What is your most overwhelming memory

Contemporary history

Horst Möller

To person

Dr. phil., Dr. H. c., born 1943; 1989-1992 director of the German Historical Institute in Paris; since 1992 director of the Institute for Contemporary History, Munich, and at the same time professor for modern and contemporary history at the University of Munich.

Address: Institute for Contemporary History, Leonrodstr. 46 B, 80636 Munich.

Publications including: Reason and criticism. German Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, 3rd edition, Frankfurt / M. 1993; Weimar. The unfinished democracy, 5th edition, Munich 1994.

Culture without history is theoretically unthinkable and practically impossible; So it depends on the form in which a society presents its history.

I. section

Learning from history presupposes that history is taught. The topos that one has to learn from history is old - even Cicero said: Historia magistra vitae. But where there is a thesis, there is also an antithesis, for example with Winston Churchill: The only thing that can be learned from history is that one learns nothing from it: the optimism of earlier times is contrasted with the skepticism of the 20th century . And it is the same with memory: the experience that a person who loses his memory also loses his identity is countered by Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum: "He who forgets is healthy." And Thomas Jefferson transferred this assessment to collective memory when he wrote at the end of the 18th century that the dead had no right against the living. Today, however, we draw the opposite conclusion: whoever suppresses is sick or gets sick. [1]

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  • But this position is not as clear as it appears. Memories are neither memories nor stories are history: remembering and forgetting are directly related. And the concept of the "identity" of a nation is at least a questionable concept. In any case, however, the following applies: There was and there is no high culture that can do without historical memory. Culture without history is theoretically unthinkable and practically impossible; Even the most radical innovator or revolutionary grapples with what has existed and what has gone before, and is therefore historically conditioned in his consciousness and action. We cannot escape history - this statement is banal, but true nonetheless; therefore it is not a question of whether a society faces up to its history, but how it does it. "Reality is only formed in memory," wrote Marcel Proust.

    There is a decisive difference whether a society lives from tradition, whether the ancients are considered to be the wise and the norms determine whether the old law - as in medieval history - determines the horizon of law and value or the new, thus the postulate of progress becomes the norm and the law of motion of a society. The "querelles des anciens et des modern" documented this turn in France in the 17th century: since the Enlightenment - which was one of the great common European movements with all national manifestations - the former leading category of origin has been supplanted by that of the future. Despite all the "tiredness of modernity" that gripped the great Basel cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt in the second half of the 19th century, nothing essential has changed in the dominance of progress as a guiding concept - this exposes all conservatism to constant pressure to legitimize it.

    Nonetheless, the 20th century - like hardly a century before - shook the previous optimism about progress, and it was no coincidence that Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer called their famous book from 1947 "Dialectic of Enlightenment" of the possibility of the cloning of living beings, and George Orwell's negative utopia "1984" did not appear until a year later, the first half of the 20th century had taught the two originally Marxist philosophers that ideologies of the philosophy of history were dubious, and that progress and Improvement of the Human Kind, "as it was said in the 18th century, was seen as an inevitable outcome of history. On the contrary, the First World War - in the words of George F. Kennan, the "primal catastrophe of the 20th century" - taught them the horrors to which the unlimited technical feasibility and the no longer controllable technical progress can lead. But the ten million dead of the First World War - in the historical memory of the French for a long time the "great" war, called "la Grande guerre" - turned out to be in retrospect only a preliminary stage for the 55 million dead of the Second World War.