Topic: War, Culture and Memory

Topic type:

This paper on the remembrance of war in the process of legitimising identities was written by Debbie McCauley on 24 June 2011 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

European states have made political use of the remembrance of World War II (1939-1945) to legitimise and influence national identities through memorials and commemoration. The memory of war can also shape personal and regional identities which in turn interact with those national and political identities. This essay seeks to analyse specific cases of identity formation and includes a personal experience of wartime Britain, the aftermath of World War II on the German national identity as seen through a literary text and memorials that seek to strengthen regional and national identities.

The formation of a national identity, one in which people share a common culture and history, involves the ‘acceptance of a national heritage and recognition of a shared past’ (Emsley, 2003, p. 112). The British national identity contains layers of involvement in wars against seemingly oppressive regimes and it is these memories and the monuments to them that serve to shape and strengthen that identity. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant (1899-1985) reinforces British national stereotypes when he states, ‘her patient, rock-like people never compromised, never gave in, never despaired’ (Bryant, as quoted in Emsley, 2003, p. 11). According to Emsley (2003), historians such as Bryant ‘have played a significant role in constructing national identities by constructing national pasts’ (p. 35).

Memories of certain events and experiences help to form personal identities. This can be seen in the individual experience of war which not only affects personal identities, but can be a shared experience influencing regional and national identities. Emsley (2003) discusses the war narrative of Britain when he explains that, ‘much of the British myth-memory of the Second World War centres around the Blitz and mucking in together through hardship and shortage’ (p. 19).

An individual British civilian’s experience of World War II is demonstrated by the recollections of the author’s mother-in-law, Barbara Turner (nee Wallace), during an interview on June 11, 2011. The experience has had a profound influence on Turner’s personal identity:

I was born in Hull in September 1929, a month prior to the Wall Street Crash. It was the beginning of the depression and my father [Peter Wallace (1897-1965)], who was a fitter, spent the next six years out of work. At the beginning of World War II a representative from the ship repairers Brigham & Cowan knocked on our door and asked him to go and work for them. There were more jobs available than workers during the war and my father often worked throughout a day, that night, and then again the next day. He had served in the merchant navy during the First World War (1914-1918) and I could tell that Mum [Phyllis Wallace (nee Moyne) (1898-1976)] was often on edge. I guess after that first war they knew what they were in for.

I was 10 years old at the start of the war and 15 by the time it ended. My younger sister Margaret and I were first evacuated on the 1st of September 1939, two days before war was officially declared. We were away from home for seven weeks that first time. I thoroughly enjoyed going away and didn’t miss home at all; perhaps because my parents were able to visit me every weekend. Being evacuated meant we got to experience things we’d never done or seen before. It was fun to go mushrooming for the first time and see the wildflowers; for me it was really interesting although I know now that others had bad experiences. My mother insisted that we girls were kept together during the four times we were evacuated. Unfortunately the timing was off and we were always in Hull during the air raids. We took cover in our Anderson Shelter. The Government had provided those to all the houses in the area that had a garden.

Hull was heavily bombed, particularly during March and May of 1941 during what they now call the Hull Blitz. Every night the whole place seemed to be afire. We lived at 40 Telford Street and a bomb landed on number 5 and killed the family that lived there. I remember hearing that bomb coming down when we were in the Anderson Shelter. Waiting for the impact was just horrific, but it was the only time I felt really frightened. Our house ended up such a mess. Slate tiles fell off our roof, the windows were all blown in and the plaster ceilings fell down. I remember the air-raid warden, Mr Peach, falling into the crater that was left where number 5 had been. It was full to the top with water from burst pipes and he was soaking wet. A tree had been blown out of the ground when the bomb hit and ended up on top of the bake-house roof opposite number 5.

The school I went to was also firebombed so we had to join with another school which made things really cramped. Eventually they found us an old building, but it had no heating and, as it was in the depths of winter, we just had to keep our coats and gloves on. I remember having trouble writing due to the cold.

There was a constant shortage of food and I was always hungry. You might say that I was starving throughout my entire childhood. People from New Zealand talk about the food parcels that were sent to Britain during the war. We never received one and neither did any of my friends. The officials would have got them, there was corruption everywhere and you just couldn’t beat it.

After the war was over I walked into the centre of Hull and joined in the celebrations there. The mood was one of jubilance combined with relief that it was all over. I suppose that if I’d been older I would have been more affected by the war, but at the time I thought it was a huge lark.

I’ve been watching The Blitz documentary on Prime Television and that’s brought back memories and I’ve read several books set in wartime. It’s terrible now when I think of the citizens being killed as well as the men overseas, but as a child I was unaware of that at the time. Overall, the experience made me unafraid of everyday concerns. I feel that my generation were largely hardened against lesser things. It made us appreciate what we’ve got, because we have firsthand experience of how hard things can get. (B. Turner, personal communication, June 11, 2011)

Being primary evidence this recollection is more powerful and compelling for this author than reading books about the events. As well as being part of the personal memory of a British evacuee in war-time, the events described by Turner also serve as part of a regional identity formed by those who were citizens of Hull during this time. As Emsley (2003) explains ‘whatever the national memory... local, personalised memory can still be the more significant and potent’ (p. 29). However, this sense of identity is not necessarily the same for all the people who went through the Hull Blitz as Chimisso (2003) explains ‘the shared identity within a group or community does not have the same meaning and value for all those who identify with it’ (p. 17).

Memorials serve to commemorate those killed during wartime and provide a place of public mourning as well as reaffirming and legitimising national and regional identities. They have been used by political authorities to construct and reaffirm group identities and reinforce the self-image of the country. Emsley (2003) explains how British monuments from war ‘continue to be used by politicians, the media and ordinary individuals to renew and reconstitute the self-identification of a heroic island race’ (p. 11).

A civilian war memorial is located in the Northern Cemetery in Hull. It stands close to a mass grave where the majority of those killed in the Hull Blitz of World War II were laid to rest, and aids in reinforcing the city’s regional identity. Determination to remember those killed in World Wars ‘led to the building of war memorials in cities, towns and villages across Europe to the consecration of cemeteries on the battlefields, and to elaborate public ceremonies of remembrances’ (Emsley, 2003, p. 56). Hull recently held commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Hull Blitz which were centred at this memorial. An article entitled ‘We need a statue for Hull citizens who were killed in the war’ (2011) describes the experience and calls for a statue to be erected which will serve to further reinforce the regional identity:

They were terrible times for the citizens of Hull, but throughout the city their spirit and fortitude shone through... Perhaps now would be the time to think about a more prominent and imposing statue to the memory of those citizens of Hull killed in the Second World War being erected in the city centre. It would remind future generations and visitors to the city of the sacrifices made by so many people in those terrible times. (2003, para’s 5, 9 & 10)

These rituals of remembrance help to validate identities. Marwick (2003) discusses regional identity when he explains, ‘It is only through a sense of history that communities establish their identity, orientate themselves and understand their relationship to the past and to other communities and societies. Without history (knowledge of the past) we, and our communities, would be utterly adrift on an endless and featureless sea of time’ (p. 13).

The complex area of identities must be seen in the context of their historical development. Together, elements such as memorials, literature, music, visual media, cultural artefacts and memorial days play a role in the construction of and fashioning of collective memory and judicious remembrance. They are a selective tribute to the national memory of war as a shared experience impacting upon national identity. As Chimisso (2003) explains; ‘the sense of a shared past or of a collective memory functions as social cement’ (p. 44). As well as reinforcing the dominance of the British imperial might, national memorialisation serves another purpose, the formation of the enemy’s identity. British national identity, ‘as well as reaffirming and reconstructing self-identification... enables the construction of the opponent’ (Emsley, 2003, p. 11).

German national identity has been inextricably linked to the atrocities of the Nazi regime, one in which there are no heroes or victories to celebrate. This history is part of the complicated ethical and emotional tensions that help form personal and national identities in Germany as well as a collective historical amnesia of the role of ordinary Germans in denunciations. Emsley (2003) explains that ‘it was not just Nazi party members and SS troops who has been involved in mass killings’ (p. 17). As MacDonogh (2008) further explains, ‘originally the Germans were all guilty of starting an aggressive war, as their fathers had been in 1914. Now they had all committed, aided or abetted mass murder’ (p. 340).

The search for a German national identity is influenced by other aspects of German history, including unification in 1871, blame for their defeat in World War I on the Jews and Marxists, division by the Berlin Wall (1961-1989) and reunification in 1989. Germany’s defeat in both World Wars and the resulting division and blame for the Holocaust has obscured their experience as fellow victims of the war including food shortages, bombing raids, ruined cities, millions of dead and invasion after defeat bringing widespread looting and rape. Examination of the past has led to a re-evaluation of the Nazi legacy during the search for this new national identity as Penev (2007) explains:

The 1980s brought about a major shift to the processes shaping collective memory and national identity. The focus of cultural tensions no longer lingered on the question of whether the past should be forgotten. Normalisation and a search for positive national identity coincided with growing interest in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. (para. 7)

The post-reunification generation, faced with a legacy of collective guilt and shame, has attempted to come to terms with the horror and guilt of Nazism. By exploring responsibility for the genocidal horror of the Holocaust they sought to construct a new identity. This seeking to come to terms with the war can be seen in a German literary text, Bernhard Schlink’s (1944- ) novel The Reader (published in English in 1997). This fictional work explores the issue of German national identity. It provides a good insight into how powerful a work of fiction can be, ‘how a literary text may engage with the problems faced by a European people still questioning their national identity as a result of a traumatic past’ (Walder, 2003, p. 70).

The Reader moves from the past to the present in an intimate retelling of narrator Michael Berg’s experiences. As a fifteen year old, Michael is struck down by hepatitis. After throwing up in the street he is helped home by Frau Schmitz, a stranger from a nearby neighbourhood, ‘when rescue came it was almost an assault’ (p. 2). After a lengthy illness he visits her with flowers to thank her for her assistance (p. 8).

Hanna Schmitz is an inscrutable streetcar conductor more than twice his age. Michael is fascinated by her and on their third encounter they begin an affair. He is swept up by his infatuation whilst also noticing her idiosyncrasies which include insecurity, emotional closure and fits of temper. Hanna, the dominant one in the relationship, demands that Michael keep up his studies if he wants to keep seeing her (pp. 33-34). She asks Michael to read aloud to her, which becomes an integral part of their time together (pp. 39-41). As time moves on Michael finds their relationship increasingly difficult as his school and social life begin taking up more of his time, but when Hanna unexpectedly leaves the city without a forwarding address he is devastated (p. 80).

When Michael next sees Hanna, he is a law student sitting in on the case of six women accused of being Nazi guards at Cracow, a satellite camp for Auschwitz (p. 88). To Michael’s shock, Hanna is one of those accused. They are charged with not only selecting inmates to be sent to Auschwitz, but also for failing to rescue Jewish women prisoners burning alive in a church after a bombing raid (p. 106). The book serves to ‘remind us how ordinary people can turn into the slayers of those of their compatriots who become identified as different’ (Walder, 2003, p. 97). During the trial Hanna’s poignant inquiry of the court judge; ‘What would you have done?’ (p. 127) seems directed to everyone. According to Walder (2003), ‘The novel has been credited with providing a richer, more nuanced account than before of the perpetrators and bystanders of this past, going beyond the usual outright condemnation of the older generation’ (p. 70).

Michael is part of a post-war generation trying to come to terms with the Nazis and the predicament of their parents and relatives roles in the war. ‘We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst’ (p. 90). The infatuation that Michael had with Hanna intensifies once again, along with his self condemnation and mental persecution as he realises how intertwined their lives are; ‘the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her’ (p. 168). Narrated is a complex situation full of emotion as Michael battles with numbness at the details of the accusations and at being personally entangled with one of the perpetrators. He asks ‘some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt – was that all there was to it now?’ (p. 102).

Michael explores his sense of having betrayed Hanna, firstly in his youth by keeping their relationship a secret, and then by not speaking up at her trial about her illiteracy which could have well reduced her sentence and offered an explanation for some of her actions. ‘She was guilty, but not as guilty as it appeared’ (p. 136). According to Schlink, ‘Hanna’s illiteracy is symptomatic of those who had forgotten their moral alphabet during the war’ (as quoted in Anton, 2007, p. 109). Instead of declaring her illiteracy, Hanna accepts sole responsibility for a written report (p. 134) and is sentenced to life imprisonment (p.160). Walder (2003) wonders that ‘when the narrator accuses himself as a boy in such harsh terms for denying his lover, do we understand this as comparable in any way to the German denial of their country’s secret past, their inextricable involvement with those who carried out the dreadful crimes of the Nazi era?’ (p. 94). After the trial ends Michael is still fixated on Hanna; ‘my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate’ (p. 169). He carries the burden of his knowledge about her throughout his life, until he eventually realises a way to continue having a relationship with Hanna and try to put the past to rest (p. 181).

Michael is part of the generation who had ‘dissociated themselves from their parent’s and thus from the entire generation of perpetrators, voyeurs, and the wilfully blind, accommodators and accepters, thereby overcoming perhaps not their shame, but at least their suffering because of the shame’ (p. 169). This novel allows the reader to ponder the impact of the World War II on the lives of the generation after the Nazi’s. It is a valuable and insightful work, a ‘morally sensitive and profound attempt by a German writer to plumb the legacy of the holocaust’ (Walder, 2003, p. 96).

The German Holocaust Memorial, erected in Berlin sixty years after the end of World War II in 2005, is evidence of the acceptance of the past by Germans and an attempt to move on. An open letter published in German newspapers on 30 January 1989 was the stimulus for a memorial:

A half century has passed since the Nazis came to power and since the murder of the Jews of Europe. But on German soil, in the country of the perpetrator, there is still no central site of remembrance to recall this singular genocide, and no memorial that remembers the victims. This is shameful. (as quoted in Cole, 2003. p. 254)

Designed by Peter Eisenman it consists of 2,700 concrete slabs in a grid position. Construction has met with opposition, ‘backers of the memorial say the stones will be central to Berlin's identity, but critics say it is too abstract’ (Holocaust Memorial, n.d., para. 2). The memorial is an example of a memory negotiated by the people rather than by politicians. ‘There seem to be clear instances of the creation of particular memories from the top down, but those memories have been and are contested and reinterpreted from the bottom up’ (Cole, 2003, p. 266).

According to Kulish (2010) as the war generation has been dying off there has been a significant change in the new generation of Germans who seem to have come to terms with their past and are looking to the future:

German pride did not die after the country’s defeat in World War II. Instead, like Sleeping Beauty in the Brothers Grimm version of the folk tale, it only fell into a deep slumber. The country has now awakened, ready to celebrate its economic ingenuity, its cultural treasures and the unsullied stretches of its history. (para. 7)

One of the post-Berlin Wall generation, Elena Schlöndorff, seems to have little interest in identifying with the Nazi era. ‘I don’t really feel touched by it (said Ms. Schlöndorff, 18, with a teenage shrug) in our generation, we’ve gotten past it’ (Kulish, 2010, para 2). This view is reinforced by Anton, (2007) who states that ‘Adolf Hitler and the memories of barbaric Nazi atrocities shall no longer be used as identity markers’ (p. 115) but ‘empathy and amending past injustices – these will have to be the pillars of Germany’s unsentimental and steadfast path towards a new identity, an identity that will not have to continuously defend itself against prejudice and distrust’ (p. 115).

In conclusion, it can be seen that the experience of war can have a profound influence on the shaping of personal, regional and national identities. Political use has been made of this remembrance of war to legitimise and influence national identities through memorials and commemoration. The questioning of a past national identity and the search for new one can be impacted upon by a literary text such as in the case of The Reader. Whilst Britain national identity seems assured, Germany’s acceptance of the past and new national identity is still emerging and the political use of this identity, whilst apparent in the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, remains yet to be fully understood and accepted by the rest of the world.



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by Debbie McCauley (June, 2011).

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