity here is not meant to become a Trojan horse for denialists or revisionists. In this sense, we could ask if a similar approach to German memory struggles through the lens of appropriation would be possible if the subject of the debate were the memory of the Holocaust, rather than state socialism, or if the potential costs may be rather dire. As I suggested above, a certain congealing of meaning can sometimes seem politically (and morally) desirable. But Bach’s work acknowledges this as well, since his usage of the term “inheritance” (rather than memory), based on Yukiko Koga’s (2016) work, implies a certain undeniable purchase of the past. What the cases presented by Bach reveal, however, is that in taking ownership over the remains of the past, citizens and non-citizens are wrestling not only with past repression and failure, but also with ongoing status inequalities and democratic hopes. In fact, the continuous circulation of memories depends on their present relevance for the appropriating self.

In the epilogue, Bach describes the staging of the play Exist Ghost by a theater group comprised of students from both the east and the west. In their performance, the group not only tackles the haunting ghosts of east Germany’s socialist past, but the lack of alternatives experienced in the current unified, neoliberal Germany. The mourning depicted in the play takes on various forms: eastern nostalgia for a utopian discourse; western nostalgia for a time when one could unequivocally feel like belonging to the “winning” side of history; and a shared anxiety about the failed promises of contemporary liberal democracy. This performance of recognizing one’s own inheritance as bound up with the other’s, and the past as bound up with the present, may not be our worst guide through the continuous memory struggles that Germany faces.

Benjamin Nienass is currently Fellow at the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester. and will join the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University next Fall. His research has appeared in The Review of Politics, Politics and Society, Globalizations, and Social Research, among other journals. He is also the co-editor of Silence, Screen, and Spectacle: Rethinking Social Memory in the Age of Information (Berghahn Books, 2014). 


Koga, Yukiko. (2016). Inheritance of Loss: China, Japan, and the Political Economy of Redemption after Empire. University of Chicago Press.

Novick, Peter. (2007). “Comment on the annual Lecture.” GHI Bulletin, 40: 27-31.

Olick, Jeffrey. (2007) The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. Routledge.

Olick, Jeffrey. (2016) The Sins of the Fathers: Germany, Memory, Method. University of Chicago Press.

Robinson, Benjamin. (2006). “Against Memory as Justice.” New German Critique, 33, 135-160.

Rothberg, Michael. (2009) Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford University Press.

[1] The AfD received 12.6% of the vote.

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