Holocaust Angst. The Federal Republic of Germany and Holocaust Memory in the United States, 1977-1998

(University of Pennsylvania, Betreuer: Gassert)

This dissertation examines the perceptions and reactions of the leadership around Helmut Kohl, West German and then German chancellor from 1982 to 1998, to public United States, e.g. in the mass media, museums, monuments, and educational programs. Drawing on primary sources from over a dozen governmental, party, and institutional archives in both countries, it is among the first projects investigating German-American relations and transnational German efforts to cope with the Nazi past during the 1980s and 1990s to be based on archival documents (made accessible after multiple declassification requests). I argue that a network of West German officials and their associates in private organizations, mostly in the conservative spectrum, perceived themselves as the “victims” of American Holocaust memorial culture. Here they interpreted a lack of attention to the transformation of West Germany after 1949 and feared that public manifestations of Holocaust memory could severely damage its reputation in the United States. I refer to the concerns catalyzed by these perceptions as “Holocaust Angst.” This phenomenon propelled a number of developments, which I analyze in five case studies: the emergence of American Holocaust memorial culture as a political “problem” in the eyes of West German officials in the late 1970s; relations between the Kohl government and American Jewish organizations; West German efforts to influence the content of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition; cooperation between West German government officials and scholars to channel discourse about Germany and German history in the United States; and sources of conflict and instances of cooperation in German-American Jewish relations after German reunification. In the end, efforts made by the aforementioned circle of political decisionmakers, diplomats, lobbyists, and scholars to change American Holocaust discourse failed. Yet they managed to establish a stable relationship with several American Jewish organizations and founded institutions that continue to shape German-American relations today. German engagement with American Holocaust memory also contributed to the transformation of Holocaust memory in the Federal Republic and eventually rendered it a “positive resource” for German self-representation abroad.

The dissertation, completed in 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania, has won three prestigious international prizes: the 2013 Betty M. Unterberger Dissertation Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations; the 2013 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History (Category B) of the Wiener Library; and the 2013 Marko Feingold Prize in Jewish Studies, awarded by the University, City, and State of Salzburg, Austria. It was also a finalist for the Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize of the German Historical Institute in Washington.

Zur Person