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Collective memory and national identity in the immigration country Germany
Alternatives to abstract "Leitkultur"

In our country – in my country – everyone has the right to flourish regardless of nationality, migration background, color, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Let us not close our eyes and pretend we have already achieved this.

Semiya Şimşek, whose father Enver Şimşek was killed by the NSU, at the Berlin memorial service for victims of extreme right-wing  violence on 23 February 2012.

By Asal Dardan

a body of cultural norms considered organic to a presupposed "nation", whose a priori claim to political representation is reinforced by this a posteriori attribute. Similar conceptions recur across Europe and the European-colonized world, but the German term is used here because its relatively recent coinage is specific to the context described in the article.
The formation of a collective identity scarcely seems possible unless boundaries are defined. The construction of a "we" entails an "other", most often set up as negative image of "our" communal values and their positive connotation. Normative self-definition helps a group to affirm past, present and future dimensions of shared political, social, cultural and moral identity. Collective identity in this sense is deeply enmeshed in the processes of remembering. In the words of Ernest Renan:  "identity works in three tenses, past, present, and future". (Booth, p. 45).

In the case of the Federal Republic of Germany, however, collective consideration of past, present and future obligations and imperatives are primarily framed in terms not of past triumphs but of the crimes of the 20th century. The Holocaust serves as painful founding myth for a Federal Republic successfully integrated into the international community since its acceptance of historical responsibility. Paradoxically, the recognition of guilt has contributed to a generally positive public image of "Germany" at national and international level alike.

Thus the theorist of education Astrid Messerschmidt argues that what defines "present German political culture" is the "attempt to show" that the country's "criminal history has been analysed enough" in such a way that antisemitism and racism would be considered "problems of the past.” (Messerschmidt, p. 31.) Such longing for an unburdened self- image (Messerschmidt, p. 32) has lately been manifest in discussion of so-called Leitkultur, and an allegedly "imported" antisemitism. Both terms imply a positive national self-image to be defended. What is suppressed is the persecution and mass murder of more than six million Jews, of  the persecution and mass murder of thousands of Sinti and Roma, thousands of designated homosexuals and disabled: the real, present-day manifestation of all this as historical responsibility and in ongoing racism, antisemitism, discrimination. Damning historical references seem increasingly to be made to serve a sort of collective self-idealization, contrary to any “formation of critical memory” (ibid.) or self-examination as attentive to the past as to the future.

"Good others" and "other others"

A high-profile instance of this tendency was the "seven-point plan on integration" published in 2010 by Germany's current interior minister Horst Seehofer. Here he writes of “the common foundation of the set of values underpinning our constitution and our German Leitkultur”, described as “heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian roots and by Christianity, Humanism and the Enlightenment”. Thomas de Maizière, (interior minister in 2010) endorsed this thinking in his 10-point manifesto of 2017, which likewise sought to project a positive connotation onto the term Leitkultur. In this controversial document, published under the crowd-pleasing title "We are not Burka", de Maizière argues that “the Brandenburg gate and November 9” are as much part of Germany’s collective memory as “winning the football World Cups”. His only allusion to responsibility for crimes against humanity committed in the name of this country comes in a muttered ‘acknowledgement of the lowest depths of our history”. It is unclear in any case quite which event he has in mind when he speaks of November 9. Is it the Kristallnacht of 1938 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or perhaps both?

The programmes of Seehofer and de Maizière each invoke a positive national self-image, in confident contrast to a non-German, in this case primarily Muslim, “other”. Historical rupture is largely erased or set aside in favour of an unbroken national narrative. The implied message is that the reappraisal of serious historical guilt has been completed successfully, and that now it would mainly be “the others” who would have to learn from Germany history. Thus the term “imported antisemitism” suggests that no antisemitism has persisted in the country in a meaningful sense other than the kind framed as "imported". A form of antisemitism expressed in relation to Israel does indeed exist, among some immigrants from Arab countries, and it must not be trivialised. But nor should a social problem be attributed to one group alone and passed off in this way onto presumed “others”. This will only lead to further resentment, not to a solution. Similarly, the expression “Judeo-Christian roots” pretends to harmonise on a linguistic level a relationship actually characterised by centuries of discrimination and persecution. Hanno Loewy puts this well in a Berliner Zeitung interview of February 11, 2018: “They use the Jews as 'good others' in order to indulge in their racism against 'the other others'” with a clean conscience. They claim that the Muslims are today’s antisemites and that Israel is the bastion of the Judeo-Christian West against the Muslim threat.”

The Holocaust must not serve as pretext for an exclusionary “We”

This purported fear for the very basis of Germany’s democratic identity may even be sincere. But what Seehofer calls the “shared foundation of our value system (Werteordnung)” calls for continuous reinforcement, regardless of the number of immigrants. Aleida Assmann states the point directly in her very readable polemic “Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur” (Erinnerungskultur and its new discontents): “A civil society […] is a precarious institution, not a solid possession. It is never posited for all time but must keep proving its worth: it must validate and impose itself through reasoning.”
This coinage is specific to the German context where recognition of historical guilt becomes a foundational element of perceived national identity. Closest English-language gloss might be "culture of remembering", insofar as neither "memory" nor "remembrance" quite conveys the active, always incomplete condition of the "Erinnerung" involved.
A return to national frameworks and an “ethnicization” of fundamental values seems unlikely in the light of demographic and cultural change in Europe, unless the aim is to promote the rise of the AfD and nationalist parties in other European states.  The Holocaust must not be made to serve as pretext for an anti-European, exclusionary “We”. On the contrary, in a democracy such as Germany, identity and collective remembering can never be prescriptive, they must be set out as propositions. The values invoked by Seehofer and de Maizière are already universal: respect, tolerance and the protection of minorities are surely also of great importance beyond Germany’s national borders.

Collective memory as call for action

Collective memory of historical crimes serves a symbolic purpose: it acknowledges the victims and shows awareness of responsibility. But it also entails a call for action, because, as Jürgen Habermas puts it, "collective identity is now conceivable only in a reflexive form”. (Habermas, p. X). Memory of historical guilt is not an instrument of political power but a large spanner thrown into those works: an inconvenient reminder to examine present-day society and hold it to its promises and obligations.  The lessons of the Holocaust are universal. Whoever instrumentalizes the Holocaust politically creates injustice.

In a pluralistic society, differentiations based on traditional normative criteria are destructive. It is possible, however, to differentiate positively in taking a stance in respect to the connecting elements within a heterogenous society, such as respect for human dignity, independently of ethnic, cultural or religious affiliations, for gender and sexual identities or physical and mental abilities. Pluralism in the best sense promotes a critical view of history, a differentiated cultural self-image and a community spirit that is vital for a civil society. Even in a pluralistic society, not everything is constantly called into question Rather, the society's values and norms are always defined in terms of universal human rights and always susceptible to further broadening, further democratisation.

Pluralisation, not Leitkultur

A pluralistic German self-image would enhance the national Erinnerungskultur, which has always been understood at least nominally to be polyphonic. Historical events and individual experiences are intrinsically ambiguous: they are interpreted, contextualised and compared to other versions of history only in retrospect. It is mistaken to imagine that people without direct personal or family involvement in National Socialism or the Holocaust are unable to place themselves within Erinnerungskultur.

What binds pluralistic societies together is “humane substance” (Habermas, p.114), not an abstract “Leitkultur” that seeks homogenisation, even if less restrictively than those imagined by Seehofer and de Maizière. There was recourse to nationalistic language even in Cem Özdemir's much-praised Bundestag speech of 22 February 2018, in which he opposed the AfD's call to censure the writing of the journalist Deniz Yücel: “How", asked Özdemir, "can someone who despises Germany, our shared homeland, as much as you [the AfD] do, decide who is and who isn’t German? […] You despise everything this country is esteemed and respected for by the whole world.” His political and personal motives are understandable, but it remains questionable whether universal values are really most convincingly defended in a competition to be the best German.

The path to a genuinely pluralistic German self-image still seems to be long. But if “identity formation” is understood as “a continuous process of learning” (Habermas, p.116), the hope at least exists that the symbolic and systemic exclusion of entire sections of the population will soon be unlearned. Because the threat to democratic foundations lies not in diversity but in the decline of solidarity within civil society.

Aleida Assmann: Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur. Eine Intervention. Kindle Edition. München 2013.
W. James Booth: Communities of Memory. On Witness, Identity, And Justice. Ithaca 2006.
Jürgen Habermas: „Können komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernünftige Identität ausbilden?“ In: Zur Rekonstruktion des Historischen Materialismus, Frankfurt am Main 2001, pp. 92-126.
Daniel Levy und Natan Sznaider: Erinnerung im Globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust. Aktualisierte Neuausgabe. Frankfurt am Main 2007.
Astrid Messerschmidt: Weltbilder und Selbstbilder. Bildungsprozesse im Kontext von Globalisierung, Migration und Zeitgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main 2009.

Online sources:

Seehofer legt im Integrationsstreit nach“, Zeit Online, 16.10.2010, [last seen on 27.02.2018]
Thomas De Maizière: Das ist De Maizières Zehn-Punkte-Plan, FAZ.NET,  2.05.2017, [last seen on 27.02.2018]
Volkhard Knigge: „Zur Zukunft der Erinnerung“, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, [last seen on 27.02.2018]
Arno Widmann: Interview mit Hanno Loewy: "Man liebt die Juden und Israel", Berliner Zeitung Online, 11.02.2018,  [last seen on 27.02.2018]
Cem Özdemir: „Deutschland ist stärker, als es Ihr Hass jemals sein wird“, Tagesspiegel Online, 26.02.2018,  [last seen on 28.02.2018]

Speech of Semiya Şimşek during the memorial event for the victims of extreme right-wing violence, internet presence of the Federal President, 23.02.1012, [last seen on 28.02.2018]