In this essay Habermas contends that, until 1989, four phases are discernible in how postwar Germany attempted to come to terms with its “unmasterable past.” Between the end of the war in 1945 and the foundation of two German states in 1949, the first reconstruction generation mythologized the Nazi period as a criminal abyss. If this strategy allowed the government of the Federal Republic to assume legal responsibility for reparation claims, it also served to release individuals from working through their own painful pasts. This stage yielded to a second phase, one of “communicative silencing,” during the Adenauer years from 1949-63 in which the second reconstruction generation chose not to speak of the past but rather to concentrate on building the Wirtschaftswunder. The student movement of the 1960s challenged this presentism with demands for disclosure and accountability, and from the mid-1970s until 1989 this quest for unmasking existed in tension with an ongoing desire for evasion. This tension drove the “Historians’ Debate” of those years. Since reunification in 1989, Germany’s attitude toward its past has remained ambivalent. Today a New Right calls for the self-confident reassertion of a German nation unburdened by its past. But the past will lose its hold over Germany, Habermas argues, only through the work of a truly faithful memory.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.