abolish commemoration - critique of the discourse relating to the bombing of Dresden in 1945


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 objectified form, 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 legitimations2 that 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 groups 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 groups 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”.

Citation Mathias Berek: Instrumental Memory. Functions of Collective Remembering., in: Abolish Commemoration – A Critique of the Discourse to the Bombing of Dresden in 1945, online at

http://www.abolishcommemoration.org/berek.html [accessed dd.mm.yyyy].

translated by Mathias Berek


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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.

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