Facing the Past in Small-Town Germany, 1945-2000

Facing the Past in small-town Germany tells the compelling story of how ordinary people came to address their troubled past in the context of their own hometowns. It does this by focusing on what people actually did, and in particular how, when, and why they interacted with the material traces of the Nazi past in their communities. In the main, these traces include destroyed or desecrated synagogues and Jewish cemeteries; the barracks of hundreds of minor concentration camps that marred both cityscape and countryside; and the deportation points, euthanasia centers, and other sites that recalled Germany’s past of persecution.

In postwar Germany, east and west, there were roughly 1000 German communities with a population of under 50,000 people in which there was a synagogue and a Jewish presence in 1938, or in which there was a concentration camp of at least 500 inmates, or in which there were significant sites of persecution.  

These communities serve as the architectural frame of the work. The bricks and mortar of the project are drawn from thousands of detailed local studies, which reveal surprising patterns, often insufficiently appreciated in the vast, existing literature on how Germany came to face its past. Of these patterns, one involves the importance of German Jews, both in Germany and abroad, to the whole enterprise, making what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, mastering of the past, in essential points a transnational German-Jewish story. The study also shifts the spotlight on the German side. Instead of focusing on prominent politicians and well-known public intellectuals, it pays greater attention to archivists and public historians, retired schoolteachers, and members of small-town preservation societies.

The question of who was involved leads to considerations of when local commemoration happened, with questions of property often decisive. In the 1930s and 1940s, local Germans had enriched themselves either by outright stealing things or by buying up Jewish property at slashed rates. After the war, local restitution cases revealed widespread local involvement in the machinery of appropriation and persecution, with the result that in the 1950s local communities turned inward and defensive. It also took a decade to clarify to whom synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, concentration camp barracks, and other historical sites belonged, for only after these questions were clarified could restoration and commemoration begin. And even then there was a long transition period—in the 1960s and 1970s—in which local people worked tirelessly and often in isolation to convince townspeople that there should be a memorial at the site of the synagogue, or that they should take responsibility for maintaining the Jewish cemetery, or that it was necessary to find out where survivors from their local community lived and contact them, or that sites of persecution should not be hidden but instead used to educate the next generation. We know so much about major national figures in these debates. We know next to nothing about who was doing the hard work on the ground, and who was resisting them.

And in fact, in town after town, local activists did indeed confront tenacious opposition. But by the late 1970s, some communities had begun to make breakthroughs, and by the 1980s there was a genuine take-off, with hundreds of German hometowns embracing a new civic consciousness that centered on a critical appreciation of what had happened during the Nazi period. In this project, I hope to show the wide range of participation, the tenacity of the work, the richness of the imagination, and the variety of cultural engagements that went into Germany’s remarkable discovery, however late, of its own dark past. By focusing on German small towns, and by paying attention to what people actually did with material objects, I hope to offer a different sense of who was involved in commemoration, when and where it happened, and perhaps to explain why it took its ultimate forms. Finally, I hope to show that Germans did not confront their past alone. Rather, the Germans had a great deal of help from the very people whom they had persecuted.