Another Dispute in German Memory Culture on the appropriateness of a historical term

German Newspapers report today on a agreement before court which ended a civil lawsuit between a well known survivor of a German Concentration Camp and a director of the memorial of that camp, Buchenwald.

Stefan Jerzy Zweig, known as “the child of Buchenwald”, hero of the novel “Nackt unter Wölfen”, having beend deported there with his father and doomed to be transported to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister had been murdered, had been saved by communist inmates of the camp on initiative of his father by deleting his (and eleven other) name(s) from the original list and replacing the name of another inmates, among them the 16-year-old Willy Blum, a Roma.

After an earlier lawsuit between Zweig and German author Hans Joachim Schädlich, in which it was ruled (among other things) that the latter may no longer imply in his novel that Zweig (as a four-year-old boy) was in any case responsible /guilty for the death of Willy Blum, Zweig and German Historian Volkhard Knigge, director of Buchenwald memorial now (in second instance before court) seem to have agreed that the latter by no longer use the term “Opfertausch” (“exchange of victims”) for the action which saved Zweig’s life.

According to the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (“Streit um Buchenwald-Gedenken KZ-Überlebender wehrt sich gegen Begriff des “Opfertauschs”; Süddeutsche Zeitung 25.2.2012), the judge interpreted the term “Opfertausch” implying that the victims were the actory in this exchange, which indeed would have again implied Zweig’s responsibility for Blum’s (or any other’s of the twelve new on the list) death in Auschwitz. On the other hand, I would not interpret this term that way, reading “vitcims” in it as a reference to the object, not the subject.

The case shows (and that is the reason, why I post on it here) that terminology never can fit to 100% to a given situation in the past, but is a constitutive part of a narrative re-construction, which may not only be assessed by comparing to information on the past events alone, but also to connotations, implications and the spectrum of possible interpretations.

In contrast to a sentence by the judge, quoted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Opfertausch” were not a “standard” term of historiography, the term has been used earlier, e.g. in Lutz Niethammer’s “Der gesäuberte Antifaschismus” (1994); by Patrick Wagner (1998): “Die vorbeugende Verbrechensbekämpfung der Kriminalpolizei bis 1937.” In: Herbert, Ulrich; Orth, Karin u.a. (1998): Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Göttingen: Wallstein, S. 105, and many others. That the term has been subject to discussion, that some authors qualified it as a denigration of the inmates actions, may not serve as an argument against its being “standards”. The judge’s opinion (as quoted in the SZ) seems to imply that “standard” terminology would be more unproblematic and more easily be exempt from (ar accepted by) jurisdiction than “non standard” terminology. Historiography and history as an academic discipline, however, has never got around to developing this kind of “standard” terminology. And this is no flaw, no shortcoming of the discipline and its protagonists, but inherent in its character: Historiography is about interpreting the informations we have about things past and about integrating them into a narrative account which is in itself plausible. No narrative thus constructed can account for the “whole” of the past reality, but “only” for parts of it, selections — and from specific perspectives — political, social, cultural, moral ones. There always will be different valid accounts of the same past (even though there also will be invalid ones as well as blatant lies), and each of these valid ones will make sense from and for a different perspective. The task for historians and everyone taking part in public discussion on history then is to make their accounts acceptable to one another’s (not to make them all the same). In this course, the strenghts and shortcomings, even misunderstandings of terms must be considered. It is

So it still is crucial that history as an academic discipline be free and its process ofresearch and discussion may not be hindered by juridical procedures, and therefore I consent to Volkhard Knigge’s statement in his press release on the outcome of the case (in the Gedenkstättenforum“) that the research and reprenetation of the details of Zweig’s  rescue will not be changed on the settlement’s basis, but that only the term “Opfertausch” will be avoided.

Were it only for the judge’s apparent understanding that Knigge wanted (or risked) to imply that the victims themselves exchanged themselves — it would be rather easy to decide. But I think the problem with the term is deeper. In a way it focuses the dependence of the release of one victim from the selection of the other. As such, it highlights in its own ambiguity the ambiguity of the past situation. To me, that would be a strength of the term. Using it does not (as has been suggested) point the fingers at thos changing the lists as being perpertrators themselves, but rather on their very limited and venomed range of possible actions. Whether or not the concrete usage of this range of action constitutes an act of heroism or a crime still is subject to discussion and interpretation — and very well may result in different perspectives coming to different assessments (e.g. relatives of Will Blum judging differently from Zweig).

Because of this, historiographic terminology and that of memory culture should not be subject to juridical action, but rather to careful consideration in public debate and in teaching. Academic historiography and presentation of the past within memory culture has to take into account the perspectives and feelings of all interested groups — foremost the survivors and their families.

In didctical perspective, therefore, the case highlights the importance not (only) to teach about the past itself, but to make the terms and concepts we (and others) use and the terminology to it a subject, too. The aim should be to enable learners to assess the strengths and limits of concepts, the assets and liabilities connetcted to them.

It should be made clear that it is not about finding “the right” concepts and terms and avoiding “the wrong” ones, but about reflecting on the apprioriateness. I a way, learners should learn to cognitively and emphatically understand the subject of this lawsuit and should be able to find their own position / interpretation, which — at best — would not just be supporting one or the other party but reflecting their own perspective. Therefore, the term “Opfertausch” should — in my opinion — not be avoided altogether — not even with regard to Zweig’s rescue — but rather it should be used and taught as a concept which highlights aspects and invites to implications which may not be intended, as a tools, that is, the usage of which can serve some purposes on the cost of others. Whoever uses thisin research and teaching will — and rightly so — have to indicate to the “incriminated” implication of the victims being the actors, which may caution against further active usage of it. On the other hand, using the term might correctly indicate to the perspective of the other twelve victims and their relatives that their beloved ones were traded in for others’ rescue.

From this point of view, it is not about “using” the term in the way of applying it as a valid description of the past, but rather in the way of considering it and its strengths and flaws. It thus should be counted into a long row of terms in public memory and memorial culture which have been and still are discussed in a similar way, e.g. “Opferkonkurrenz” (“victims’ rivalry”) , “Opferhierarchie” (victims’ hierarchy”, in fact “Opfer” (which here means “victim”, but also may be used for “sacrifice” in Germany) and “Täter” (“perpetrator”). None of them (and lots of others) unambiguously mark a past phenomenon, event, structure, but are cognitive and communicative tools, which serve some purposes but fail others.


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