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by Caitlin Burke

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The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany is a collection of essays that appeared in The New Yorker over the course of nearly ten years. Kramer approaches German perceptions of self and history for the most part through the lives of individuals, but in spite of her focus, the essays range more widely than even the "whither Germany" article Kramer says she kept trying to write. Kramer enriches her stories with her long experience of and interest in Germany, and the essays themselves show the strengthening of some of her ties to the country. The essays of The Politics of Memory were written by a person with tremendous compassion and sympathy for Germany and its people, and this shows in her honest -- and careful -- descriptions and questioning of some of events in Germany that make it so easy for non-Germans to take the country to task.

Kramer approaches issues of German identity through memorable and shocking events. A restaurant deemed "too chic" is harassed by kids wielding buckets of shit. A young man plans at length to defect from East to West Germany, only to find that his passivity was more suited to an Eastern political prison than to the West's work ethic. The Bundestag votes to declare Berlin the capital once again, and the Bonn government is transplanted to what was once the center of Hitler's Reich. The East German secret police files are opened, revealing that fully 25 percent of the East German population spied on their neighbors. A Turkish man, born and raised in Germany, has his skull cracked by some kids on the street. A talk-show host organizes a fund to build a Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, planning a monument "as big as the crime."

A reviewer at Time magazine disliked this book, feeling it rambled and had no overall structure. The final essay, "The Politics of Memory", does address German Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- "management of the past" -- in its discussion of a proposed Holocaust memorial to be built "right over Hitler's bunker", and readers looking for 300 pages of German philo-Semitism and hand-wringing over the Nazis will be disappointed to find this short, sophisticated treatment just as the book is ending. But while Kramer's writing likely appeals more to people who already like the journalism characteristic of The New Yorker, the charge of incoherence misses the mark. Kramer's profiles are more specific, as well as more general, than a treatment of unified/reunified Germany. For Germany-watchers, the charge of incoherence may seem doubly strange. The articles hover around Berlin and the topics hover very closely over the central ironies of the history of Germany, at once a bastion of civilization and a scene of crime.

Kramer makes no sweeping statements in the essays collected in The Politics of Memory, in itself a regrettably remarkable feat. She is aware that Germany is not just a country in flux but a relatively new idea and one that is hardly firmly entrenched, even in the minds of German people. There have been German-speaking people in one area for centuries, but Germany's notion of nationhood per se has been formed by the likes of Bismarck and Hitler; Helmut Kohl, too, focuses on Berlin in the creation of a "whither" for Germany to pursue, and he is well aware of the very troubled past Germany must overcome. Although a location -- Berlin -- serves as a regular flash-point for German history, the central issues for Germany seem to revolve around its reluctance to assume a location-based national identity (in keeping with the self-identifications of its neighbors) if it means giving up the nonlocalized ethnic or racial sense of identity that seems to characterize the Germany that has made so many disturbing headlines.

The Politics of Memory includes stories that are shocking, sad, mystifying, infuriating, and funny. Perhaps the most striking aspect of any attempt to plumb the depths of "What Is Germany" is the stunning regularity with which all of those notes are sounded. German academia's long-standing interest in the methodology of history has always lent a unique sharpness to any informed discussion of whither -- or for that matter whence -- Germany. Familiar with the academic debates about the meaning of history and historiography in Germany, Kramer adds perceptive and involved reports from the field, reports that help make it possible to grasp the mystifying and to comprehend the infuriating. The Politics of Memory is an able contribution to a thoughtful and searching literature.

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