Writing biography in the face of cultural trauma: Nazi descent and the management of spoiled identities

Abstract

Cultural trauma after mass violence poses challenges in micro-social settings. Children and grandchildren of the perpetrator generation address these challenges in multiple, more or less fictionalized, biographies and family histories, explored here for the case of the Nazi Regime and the Holocaust. Their books serve, at one level, as quarries for harvesting depictions of interactive situations in which intra- and intergenerational sets of actors manage stigma through practices of silencing, denying and acknowledging in the context of family and friendship circles. At another level, biographies themselves constitute efforts at managing the authors’ spoiled identities through their conversation with an imagined audience. In retelling family history and reporting interactive situations, authors are torn between the desire to engage with—and cleanse themselves from—a polluting past and to maintain family loyalties and affective bonds.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Different from Giesen, Alexander (2004b) avoids the term “latency” with its psychoanalytic reference to a repressed experience. This difference may be due to a basic disagreement, but it is certainly nourished by Giesen (and Eyerman 2004) addressing the fate of the perpetrator (Germans in Giesen’s case) or victim groups (African-Americans in Eyerman’s case), while Alexander engages with a third country (cultural trauma of the Holocaust in the USA). My case suggests that “latency” may be applicable to members of older generations of Germans, while post-World War II generations—the authors of the books under analysis included—may have experienced “unease” before cultural trauma set in. The authors’ depictions may also suggest that latency is too vague a term as it covers many forms, intensities and contents of repression.

  2. 2.

    Krug’s is an illustrated book that does not provide page numbers.

  3. 3.

    Inquiries with several scholars of literature did not yield any result. Professor of German Literature Sascha Feuchert at the Justus-Liebig University Giessen, head of the Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur, writes in a personal communication: “We have no such listing, and—to my knowledge—this genre [biographies and family histories by Nazi descendants] has not been subjected to any systematic inquiry thus far” (translated).

  4. 4.

    All quotation from the German language books (Leo, Mitgutsch, Schenck) are by the author of this article. Krug and Sands wrote their books in English.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg for contributions to stigma management; Alejandro Baer for feedback on an earlier draft; anonymous reviewers for the AJCS and Jeff Alexander as editor for their critique and guidance; Johanna Muckenhuber, Wolfgang Savelsberg, and Hakan Seckinelgin for supplying me with books; the authors of the books I analyze here, especially Nora Krug for courage and inspiring communication; and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study for the opportunity to write a first draft.

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Savelsberg, J.J. Writing biography in the face of cultural trauma: Nazi descent and the management of spoiled identities. Am J Cult Sociol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00125-8

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Keywords

  • Cultural trauma
  • Stigma
  • Literature
  • Interaction
  • Holocaust
  • Silencing