Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory Since the 1970s

It is easy to forget that for decades after World War II, the Holocaust did not play anything like the role it does today in American culture. Beginning in the 1970s, mostly American Jewish activists sought to create more opportunities for Holocaust survivors to tell their stories and thus to bolster awareness of this singular event. Their campaign culminated in the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Washington Mall, which officially opened in 1993. At the time, German leaders worried that the museum would cast present-day Germany in a bad light and threaten the transatlantic alliance—the angst of Eder’s title. The German government tried to convince the Holocaust Museum’s founders to acknowledge postwar Germany’s remarkably successful policies of democratization, reconciliation, and remembrance, as well as wartime German opposition to Hitler. Those efforts were completely rebuffed, but German fears proved to be exaggerated: the new museum conveyed a relatively balanced view, and Germany itself soon changed its policy, as symbolized by the construction of a striking Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. All of this reflects a broader process through which the Holocaust has been “universalized”: transformed from a specific event in Germany’s past into a stand-in for genocide anywhere.

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