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Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi past, By Neil Gregor Yale

How the citizens of the city that was synonymous with Nazism shook off Hitler's toxic embrace

The Third Reich hangs over Nuremberg like a bad smell. Not only did the city play host to the annual Nazi party rallies of the 1930s, and the post-war trials of senior Nazis, it was also chosen as the venue for the publication of the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, the legislation which began the persecution of German Jews and prepared the way for the Holocaust. Even modern-day Nuremberg – a vibrant, democratic city – finds it hard to escape Hitler's toxic embrace. Many of the old Nazi sites remain to this day; too grandiose to be of use, too expensive to demolish.

For all its Nazi associations, however, Nuremberg's experience of the Second World War was actually rather typical for a middle- ranking German city. This combination of factors has led the historian Neil Gregor to use Nuremberg as a case study to examine the complex way in which post-war German society has dealt with the fraught issues of memory, victimhood and guilt. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the dark recesses of the German psyche.

Examining the period up to 1968, Gregor contends that, for the first decade or so after 1945, the wounds and divisions within German society were so fresh and so raw that only a vague, emollient culture of shared victimhood was possible. Before they could think about what they had done to others, it seems, Germans had first to tend their own wounds. As a result, German "memory culture" initially had a rather self-pitying, narcissistic flavour; tending to concentrate much more on Germany's own suffering – embracing civilian and military deaths, for instance, and bemoaning the fate of expellees, refugees and PoWs, while marginalising all those "genuine" victims of Nazism, such as Jews, communists and forced labourers.

Gregor brilliantly illustrates his point with the example of a bell tower erected in Nuremberg in the 1950s to the memory of the city's civilian dead of the Second World War. In all the wrangling over the precise wording and design of the monument, it seems no one saw fit to question the fact that the tower was built using stones from the city's synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. A less sensitive approach to the public commemoration of the war would be hard to imagine.

Thankfully, matters did improve. By the early 1960s, a new memory culture was beginning to challenge the old, offering engagement and dialogue where once had been avoidance and an uneasy silence. Though by no means uncontested, this change was a result of many factors, among them the generational shift, the ongoing social liberalisation and the re-emergence of civil society in Germany. With the firm establishment of a mature, pluralist democracy, it seems, the opinion-formers of Nuremberg were able to move on from the tactical amnesia of German victimhood towards a more self-critical – even confrontational – attitude towards their recent past. In time, public exhibitions on the Holocaust and the Warsaw ghetto would take their place alongside the traditional commemorations, such as the "Day of National Mourning".

The study is brought to a close with an illuminating episode. In the late 1960s, the right-wing, neo-nationalist NPD was becoming a regular feature in Nuremberg politics; making deliberate, symbolic use of the city's Nazi sites. In 1967, however, after angry demonstrations from trade unionists, students and victims of fascism, the party was denied the right to use the city's main congress hall for a local election rally. Nuremberg, which had once been so synonymous with the Nazis, had succeeded in driving out Nazism's ideological descendants.

In his conclusions, Gregor is admirably fair. The early narcissistic phase, he suggests – far from being malevolent or born of mean-spiritedness – was actually an important part of the healing process, providing a soothing common identity to bridge the divisions of a deeply fractured society. Similarly, he argues that the later critical engagement with the past was symptomatic of post-war German society's recovering health.

In describing these developments, Gregor is a thoughtful and sure-footed guide, relying on solid archival research, marshalling his facts well and remaining cogent in his arguments. As a respected and award-winning academic, he makes few concessions in his writing for the lay reader, yet he manages – occasional lapses notwithstanding – to present his sometimes challenging subject matter in a style that should appeal beyond his core audience.

Haunted City is not always an easy read, but it is nonetheless an important book. It investigates the difficult process of acknowledging and remembering the suffering of the past – that endured by one's own people and that inflicted on others – and offers vital insights into the complex function of "public memory", and the ways in which new narratives and new identities are forged. It should serve as a useful guide to the problems faced by those modern societies that are making the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy.

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