The Multidimensional Remembrance Monitor (4): Family narratives as sources of historical remembrance are fragmentary and prone to biases


Michael Papendick and Dr. Jonas Rees

The culture of remembrance in Germany, widely appreciated internationally, is grounded in numerous state-funded institutions and an extremely  vital civil society engagement. But what do we know about its impact on the attitudes of ordinary Germans? Researchers in Bielefeld have begun to study this question systematically and have developed the Multidimensional Remembrance Monitor (MEMO) for this purpose. They present some of their findings in a series of five short articles.

MEMO confirms previous findings regarding the transgenerational transmission of historical knowledge: Narratives about the Second World War and the time of National Socialism, as shared within German families, are biased and difficult or impossible to align with historical facts. When asked for knowledge about the roles their ancestors played in the time of National Socialism, respondents in MEMO II/2019 more often report knowledge about ancestors who have been victims (36%) or about ancestors who helped potential victims (29%) than knowledge about ancestors who have been perpetrators in the time of National Socialism (20%).

The terms were not defined in more detail in the survey but left open for participants’ interpretation. It is important to note that we do not assess whether these answers are historically correct and do not assume that respondents deliberately lie. However, it seems reasonable to conclude an overrepresentation of specific narratives about the time of National Socialism within German families whereas narratives of perpetration are relatively underrepresented.

This also holds true for the concept of “bystanders” defined as “people who – for example, by knowing about the situation, toleration, political inaction, looking away or blind obedience – became accomplices of the National Socialist crimes”, as 50% of respondents deny that their ancestors can be regarded as “bystanders” in the time of National Socialism.

There are many potential mechanisms of these biases in family narratives. On the one hand, as previous studies find, reports of German contemporary witnesses mainly focus on passing on narrations of victimhood and heroism, emphasizing descriptions of suffering and personal courage with a lack of critical self-reflection or even the involvement in crimes. On the other hand, listeners, e.g., the contemporary witnesses’ children or grandchildren, often do not ask for their ancestors’ perpetration or bystanding, tend to victimize or glamourize their (grand)parents’ experiences or even reframe reports of perpetration and murdering into stories of resistance and heroism.

From a social psychological point of view, this can be interpreted as ingroup-favouritism and reflect the need for loyalty towards and a positive perception of one’s own family. Although not surprising, it seems noteworthy that this family bias reflects in the MEMO data, as participants’ perceptions of the general German population during the time of National Socialism is less positive: Participants assume that 34% of the German population were among the perpetrators, 35% were among the victims and only 16% helped potential victims. Though assumingly positively biased as well, these ratings deviate from the family perspective.

While these results reinforce the perception of family narratives about the NS-time as gateways for historical reinterpretations and coping mechanisms, MEMO also reflects potential changes in the role of family narratives or knowledge about ancestors’ behaviors: 88% of all participants regard a critical examination with their family’s history in the NS-time as at least “somewhat reasonable”, younger participants just as much as older ones.

Given that younger generations do not only report less personal contact to contemporary witnesses but also a generally more critical perception of the German population in the time of National Socialism, this may be the chance for a less biased examination with German family histories, if information about these histories are available and accessible for younger generations.

About MEMO

The MEMO-project (Multidimensional Remembrance Monitor, “Multidimensionaler Erinnerungsmonitor” in German or MEMO for short) is led by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University in collaboration with the foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft, EVZ).  Since 2017, MEMO observes the state of Germany’s culture of remembrance and its developments, using annual representative surveys conducted as Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI), involving 1.000 randomly selected respondents. In the standardized survey, respondents answer questions both in open as well as in closed formats. Participation in the survey is voluntary and anonymous.

Results of the studies are made available online for the general public in the form of reports – accessible at the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” website.

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Michael Papendick is a Psychologist and Psychotherapist, working as a Research Associate at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence since 2018.
Dr. Jonas Rees is a Psychologist, working as a Research Coordinator at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence since 2017

Issue: Impact

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