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The Sins of the Fathers

Germany, Memory, Method

National identity and political legitimacy always involve a delicate balance between remembering and forgetting. All nations have elements in their past that they would prefer to pass over—the catalog of failures, injustices, and horrors committed in the name of nations, if fully acknowledged, could create significant problems for a country trying to move on and take action in the present. Yet denial and forgetting carry costs as well.

Nowhere has this precarious balance been more potent, or important, than in the Federal Republic of Germany, where the devastation and atrocities of two world wars have weighed heavily in virtually every moment and aspect of political life. The Sins of the Fathers confronts that difficulty head-on, exploring the variety of ways that Germany’s leaders since 1949 have attempted to meet this challenge, with a particular focus on how those approaches have changed over time. Jeffrey K. Olick asserts that other nations are looking to Germany as an example of how a society can confront a dark past—casting Germany as our model of difficult collective memory.


“In superimposing sociological nuance onto a well-researched historical narrative of official (usually political) West German memories of the Holocaust, Olick has made a monumental contribution to collective memory studies. The book felt so comfortable to this trained historian that he almost wished for an alternate edition containing Chicago-style footnotes instead of parenthetical citations. Olick employs a refreshingly accessible writing style, but he has no reservations introducing complex theoretical concepts. The book is a must-have for any university library. Essential.”


“Rather than simply, if competently, telling a familiar story, Olick asks how politics made memory and were remade by commemoration in their turn. . . . In its stringency and consequence [The Sins of the Fathers] is rewarding, and scholars of German and other politics of the past will ignore it at their own peril.”

The American Historical Review

“This truly scholarly book breaks significant new ground in connecting memory to genre, event, political context, and generation.”

American Journal of Sociology

The Sins of the Fathers is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship, blending historical erudition and sociological keenness. Highly innovative, it adds important understandings to German official memory, particularly the stability of its exculpatory forms, tenses, and tropes across the last half of the twentieth century. Olick is a master translator of what he calls ‘the language of the past.’ Provocative and informative, this is an overwhelmingly erudite and penetrating analysis that advances the field of collective memory.”

Barry Schwartz, University of Georgia

Sins of the Fathers is the definitive book on official Nazi era memories in (West) Germany. I have little doubt that it will become a landmark in the discipline, indeed a must read for everyone concerned with memory and politics. This book will undoubtedly cement Olick’s reputation as the preeminent memory scholar in the field of sociology. More, by linking memory, meaning, and history, and by finding new ways of thinking about the amalgamation of past, present, and future, of symbolic orders and everyday exigencies, Olick’s book also makes a significant contribution to cultural sociology that will be widely discussed. A brilliant study.”

Andreas Glaeser, University of Chicago

“For a generation, memory of German crimes during the Second World War has functioned as Europe’s ethical constitution, and nowhere is this status more evident than in Germany. In The Sins of the Fathers, sociologist Olick produces the most empirically extensive and methodologically sophisticated discussion yet written about this society’s tortured wrestling with the question of inherited, collective guilt. It is sure to become a classic.”

Dirk Moses, University of Sydney

"Skillfully combines empirical exploration, historical and political erudition, and theoretical insight."

European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology | Alejandro Baer

Table of Contents

Part One: Introduction
1   Placing Memory in Germany
2   The Sociology of Collective Memory
3   Prologues: The Origins of West German Memory

Part Two: The Reliable Nation
4   Bonn Is Not Weimar
5   Expiation and Explanation
6   Germany in the West
7   The Return of the Repressed
8   The Reliable Nation

Part Three: The Moral Nation
9   Seeds of Change
10   The Grand Coalition and the Wider World
11   Social-Liberal Guilt
12   The Moral Nation

Part Four: The Normal Nation
13   West Germany’s Normal Problems
14   The New Conservatism
15   The Politics of History
16   Beyond Bitburg
17   The Normal Nation

Part Five: Conclusions
18   Epilogues: Berlin Is Not Bonn
19   History, Memory, and Temporality



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