Oldenhage on Bammer, 'Born After: Reckoning with the German Past'

Angelika Bammer
Tania Oldenhage

Angelika Bammer. Born After: Reckoning with the German Past. Psychoanalytic Horizons Series. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 304 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5013-3642-3.

Reviewed by Tania Oldenhage (University of Basel) Published on H-Judaic (January, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54275

In his book Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (1990), Eric Santner discussed the difficulties of working through the legacy of the Holocaust from the perspective of postwar generations in Germany. Building on the well-known psychoanalytic work of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (1967), Santner proposed that the second and third generations not only were implicated with a legacy of denial and repression but have furthermore “inherited the psychic structures that impeded mourning in the generations of their parents and grandparents” (p. 34). Since the publication of Santner’s book in 1990, there has been a proliferation of hugely diverse texts, art projects, memorial initiatives, and public debates through which third and fourth generations of Germans have engaged with the Nazi past. These efforts range from minute historical reconstructions of the rise of National Socialism and its repercussions in regions, towns, schools, and other local institutions to broader debates, for example, on the imbrication of fascism with colonialism or the question of how certain forms of violence have lived on in East Germany after 1945.

Angelika Bammer’s recently published book is an important and in many ways original contribution to this vast body of work concerned with Holocaust memory from the perspective of a perpetrator culture. Bammer weaves together her own family’s past with major events in Germany’s post-Holocaust history, including the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the 1960s and the infamous visit of US president Ronald Reagan and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl at the military cemetery in Bitburg in 1985. Weaved into her narrative are also the voices of well-known writers and Holocaust scholars, such as Jean Améry, Paul Celan, Saul Friedlander, Imre Kertézs, Victor Klemperer, and Primo Levi. Thus, readers unfamiliar with the history of Holocaust remembrance in Germany will find many helpful literary signposts with which to contextualize Bammer’s narrative. 

One major site at which legacies of the Nazi period have been transmitted to younger generations, according to Santner, was the postwar family. Bammer’s book vividly shows the complexity behind this insight. What makes Bammer’s accounting remarkable among other things is the huge time span of her engagement with her family history. Her personal narrative begins well before she was born in 1945 and stretches beyond the death of her father in 2009. Instead of narrating one single revelation concerning her family’s implication with Nazi violence, as has been done in so many popular novels and films, Bammer tells about her recurrent, labored, and often frustrating efforts of trying to understand not only the actions of her parents and grandparents but maybe even more important their changing emotions and silences vis-à-vis their country’s horrific past.

Bammer’s narrative entails various scenes, journeys, and encounters, each of which brings a new piece to the puzzle: traveling with her father to his former home in Rumburg; walking with her mother to the memorial site in Buchenwald; reading the love letters that her parents wrote to each other in the early 1940s while the “Final Solution” was well underway; attending an exhibition on Auschwitz at Emory University with her aging parents; conversing with her mother’s former neighbor and her father’s best friend; spending time at the archives and doing diligent research on the fate of the Jewish families who lived in her mother’s hometown, Velen, when the Nazis came to power. Bammer’s attention to detail and her willingness to question the accuracy and reliability of personal, even intimate memories makes her narrative breathtaking at times.

Toward the end of the book she shares her shocking discovery that three of her grandparents had been members of the National Socialist Party; this discovery does not come as the climax of her narrative. Rather it helps emphazise the urgent ethical questions that drive Bammer’s work as a whole. How is she to deal with the memory of a cheerful, friendly grandmother who in 1933 took on a leading role in a local women’s Nazi organization? How is she to live with the realization that her parents’ romance blossomed at the exact time when the first deportation trains took off to the East as they shuttled back and forth on those trainlines to be together? Bammer is of course by no means the first author to raise such questions. But she does it on the basis of many decades of working on Holocaust-related issues. This enables her to articulate experiences, irritations, confusions, and insights that have shaped not only her as an individual but also those who belong to what Björn Krondorfer helpfully discusses as postwar cohorts in Germany.[1]

However, Bammer’s narrative is also a product of an important particularity of her biography. Her way of reckoning with the German past in many ways is shaped by the fact that while partly growing up in Germany she spent most of her life out of the country. This gives her the abilities and sensitivities of a keen observer while spending time in and traveling through Germany. What triggered her work, moreover, is an early childhood memory of living with her parents in Canada in the 1950s. At this early age she picked up from her environment the shame surrounding anything German. Many years later, Bammer remembers her wish to pass on the task of reckoning with the German past to her own children. These memories include a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam when her children were very young. Some years later she learned that her children had no memory of this visit. “What was important to me hadn’t registered with them,” Bammer writes (p. 234). She realizes that her German family history did not carry the same urgency for them as it did for her. This may be so not only because of the distance of time but also because her children grew up in the United States. For third, fourth, and eventually fifth generations growing up in Germany, the question of how to pass on a “much tainted, much poisoned legacy,” to use Santner’s phrase, will continue to seek urgent answers.[2]

Bammer writes: “This process of working through, for me, is not over as long as the present continues to redraw the shape of the past. For that reason, I have no conclusion and no real ending. Reckoning aims for justice and hopes for forgiveness. And like justice and forgiveness, its measure is time” (p. 231).


[1]. Björn Krondorfer, “Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust in Autobiographien protestantischer Theologen,” in Mit Blick auf die Täter: Fragen an die deutsche Theologie nach 1945, ed. Björn Krondorfer, Katharina von Kellenbach, Norbert Reck (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006), 23-170. 

[2]. Eric Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 30. 

Tania Oldenhage has written on Holocaust remembrance in German Christian discourses. She teaches at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

Citation: Tania Oldenhage. Review of Bammer, Angelika, Born After: Reckoning with the German Past. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54275

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.