Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Past? So Present!: Defining German Self and National Identity in German Literary Texts of the Twenty-first Century

Dr. Laurel Cohen-Pfister.

Few countries in the twentieth century have struggled to come to terms with their past as much as Germany. The process of comprehending and accepting the history of National Socialism has defined a people and a nation, so much so, that Germans have been called "the symbolic people of perpetrators" ("Die Zeit" 7 Nov 2002:37). Self and national identity have been bound to a recognition of German guilt, and the transference of that guilt through successive generations.
Still, in the decade since unification, a closer examination of the totality of the German war experience has emerged as a significant controversy in public and literary forums. Recent texts by W.G. Sebald, Jörg Friedrich, and Günther Grass have emphasized the wartime suffering of the German civilian population and thrust the topic of German suffering into unveiled debate. The year 2003 alone heralds in a marked number of literary texts by second and third generation postwar authors consumed with documenting the collective wartime memory of the first generation before it dies out, while simultaneously giving testimony to the lasting effects of trauma on subsequent generations. Recognizing German suffering and victimization during the Second World War, without ignoring the Germans' complicity for creating the very conditions that lead to their suffering, defines the delicate, politically charged balancing act that has influenced German discussion.
Through individualized histories and intimate recollection of wartime trauma, German literature in the twenty-first century stirs the collective memory of a nation still struggling with its turbulent past. Ultimately, these texts reflect both the ongoing search for personal identity as a German, as well as the quest to understand what it means to be German. A more complex understanding of self and nation, one that stands ready to embrace the totality of German wartime experiences, both as perpetrators and victims, emerges in German literary texts of the twenty-first century.


Dr. Laurel Cohen-Pfister  (United States)

German Department
Gettysburg College

  • German Identity
  • German Suffering
  • German Guilt
  • Perpetrators - Victims

(Virtual Presentation, English)