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Nazi Crimes, (West) German Television, and the Visual Construction of Historical Guilt and Innocence

26th January 2016

West German Holocaust memory of the 1980s and 1990s might very well be the most self-reflexive and self-critical collective memory of genocide we know. But German Holocaust memory is also a complex and ambivalent discourse which combines seemingly unflinching acknowledgments of historical responsibility with a great deal of imaginative and self-serving interpretations of history.

This lecture investigates examples from popular television productions, which have been the primary platform of collective memory in Germany for many decades. It offers a critical reading of mediatized memory, noting how television has proven adept at averting its gaze from the key moral challenges of the Nazi past by, for instance, turning perpetrators into bystanders and bystanders into victims. Among the handful of (West) German public TV programs that focus squarely on the perpetrators and bystanders of the Final Solution, most still fail to develop narrative and aesthetic strategies that render said perpetrators and bystanders clearly visible to the audience as distinct historical-political challenges.

In historicizing the history of televisual memory, this lecture argues that before the invention of the Holocaust paradigm, perpetrators and bystanders disappeared in a fog of tact, disinformation, and helplessness. With the development of the Holocaust frame they recede behind the figure of the survivor; and after the height of self-reflexive Holocaust memory they vanish in the moral maelstrom of Knopp TV, with Unser Mütter, unsere Väter marking a turning point in perpetrator TV narratives as yet another instance of highly selective remembering. This discussion of public television as a platform of collective memory draws on conceptual and theoretical developments in media history, cultural history and memory studies to outline a critical history of (West) German collective Holocaust memory.


Wulf Kansteiner

Main Research Interests

  • Representation and Collective Memory of World War II and the Holocaust in Germany
  • Postwar Historiography and Philosophy

Publications (selected)

  • With Christoph Classen: Historical Representation and Historical Truth. History & Theory Theme Issue 47. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.
  • In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.