While German tourists visiting Dresden are no longer quite as shocked by the old buildings they see everywhere, they do still irritate tourists from abroad. Everything around the Frauenkirche [Church of Our Lady] smells of renovation and Disneyland so one is made aware of the reconstruction. However, at the very latest, questions start to arise on the way to Pillnitz, via the villa quarter Blasewitz and the 'Blaue Wunder' [Blue Wonder] Bridge. How could all of this have survived the firestorm? After all, it was a second Hiroshima, wasn't it? Dresden is legend - a beautiful, innocent city of art and culture - and the German victimisation narrative without peer, bombed unnecessarily shortly before the end of the war with hundreds of thousands dead. It is a lie of 'Allied war crimes' with a rain of phosphorus and low-flying fighters targeting the civilian population. The Allied air raids of 13 to 15 February 1945 are a fixed point of reference in Dresden's memorial culture. Over the decades they have provided its climax and, at any given time, an expression of the prevailing politics of history. The texts in this e-book afford an overview of the substantive contents of, and the developments in, Dresden's remembrance policies as well as furnishing a fundamental critique of current memorial politics of both the city and Germany as a whole. Dresden presents an image of itself as a symbol of peace and reconciliation and, in the meantime, also as a symbol for 'accurate memorialisation' as opposed to the historically revisionist version of the Nazis. The annual neo-Nazi marches have played no small part in provoking a re-assessment of some of the legends leading to facts being researched and the Nazi history of Dresden described and defined. Is this enough? Shouldn't the commemoration itself be abolished?

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“Dissonanz” author collective

Abolish Commemoration

Critique of the discourserelating to the bombing of Dresden in 1945



“Dissonanz” author collective

Instrumental Memory

Functions of Collective RememberingMathias Berek


Dresden in the wake of Germany:

The myths of Dresden and the modification of German national historyHenning Fischer

“During the raid, we watched as the bombs fell like manna from heaven.”

Interview with Olga Horakaudioscript Dresden

“Look around you, now you know.”

Politics of peace initiatives within the context of the commemorations of the bombing raids of Dresden since 1980.Claudia Jerzak

One Nation on the Screen: Dresden

Filmic Commemoration and German-German Memory PoliticsAntonia Schmid

Slaughterhouse Dresden

Literary Memory in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Safran Foer - Between Satire and KitschChristine Künzel

Frauenkirchen Mania

The Frauenkirche, “Dresden Cathedral” and the ReconstructionPhilipp Klein

From Memorial Space to Learning Place

Present and prospective (hi)story telling at the Dresden Heidefriedhof / Heath Cemetery Swen Steinberg

Dresdner Monument Stories

Contradictions between Reconstrucion and Victim IdentityPhilipp Klein

Dresden Christ Superstar

A Farce in five actsAndrea Hübler

Dresden calls

How one of the biggest European Nazi parades came to be Antifa Recherche Team Dresden (ART)

Legislated Commemoration

The new Saxony Assembly ActAntifa Recherche Team Dresden (ART)


Suddenly, Unexpectedly, Senseless?

Dresden during National SocialismRené Haase

“Yesterday Dresden, today Korea, and tomorrow the whole world.”

The ideological charging of 13 February commemorations in the Soviet Occupied Zone and the GDR: early days and later developments.Sophie Abbe

Make do and mend

The Commemoration of Dresden in Reunited GermanyAndrea Hübler


“But who ever asked us for pardon? Pardoning died in the deathcamps.”

audioscript on the Persecution and Annihilation of the Jews in Dresden 1933 to 1945Heike Ehrlich/Kathrin Krahl

“It was meant as a provocation to make people think about what is really going on in Germany at the moment.”

Interview with Krischan, a delegate of the Anti-nationalist Plenum HamburgConducted by Judith Lauer (“Dissonanz” Author Collective)

Chronology of the protests

“Dissonanz” author collective


While German tourists visiting Dresden are no longer quite as shocked by the old buildings they see everywhere, they do still irritate tourists from abroad. Everything around the Frauenkirche smells of renovation and Disneyland so one is made aware of the reconstruction. However, questions start to – arise at the very latest – on the way to Pillnitz, via the villa quarter Blasewitz and the “Blaue Wunder” [Blue Wonder] Bridge. How could all of this have survived the firestorm? After all, it was a second Hiroshima, wasn’t it?

The Nazi leadership used the air raids on Dresden on the 13 and 14 February 1945 as the basis of a campaign to discredit the allies in neutral countries abroad. In the days following the bombardment the news agencies filed detailed reports, press releases and radio reports which represented Dresden as a peaceful city of art and culture.1 The lies propagated by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda about the innocent, militarily unimportant art and culture city which had been unnecessarily bombed shortly before the end of hostilities while talking about a hundred thousand deaths, a rain of phosphorus and low-flying fighter planes targeting the civil population were not without effect in the allied and neutral nations. Although critical historians and anti-fascist groups active both in local and national discourses have been successful in deconstructing the Dresden-as-victim myth over the last few years international perception of the air raids on Dresden are nevertheless regarded as militarily senseless, particularly savage or even as an Allied war crime. The reception of classics of literature such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 continue to contribute to this. In his book, a high school text in the USA, Vonnegut compares Dresden after the bombing with the surface of the moon and quotes David Irving, the British revisionist historian and Holocaust denier who, in The Destruction of Dresden, published an exaggerated numbers of casualties – 135,000.

Also involved in the internationally current idea that one has to place Dresden and Hiroshima (and 11 September too) in the same category is bestseller author Jonathan Safran Foers. In his book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,which was filmed in 20112 he links the story of his main character with the experiences of his grandparents who lived through the Dresden bombings. In Germany parallels like this drawn by outsiders are gratefully accepted. Thus the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote: “Moreover, the New York drama is interlaced with two other apocalyptic firestorms, viz. the bombing of Dresden and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Thus Foer relates two of the most contentious and symbolically charged catastrophes of the twentieth century to a terrorist crime which, we fear, will become no less symbolic for the beginning of the twenty-first century”.3 By translating our criticisms of memorialisation we intend to intervene in the continuing reproduction of the Dresden myth in international discourse. We would like to make our arguments against the memorialisation of the bombing accessible to academics, political activists and those interests outside German-speaking regions.

“First the bombs, then the Wall, now the floods: we can handle that too!”

This morale-boosting slogan brightened the summer of 2002 – the “flood of the century” had just turned “Florence on the Elbe” into “Venice on the Elbe” – on a short run of posters distributed by the Saxony FDP [Free Democratic Party] calling for donations for its flood fund. It could only be seen in Dresden city centre. Dresden, after many hard setbacks of fate, knows what suffering and privation mean. Anyone wanting to score points in Dresden would do well not to forget the bombings – they give you a direct line to the identity of its inhabitants. A fixed point of reference is their collective memory of the Allied air raids on Dresden between the 13 and 15 February 1945. And none of this is a joking matter, as one can see from the reaction to Thomas Gottschalk’s witty remark during the television programme, Wetten, dass …? when he commented on the rebuilding the Frauenkirche [Church of Our Lady but literally “Women’s Church”] by asking if it might not have been cheaper to build a women’s parking space. There was a similar reaction when the satyric magazine, Titanic, commented the 2002 floods on it back page with “Relapse into a planned economy: water for extinguishing fires 57 years behind schedule”. Natives of Dresden vented their ire and dented pride in their suffering with angry articles and commentaries in local newspapers and letters to the editor.

Emerge Saxony! First the bombs, then the wall, now the floods: We handle that too! Posters distributed by the Saxony FDP (Free Democratic Party) in 2002, calling for donations for its flood fund. Photo: “Dissonanz” Author Collective

Dresden is legend, a beautiful, innocent city of art and culture and the German victimisation narrative without peer, bombed unnecessarily shortly before the end of the war with hundreds of thousands dead. It is a legend of “Allied war crimes” with a rain of phosphorus, low-flying fighters targeting the civilian population. And it is a symbol of peace and reconciliation. In the meantime, for those who, in their political position in relation to memorialisation, are beyond legends and prefer to “put the past behind us”, Dresden has become a symbol for accurate memory as opposed to historically revisionist version of the Nazis. For a long time Dresden’s history only began on the 13 February 1945 with the bombardment of the city. Before that there was a long blank reach as far back as the glorious times of the Baroque era which were viewed through rose-coloured glasses: Dresden the Baroque pearl of art and culture. And little has changed up to the present.

National Socialism, the persecution of Jews, deportations, book burnings, force labour and Aryanisation – none of this took place in Dresden. Instead, the city was the personification of German victimhood that must, at last, be commemorated. The internationally effective myth of the lost city penned by Nazi propagandists and tenaciously cultivated over the years endures. But the annually increasing attention paid to the growing size of the Nazi procession – first established in Dresden in 1998 – had taken advantage of the form and content of the commemoration. This forced a change in the official remembrance and memorial policies – at least superficially. The legends were questioned, facts researched and the Nazi history of Dresden described and named. The city’s need re-draw the demarcation lines was satisfied by official declarations of belief.

To many that looked as if criticism of the annual commemorative ceremonies was now obsolete. For many others it seemed that from now on the only struggle required was that against the Ewiggestrigen [die-hards, literally “the eternal yesterdayers”] who were here to take part in one of their last great parades. Whereas in the 1990s the protests were directed against the annual remembrance evening of the 13 February in front of the Frauenkirche with its historical revisionism and denial of historical facts, one’s own guilt and perpetrator status, the protests in the last few years have focussed on preventing neo-Nazi parade marches. This was first fully successful (at least as far as the larger of the two annual processions is concerned) in 2011 when mass blockades were set up. However, much was lost sight of in the process especially and increasingly issues linked to the politics of memorialisation: an analysis of the linkages between the Nazi marches and memorialisation in Dresden and, equally, well-found criticism of Dresden memorial culture and the way in which guilt and perpetrator status in National Socialism was dealt with throughout Germany. There were also only marginally perceptible advances in criticism related to new developments in memorial discourse. Criticism that does more than deconstruct legends or contextualise events in a more than an abstract way is almost completely absent or even regarded as superfluous – the historical context of the bombing is common knowledge, isn’t it? Nevertheless criticism can still be made of memorial culture in Dresden, embedded as it is in the German victim discourse and with the German resistance to dealing with the National Socialist past.

In putting this book together the editors were motivated by this lack of closure deriving from a failure to grapple with the issues and the continuing necessity for critical interventions. They have all been politically active in Dresden for many years and are concerned with the critical analysis of memorialisation, the Dresden legends and their linkages with the discourses relating to the politics of memorialisation. They were (and are) members of various groups and projects which, over the past few years, have attempted to intervene in the annual events centred on the 13 February and the Dresden memorialisation discourse in general. Over these years much has been written, researched, restructured and discussed about the 13 February complex. Making this available to interested readers as a compendium was additional incentive for the editors.

“Relapse into a planned economy: water for extinguishing fires 57 years behind schedule” Published overleaf in September 2002 issue of Titanic Satire Magazine. Photo: Titanic

The articles by various authors that are collected here provide an overview of the basics: the socio-political content of and the developments around how the 13 February is commemorated. And they deliver a fundamental critique of this as well as the current German politics of memorialisation in general. The articles open up a chronological perspective of the development of the 13 February, looking at its anti-imperialist spin in the GDR, the Germans-as-victims attitude, the call for peace and conciliation as part of the new German self-confidence after 1990, the “truthful” remembrance without exaggerate numbers of fatal casualties, low-flying fighter planes or blatant rejections of guilt and, finally the arrival in the Berlin republic. The texts offer an analytical perspective dedicated to individual aspects, discursive topoi and, equally, to symbols and their effects on the Dresden memorialisation discourse. But the present publication does not only link the publishers/editors because of their aspiration to provide descriptions, analysis and criticism but also because of their practical approach to the documentation of the various ways that have been tried since the 1990s to counteract and disrupt what can be called the Dresden fact-resistant mourning collective. This is always concerned with itself and a memorial discourse that is tightly bound up with their own identity as victims. At least some of their certainties have been shaken.

These articles are prefixed by a theoretical basis for further engagement with the 13 February complex. In Werkzeug Erinnerungskultur. Die Funktionen des kollektiven Gedächtnisses [Instrumental Memory. Functions of Collective Remembering] Mathias Berek takes on Dresden memorial culture and providing readers with a theoretical introduction to collective memory and memorial culture. He explains how collective memory is generated with regard to present motives and situations, the function it can have in defining politics, identity and reality and why this means that there can be no such thing as the “misuse of memory”.

In the chapter FOKUSSIERT [FOCUSSED] a number of different authors take up individual aspects of memorialisation in Dresden. The essay, Im Kielwasser. Der Mythos Dresden und der Wandel der deutschen Nationalgeschichte [Dresden in the wake of Germany: The myths of Dresden and the modification of German national history] sets current Dresden memorialisation in relation to the modernisation of German national history. In it, Henning Fischer pursues the question as to the role that the transformed discourse takes in the newly adjusted relationship of the Berlin republic to German history.

In Manna vom Himmel4, an interview mit audioscript Dresden, Olga Horak described the bombing of Dresden in January 1945: “During the raid we watched as bombs fell like manna from heaven”. She was one of the Jewish prisoners on death marches that passed through Dresden’s inner city area in January and February 1945.

In her article, “Da seht ihr’s, jetzt wisst ihr’s”:Friedenspolitische Initiativen im Gedenken an die Bombardierungen Dresdens seit 1980 ["Look around you, now you know." Politics of peace initiatives within the context of the commemorations of the bombing raids of], Claudia Jerzak describes the dilemma that actors who criticise military solutions to social conflicts have in historically de-contextualising the air raids on the one hand and, on the other, encouraging the propagation of the highly symbolic universalisation of the mythic narrative of the innocent city of art and culture to provide fertile ground for revisionist arguments.

In One Nation on the Screen: “Dresden”, filmisches Erinnern und deutsch-deutsche Geschichtspolitik [Filmic Commemoration and German-German Memory Politics] Antonia Schmid analyses how German television productions are dedicated to the quest and yearning for German identity. While marking the ideology of community as found is found in National Socialism as negative, they simultaneously manage to create the notion of victimised communities which proffers another identity.

The contribution by Christine Künzel, Slaughterhouse Dresden: Literarisches Erinnern bei Kurt Vonnegut und Jonathan Safran Foer – zwischen Satire und Kitsch [The Literary Memories of Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Safran Foer – Between Satire and Kitsch] undertakes a critical academic and literary analysis of the two American novels in which the destruction of Dresden plays a central role – the 1969 bestseller Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close from 2005.

Two articles are focussed on those sites of remembrance that are central to Dresden inhabitants’ memorialisation of the bombings. While Swen Steinberg is concerned with the official memorial site of the City of Dresden, Heidefriedhof, [lit. Heath Cemetery], Philipp Klein pursues the history and significance of the symbol for the 13 February 1945 and post-war reconstruction that has been staged for the citizens of Dresden as the embodiment of peace and conciliation – the Frauenkirche. In contrast, in his contribution, Nicht Gedenkort, sondern Lernort – Was der Dresdner Heidefriedhof erzählt und erzählen könnte [From Memorial Space to Learning Place Present and prospective (hi)story telling at the Dresden Heidefriedhof / Heath Cemetery], Swen Steinberg approaches his subject from the angle of the problematic memorial architecture and thus opens up a field for ways of dealing with memorial site education where memorials represent the ideology of remembrance of their times.

This focus on two of the most prominent symbolic sites is expanded by Philipp Klein’s overview of memorial politics in Dresden which is caught up in the identity dissonances inherent in the conflicts between reconstruction and victimhood. The spectrum of public memorialisation, from the Neumarkt [New Market] of the Baroque fundamentalist via the Trauernde Mädchen im Tränenmeer [The Mourning Girl in a Sea of Tears] to the current undertaking of a site of remembrance at the Busmannkapelle (a side chapel of the Sofienkirche) with the long-demanded memorial bearing the names of all 19,000 known fatal bomb causalities shows the continuing historical revisionism of the Dresden victim myth.

A completely different genre of text bears the title, Dresden Christ Superstar. Eine Farce in fünf Akten [A Farce in Five Acts]. It follows the Pathway of Remembrance in Dresden through its stations from “destruction” to “resurrection”. Here, the fluffy Pink Rabbit delivers a commentary on staged events whereby Dresden does not only catch up with Jesus but overtakes him. In the end Dresden beats Jesus two to one. In their contribution, Dresden ruft [Dresden Calls] The Dresden Antifa Recherche Team (ART) traces the development of the largest Nazi march in Europe. They consider its significance inside the Nazi scene and, equally, the deeper linkages of the Nazi “mourning march” with Dresden’s memorial culture. In Gedenken per Gesetz [Legislated Commemoration] the group looks at the new laws regulating assemblies in Saxony. With the passing of the assembly law, first in January 2010, subsequently overturned in 2011 by the courts only to be passed again in 2012, the CDU/FDP (conservative and liberal coalition) succeeded in creating a legal régime in Saxony that not only puts National Socialism on the same footing as communism but also intervenes in the discourse of memorial politics and the political domain per se.

The chapter CHRONOLOGISCH [CHRONOLOGICAL] undertakes a historical classification and contextualisation of Dresden during the period of National Socialism and well as a chronological account of memorial practices in the city. In “Plötzlich”, “Unerwartet”, “Sinnlos” [“Suddenly”, “Unexpectedly”, “Senselessly”] René Haase presents Dresden’s history before and during the Nazi period and shows how, in the light of historical facts, the claim the Dresden was an exception to history was correct but incomplete. This is because the National Socialist Gauhauptstadt [provincial capital] Dresden had, at certain levels, a special and even pioneering role so that the fairy tale about the “innocent” and “militarily unimportant” city on the Elbe has always been completely untenable. For almost seventy years now, the bombing of Dresden on the 13/14 February 1945 has been a fixed reference point in the memory and commemorative events in the city. Throughout those decades Dresden was the culmination and expression of the prevailing politics of history – from the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist position of the state in the GDR, via the closure (forget about the past – a “clean sheet” restart) mindset and the new German self-confidence of the 1990s to the present-day memorial politics of the Berlin republic. In Gestern Dresden, heute Korea, morgen die ganze Welt ["Yesterday Dresden, today Korea, tomorrow the whole world."] Sophie Abbe describes the beginnings and development of an ideological spin imparted to the 13 February commemorations in the Soviet-occupied zone and the GDR. She investigates the question as to what signs and political contexts an anti-imperialist rhetoric in the historico-political discourse about National Socialism and the Second World War was established and, naturally, exercised an influence over the form and content of memorialisation in Dresden.

In Aus alt mach neu [Make do and mend] Andrea Hübler describes two decades of the history of Dresden commemoration in unified Germany. In the process she focuses on the developments of meaning and content – from the closure mindset, the erasure of historical context and the stylisation of Dresden as a symbol of peace and conciliation to a modernised form of remembrance in which Dresden, in keeping with the times, acknowledges its past and carries its having-learned-from-it confession before it like a banner and now, every 13 February, claims everyone’s suffering for itself.

The final chapter, AKTIVISTISCH [ACTIVIST] looks back on twenty years of critical engagement with commemoration in Dresden. Various approaches to dealing with, and the interventions opposing, annual events in Dresden around the 13 February anniversary are presented in a chronology of protest.

In an interview Krischan, a representative of the Antinationalen Gruppe Hamburg [Hamburg Anti-national Group] reports on the various activities of his group who are critical of commemoration. He recounts the 1993 journey of the Hamburg Wohlfahrtsausschuss [Welfare Committee, ] through Eastern Germany under the catchphrase Etwas Besseres als die Nation [Somewhat better than the nation], the heated discussions during the preparation of a poster campaign for Dresden and from the return of the Antinationalen Gruppe Hamburg two years later for the 50th anniversary of the 13 February.

The article, Auch weil niemand um Verzeihung bat. Die Geschichte des Pardons ist in Auschwitz zu Ende gegangen [But who ever asked us for a pardon? Pardoning died in the death camps.] by Heike Ehrlich and Kathrin Krahl discusses the audio tour of the city, the audioscript zur Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Jüdinnen und Juden in Dresden 1933 - 1945 [audioscript on the Persecution and Annihilation of Dresden Jews 1933–1945], which was produced as a counter-narrative to the hegemonic commemorative discourse and which lends weight to the memories of Shoah survivors and provides space for the analyses of critical philosophy.

“Dissonanz” Author Collective

translated by Tim Sharp

1 Thomas Fache, Allierter Luftkrieg und Novemberpogrom in lokaler Erinnerungskultur am Beispiel Dresdens, Masters thesis, TU Dresden 2007: www.qucosa.de/fileadmin/data/qucosa/documents/6440/Thomas_Fache_Magisterarbeit.pdf

2 Director was Stephen Daldry, who also made Bernhard Schlinks revisionistic book „Der Vorleser“ [The Reader] into a film

3 Hubert Spiegel, Oskar allein in New York, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/buecher/rezensionen/belletristik/oskar-allein-in-new-york-193747.html (accessed November 18, 2014)

4 The Hebrew Bible mentions manna (or bread from heaven) in Exodus 16:1-36. It was the legendary food which sustained the Israelites on their 40 year of wandering the desert.


Functions of Collective Remembering.

by Mathias Berek

In lectures on the link between memory culture and memorial politics, the collective remembrance of the bombing of Dresden is always useful as an example. The remembrance of this bombing is notable because it demonstrates not only how collective memory comes into existence against the background of current motives and situations, but also what functions it can fulfil in politics, identity formation, and reality construction.

But this text will approach the case from the opposite direction: The remembrance of Dresden will not serve as an example to illustrate the theory; rather, the theoretical introduction into collective remembering and memory culture will serve as a guide for the discussion of the remembrance of Dresden.1

Individual and Collective Memory

From the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, memory can be understood as a part of the stock of knowledge,namely, the part whose subject matter is the past. As a consequence, both the features of collective stocks of knowledge and the conditions under which single elements of knowledge are integrated into those stocks apply here. All that is to be incorporated into collective memory must first be expressed in an objectifiedform, and expressed through a symbol system that is understandable by others. Additionally, each element of knowledge that is to be incorporated has to be connectable to preexisting structures of meaning, thus already typified or at least typifiable. Finally, and most importantly, neither the remembering individual nor the remembered content itself decides which subjective element of memory will be integrated into collective memory; rather, that decision is based on the collective relevance that the element has in the present, a relevance that itself depends on current needs and conditions. In contrast to individuals, collectives do not remember spontaneously or without reason. It may be the individuals who do the remembering, but every individual is formed and influenced by his or her social surroundings, and every collectively significant remembrance must be expressed in a certain collectively understood language, use certain images and semantics, and serve certain collective needs and motives.

Functions of Collective Remembrance

Now we have a basis for the discussion of the functions of remembrance. For the individual, remembering helps to provide the structures of perception, from the constitution of meaning to the manner of perceiving space or social relationships. It provides us the parameters of time and orientation for our actions through the existent patterns of action. Already, it can only fulfil these tasks in relation to social structures and collective memory. Moreover, collective memory underpins the identity of the subject by legitimating the subject’s roles in life and by anchoring its biography in the frame of a collective (or of several collectives).

Other legitimations2that collective remembrance provides are even more interesting. Collective remembrance legitimates collective identity types by describing their origin and history; it also justifies social institutions and symbolic universes by delivering the certainty that these have always been the way they are, or at least that they emerged for very good reasons.

In the context of this discussion, institutions include marriage or the incest taboo, but also aggregations like the church or the nation state. All such institutions have to be legitimated. Again and again, their necessity must be conveyed to succeeding generations as well as to new members of the group. Most of the institutions we encounter in our lives were in place before us; we were not involved in their development and cannot know why they were created in their particular shape. For this reason, a “‘second-order’ objectivation of meaning” is needed,3 which adds meaning to the institution beyond the real reason for its formation. This is exactly the task legitimation fulfils: It presents the institution to the individuals as meaningful and thus secures the integration of the institutional order as a whole.

The highest level of legitimation of institutions is constituted by symbolic universes.4 They integrate the institutional order and establish “world”, that is, reality. Symbolic universes, too, have to be maintained by legitimations. These universe-maintaining “conceptual machineries” mostly consist of “a further elaboration, on a higher level of theoretical integration, of the legitimations of the several institutions.”5 Examples of universe-maintaining conceptions are mythologies or theology. They explain, at an usually high level of theoretical sophistication, why the world is inhabited and/or controlled by a god or gods and why it only can be that way.

In the processes of all these legitimations of institutions and symbolic universes, memory culture plays a crucial role. Again, collective memory is understood here as that part of the common stock of knowledge that refers to the past, and it is the past that, in most cases, is the point of reference for legitimations. Institutions are legitimated in two ways: either by referring back to the past situation that made their establishment necessary (this being the more enlightened version) or by simply claiming they have always been there, that they were founded or ordered into existence by the ancestors or the gods in the dim and distant past (this being the more pious version). Both versions, however, refer to events in the past that are available as elements in the collective stock of knowledge.6

In particular, institutions like the nation state need collective memory to be legitimated. National symbolic universes are almost always interpreted and understood in relation to the past. In most cases, the past is even created in this process, as the national history is constructed from real or invented events.7 Wherever the knowledge about past events comes from, the nation state still needs this knowledge to justify its necessity. Generally, this legitimation works as such: “We (the nation) have existed here for a long, long time. We know this from our national memory. During all this time, we have developed our characteristics and even qualities – they are embedded in our national memory. Finally, we are lined up here to defend against the rest of the world our qualities and, should the situation arise, also our territory, where we all know lie our roots.”8 Also beyond this ideal type, legitimations depend on memory culture. For example, in the 1950s, the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) memorial culture regarding National Socialism legitimated the state as an antifascist and socialist yet still German nation state by remembering primarily the communist resistance but rarely the Shoah.9

Aside from the above-mentioned function that collective remembrance has in underpinning roles and personal identities, it also serves to legitimate collective identity concepts. But what does “collective identity” mean? Can a collective own an identity? If yes, where does it reside? It is indeed problematic to assume the existence of collective identity, because that would subjectify social groups, ascribe personal attributes to them and finally reify them into autonomously thinking and acting entities. Such assumptions lead, as a consequence, to the concept of a people or community as an autonomous entity (in the German case, that would be the infamous concepts of Volk and Gemeinschaft). But there is no evidence for the essentiality of social groups, and there can be none. Social groups do not exist and act as autonomous subjects; rather, they are always associations of humans which communicate and act based on certain rules and within certain structures. The term identity, in contrast, always conveys individual psychological interpretations, which again would subjectify the collective.10

One option for avoiding that problem is to speak not of collective identity but rather of identity types that are characteristic for specific groups: “Specific historical social structures engender identity types, which are recognizable in individual cases. In this sense one may assert that an American has a different identity than a Frenchman, a New Yorker than a Midwesterner, an executive than a hobo, and so forth.”11 After all, there are common identity-concrete12 characteristics that members of any given collective possess. But an identity is something a collective can own just as little as it can own a subjective will. Similarly, the identity of every individual can never be fully collectivized: An individual’s identity is never determined by just one collective but by several. Moreover, individual identity is never fully determined by collectives; rather, it keeps its subjective elements of identity.

Identity types – as characteristic attributes that are ascribed to individuals within a group – serve the individuals in their self-definition as members of the group. Their task is to provide group coherence, which means to enable the subjects to continue to see themselves as part of the group. Furthermore, if indeed “all communities larger than primordial villages” always are imagined,13 then that imagination is also a result of the assumption that people possess common identity types. The assumed commonalities can rest on real facts such as a common language but also on constructions such as “race”.

Also, these self-definitions of subjects within collectives rely on common remembering: Identity types are traced back to a certain descent – there has to be a reason why they are as they are. In the family, for example, the group’s memories not only synchronize biographies but also support the self-concept of the family collective. A well-known survey on German family memories14 discovered that the foundation of the family’s self-perception is the need to have ancestors who are not criminals but heroes and heroines, or at least good humans. Within that private self-perception of many German families, the Shoah obviously has no place. This is why, on the way through the generations, these family histories transform “antisemites into resistance fighters and Gestapo officers into guardians of Jews”.15 Even if the grandparents are telling stories about executions, this information simply does not reach the grandchildren’s perception; rather, they will keep searching assiduously for anecdotes that prove their grandpa was, at least here and there, resisting and acting humanly and decent. The need in the present for a coherent family image in which no crimes have been committed controls the manner of how stories about the past are told and how those stories are perceived. The family is only one example of how this trait applies.16 In every group whose identity type is linked with the past, it is not the events of the past but the needs of the present day that determine how the past is presented among the group. The collective remembrance of a group thus co-determines its identity types and in doing so strengthens the coherence of the group. If the memory of the group’s history is lost, the knowledge about the attributes ascribed to the group’s members can be lost too.

To summarise: the processes of remembrance are essential in the social construction of reality as they help to structure perceptions, provide patterns of action and conceptions of time, and legitimate institutions, roles and identities. The rules and typifications that are objectified in institutions and stabilized through memorial rituals strongly influence the reality of the participating subjects. Nation states, for example, have a wide range of reality-shaping measures at their disposal, which they use to convey to their citizens that the citizens live in a reality in which it is of considerable importance to belong to a particular nation. For instance, it creates a certain national reality in the present if the citizens of Germany are told that their national history began with the legendary battle in the Forest of Teutoburg, and that this history shows how the “Germanics” have not only always had to defend themselves against foreign threats but have always been successful in doing so. This national history assures those subjects who decide to believe this story that they personally live in a reality in which they are part of a national collective whose roots reach far back and whose eternal fate is to fight external threats.

No Memory Culture without Memorial Politics

Up to this point, this article has arrived at two conclusions: each collective needs a memorial culture to maintain its coherence, and the present of those who remember collectively determines both what is remembered and how. As a consequence, collective remembrances are always instruments as well as the subjects of political negotiations, disputes and struggles over the generally binding rules of the society. What is to be remembered, and how, is always contested within a collective, and this dispute is fought with the assistance of remembrance. There are several terms at hand for these political processes and states: Vergangenheitspolitik (politics of the past)17 and Geschichtspolitik (history politics),18 for instance, are notions used in German political science and history to describe very divergent phases of how societies dealt politically with their past. Vergangenheitspolitik, according to Norbert Frei, relates to the ways of dealing with the National Socialist past in postwar Western Germany, and primarily refers to political debates, legal procedures and legislation processes.19 In contrast, the established understanding of the term Geschichtspolitik is that it refers to the totality of all representations of the (dictatorial) past that are focused on public-symbolic action (rather than on practical-political measures).20 However, one may argue that it does not make any difference for the abstract discussion on memorial politics whether the political debates about the past refer to the dark times of a dictatorship that was later overcome or to the glorious deeds of founding fathers who are still admired. Another term coined in the debate is Erinnerungspolitik (memorial politics), which Michael Kohlstruck defines as “to strategically operate with historical meaning in order to legitimate political projects”.21 According to him, memorial politics is not a specific form of political action among others but the strategy to legitimate politics through history.22 Linked to the previous findings referring to memory culture, this leads to the following definition: memorial politics is the pursuit of present political interests such as the legitimation of institutions, symbolic universes and identities by means of representations and interpretations of the past. Within the framework of memorial politics, the protagonists negotiate which aspects of the past are considered significant for the present and how they should be remembered. Thus, memorial politics are the concrete social struggles over and between memory cultures: What shall become part of the collective memory, and which aims shall it serve?

With this, the functions of memorial politics coincide with the functions that memory cultures fulfil in political struggles. Memorial politics 1) serve the legitimation of institutions, individual and collective action and symbolic universes, 2) provide timeframes for the single members of the group, 3) convey identity and collective identity types and, thus, 4) provide for the coherence of collectives.

Memorial politics is not bound to actions of the powerful only. Also minorities or marginalized groups can use the past for their political purposes. Memorial politics is not even limited to acts of remembering. The conscious attempt to eradicate certain memories and to substitute them with others is also a memorial-political action.

Abuse of Remembrance?

In discussions on collective remembrance, particularly in Dresden, this political instrumentalisation of the past is often lamented as an “abuse” of allegedly authentic remembrance. The political form of remembrance would be a malicious reshaping of the “original” memory of the eye-witnesses. But this lament ignores the fact that memory culture – as the process of activating collective memory – plays a crucial role in maintaining the coherence of society and collectives, and is therefore necessarily subject to processes of political negotiation, both as an instrument and as the subject of political action. That is, memorial politics is a normal (not malicious) mode of how collective remembrance operates, and collective memory in general is a neutral instrument of political debate in society. Being such a neutral instrument, collective memory eludes moral evaluation: it is futile to ask whether collective memory is inherently good or bad, whether it reconciles or triggers conflicts, or whether it heals or traumatizes. Memory can serve any purpose.

Good or Bad Remembrances?

Despite that neutrality, one can very well analyse (and criticize politically) the motives and the way somebody chooses to present the past. It is not the remembrance in itself that is subject to critique but the intentions behind it: Who remembers what? How is it remembered? For what reasons, and with which aims? Thus, it would be a rather vain endeavour to target one’s critique at the phenomenon of collective remembrance itself, since humans may collectively remember past events for any reason or purpose.

As a field of analysis and critique, it would be considerably more worthwhile to ask why a certain group clings to a certain interpretation of the past, and by what means they maintain it.

What can these reflections tell us about the case of Dresden? First, which experiences of 13th and 14th of February 1945 become a part of collective memories will always be less dependent on the event itself than on how these single memories fit the needs of the present collectives. That is why, beyond the narrations of own experiences, absurd fictions have been able to survive for decades, for example, the story about a brown bear carrying an injured monkey on its shoulder and scraping on doors for help,23 or the stories that multiply the numbers of victims, or the narratives about strafers attacking people on the banks of the Elbe. All these stories have withstood a variety of scientific falsification. As long as they fit into a reality where World War II claimed primarily German victims of allied barbarism, these legends will be believed. Moreover, it is not surprising that today’s organized Nazis made Dresden the place of their most important and biggest deployment. As long as the official remembrance ceremonies of institutional players such as the city of Dresden or the Free State of Saxony follow the same motives, intentions, and narratives as the Neo-Nazi remembrance, it is simply logical for them. With regard to content, the differences between the two groups of players were most of the time minor, not substantial. Both followed the motive and goal of legitimating the nation regardless of the German deeds during National Socialism, mainly through emphasizing the German victims and universalizing as well as relativizing wartime suffering.24 Their common narrative was the legend of the innocent and internationally honoured city of culture, one full of refugees and without any military relevance or National Socialist orientation, eradicated totally for condemnable reasons. Today’s Nazis as well as official players agreed in principle on these basic statements, which is why Dresden continues to be attractive for yearly Nazi marches.

To critically reflect on such motives and ways of remembrance stimulates analysis in memory studies much better than to simply pass criticism on an assumed “abuse of remembrance”.

translated by Mathias Berek

1 More detailed: Mathias Berek, Kollektives Gedächtnis und die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Eine Theorie der Erinnerungskulturen (Kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Bd. 2), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2009.

2 For more on legimitation, see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books 1967 [first 1966], ch. II, und Thomas Luckmann, “Einige Bemerkungen zum Problem der Legitimation”, in: Cornelia Bohn/Herbert Willems (eds.), Sinngeneratoren. Fremd- und Selbstthematisierung in soziologisch-historischer Perspektive, Unter Mitarbeit von Marc Breuer und Marén Schorch, Konstanz: UVK 2001, pp. 339–345, here p. 342: Legitimating practices are “rhetoric enterprises” by which “that what is” is highlighted as something that also “shall be”.

3 Berger/Luckmann, Construction, 1967, p. 92.

4 Ibid., pp. 95ff.

5 Ibid., p. 109.

6 These knowledge elements have been described as “invented traditions” by Eric J. Hobsbawm and others – Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, in: Hobsbawm/Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983, pp. 1–14, here p. 9.

7 Cf. Hobsbawm/Ranger (eds.), Invention, 1983, and the articles on the legitimating functions of traditions in the British Empire and colonial India. Jürgen Ebach writes about the German “Historikerstreit” of the 1980s: “It is about the political concept of a legitimatory exploitation of the past in order to stabilize and secure the current political, economic and technological power structures.” – “Erinnerung gegen die Verwertung der Geschichte”, in: Wieland Eschenhagen (ed.), Die neue deutsche Ideologie. Einsprüche gegen die Entsorgung der Vergangenheit, Darmstadt: Luchterhand 1988, pp.100–113, p. 103, transl. by the author (as all the following translations.).

8 Cf. Ernest Gellner, Nationalism, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997; Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 1990; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso 1983; Günther Blaicher, “Die Deutschen als ‚das Volk der Dichter und Denker”. Entstehung, Kontexte und Funktionen eines nationalen Stereotyps”, in: Historische Zeitschrift 287, 2, 2008, pp. 319–340; Christian J. Emden, “Nation, Identität, Gedächtnis. Überlegungen zur Geschichtlichkeit des Politischen”, in: Michael Frank/ Gabriele Rippl (eds.), Arbeit am Gedächtnis. Für Aleida Assmann, München: Wilhelm Fink 2007, pp. 63–85.

9 Cf. Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory. The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1997.The term “Shoah” is more appropriate than “Holocaust” (which originally means ritual killing in the form of burnt offerings), although “Shoah” is less common in English than in French, Hebrew or German discourses.

10 Cf. the defence of the term identity: Dariuš Zifonun, Gedenken und Identität, Der deutsche Erinnerungsdiskurs (Wissenschaftliche Reihe des Fritz Bauer Institutes 12), Frankfurt/M./New York: Campus 2004, p. 92.

11 Berger/Luckmann, Construction, 1967, p. 174.

12 On the term “identitätskonkret”, see Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München: Beck 1999, p. 39.

13 Anderson, Communities, 1983, p. 6.

14 Harald Welzer/Sabine Moller/Karoline Tschuggnall, “Opa war kein Nazi”. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, unter Mitarbeit von Olaf Jensen und Torsten Koch, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer 2002.

15 Ibid., p. 11.

16 Another example would be aerial warfare memory in communal heroism history, see: Malte Thießen, “Mythos und städtisches Selbstbild. Gedenken an Bombenkrieg und Kriegsende in Hamburg nach 1945”, in: Heidi Hein-Kircher/Hans Henning Hahn (eds.), Politische Mythen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert in Mittel- und Osteuropa (Tagungen zur Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 24), Marburg: Herder-Institut 2006, pp. 107–122; and: Jörg Arnold, Dietmar Süß, Malte Thießen (eds.), Luftkrieg. Erinnerungen in Deutschland und Europa (Beiträge zur Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts 10), Göttingen: Wallstein 2009.

17 Norbert Frei, Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit, München: Beck 1996.

18 Edgar Wolfrum, Geschichtspolitik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: der Weg zur bundesrepublikanischen Erinnerung 1948-1990, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1999.

19 Petra Bock and Edgar Wolfrum expand the term to also include dictatorial or authoritarian pasts in general – Petra Bock/Edgar Wolfrum, “Einleitung”, in: Petra Bock/Edgar Wolfrum (eds.), Umkämpfte Vergangenheit. Geschichtsbilder, Erinnerung und Vergangenheitspolitik im internationalen Vergleich, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1999, pp. 7–14, here pp. 8–9. Günther Sandner expands it further in proposing that “Vergangenheitspolitik” would mean how “a democratic society deals politically, juridically and culturally with its dictatorial past”, thus being part of history politics which is nothing but political instrumentalisation of history – Günther Sandner, “Hegemonie und Erinnerung. Zur Konzeption von Geschichts- und Vergangenheitspolitik”, in: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 30, 1, 2001, pp. 5–17, here p. 7.

20 Bock/Wolfrum, “Einleitung”, 1999, pp. 8–9.

21 Michael Kohlstruck, “Erinnerungspolitik: Kollektive Identität, Neue Ordnung, Diskurshegemonie”, in: Birgit Schwelling, (ed.): Politikwissenschaft als Kulturwissenschaft. Theorien, Methoden, Problemstellungen, Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2004, pp. 173–193, here p. 176.

22 Ibid., p. 178.

23 Gunnar Schubert, Die kollektive Unschuld. Wie der Dresden-Schwindel zum nationalen Opfermythos wurde, Hamburg: Konkret 2006, pp. 20–29.

24 It has been a Saxon and Dresden (right-wing-conservative) speciality to withstand the development at the German national level where the “Berliner Republik” tried to legitimate itself through supposed catharsis and successful remembrance of guilt and no longer through negation and relativisation.


The myths of Dresden and the modification of German national history.1

by Henning Fischer

Which are the most moving moments of our 1000 years and more of history? Guido Knopp, German journalist and TV history documentary producer2

This indicates what the Frauenkirche stands for – for the power of conciliation

and unites us. If we pay continuous heed to this insight we can rest assured

that the chapter [of history] we are now writing together will be a good one.

Horst Köhler, Federal President of Germany3

In German public debate as well as in the minds of most Germans who are excited about “their own” history, the Dresden Frauenkirche might very well represent one of the “most moving moments” in The History of the Germans4,the subject of Guido Knopp’s eager research.5