Commemorating Failure: Unsuccessful Rescue of Jews in German Film and Literature, 1945-1960

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Scholars have so far interpreted postwar depictions of Germans saving Jews from Nazi persecution mainly as apologetic references that allowed Germans to avoid addressing problematic aspects of their history. Yet although such portrayals appear in many postwar German accounts, depictions of successful rescues of Jews are relatively rare in literary and filmic works produced between 1945 and the early 1960s. This article argues that in presenting failed rescue of Jews, several German authors aimed to contribute to the re-education and moral transformation of the German population. The article's first part shows that narratives of failed rescue were considered particularly useful for arousing Germans' empathy with the Nazis' Jewish victims. The article's second part examines those works that went further and tailored stories of unsuccessful rescue to criticize Germans for not doing more to resist the regime. Although these works presented Germans as victims, as was common in many contemporaneous depictions, it would be misleading to view them merely as apologetic accounts. Rather, the widespread reluctance to commemorate the persecution of Jews urged several authors to retain the common image of Germans as victims in order to avoid alienating their audience. At the same time, using narratives of failed rescue, these writers and filmmakers explored new ways to allow Germans to speak about the Holocaust and reflect on their conduct. Attempts to both arouse a moral debate and avoid directly speaking about Germans' collective responsibility might seem irreconcilable from today's perspective, but not for Germans of the 1940s and 1950s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)96-112
Number of pages17
JournalGerman History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History


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