Multicultural Germany Class: Week 5, Collective Memory

This post is part of a series in which students reflect on their discussions in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week’s summary is by Ann Huang:

As the discussion of a multicultural Germany progresses, the conversation naturally gravitates towards an analysis of the contemporary situation of ‘migrants’ and the persistent underlying difficulties to successful integration. In particular, the role of history and collective memory lies at the heart of this evaluation. Zafer Şenocak questions the penetrability and receptiveness of a nation unified in its collective consciousness of its relatively recent National Socialist past. In his article “May One Compare Turks and Jews, Mr. Şenocak?”, he questions the possibility of welding together “peoples with different histories together into one nation” – with particular emphasis towards the cultural chasm between “the Orient” and “the West”, namely, the Turkish ‘migrants’ and the German people.

In extension of this notion of an ‘exclusive’ collective conscience, in “Memory Citizenship: Migrant Archives of Holocaust Remembrance in Contemporary Germany”, Michael Rothberg and Yasemin Yildiz cite Havva Jürgensen’s double bind paradox, which “reveals how Holocaust memory can function to reethinicize identity in contemporary Germany”. To elaborate, the paradox exists in the ability of ethnic Germans to exclude non-ethnic migrants in the discussion of the Holocaust, and thereby disallowing entry into their national history and thus identity. As a result, the gulf between the collective “us” and the “other” is further deepened. Şenocak further argues that the creation of such parallel societies allows the coexistence of cultures “without touching each other”, the differences remaining unbridged due to lack of mutual comprehension and understanding. Going forward, therefore, successful integration necessitates the intersection of cultures – enabled through increased intercultural understanding and exposure, for “if we do not know the thought, the literary languages… the fantasies of the Other, we have no chance of communicating with him…” (Şenocak, “War and Peace in Modernity”).

Şenocak argues, therefore, that at this intersection of cultures facilitated through mutual education, a truly multicultural society may successfully exist. While public places of collective memory play a large role in Germany’s coming to terms with its history, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, the mere gesture of victim commemoration remains insufficient in the larger discussion of cultural understanding. Şenocak supports this view in “Thoughts on May 8, 1995”, in which he urges that “there must be something… other than mute monuments and ceremonious speeches held in a solemn voice”. This necessity to create a way of remembrance that leads into the present finds concrete form in the groups and individuals discussed in Rothberg and Yildiz’s article including, amongst others, ‘Neighbourhood Mothers’, who facilitate German historical education of ‘migrant families’ and promote intercultural discussions. These “migrant archives” of cultural history in some senses “de-isolate” German history, for instance through a reflective and analytical comparison of the Holocaust to the Armenian Genocide. It is “this framework of transcultural and transnational remembrance in current scholarship”, which permits the progression and attainment of a multicultural identity, as it represents the cultivation of the past by both ethnic and non-ethnic Germans, in the context of the present.

By such arguments, history and memory can be seen to play an integral role in the definition of national identity. The traditional understanding of group identity as based on the exclusion of others, as shown in Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, must be replaced by an understanding, which encompasses multiplicity and contradiction – a path from remembrance, which leads to the present. Şenocak most succinctly and artistically captures the immense potential of breaking down Germany’s ‘locked’ doors to the past in his metaphor of Germany as a sick patient who, in eagerness to resume healthful normality, immediately dismisses all ailments upon release. The clear correlation of this metaphor with the historical reference to the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”, serves as a parallel between two national histories and thus represents the bridging of cultural ‘gaps’, which lends access to German history and paves the way to a truly multicultural society.

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