Habermas, Systematically Distorted Communication, and the Public Sphere

Habermas, Systematically Distorted Communication, and the Public Sphere

Gross, Alan G

The work of the German political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, provides the framework for the analysis of the formation of national identities in the public sphere, and their erosion by means of systematically distorted communication. The object of this article is an exhibit that traveled throughout Germany, one designed to undermine a myth concerning Germany’s “unmasterable” past, the legacy of its brutal conduct in World War Two. The history of the exhibit and its reception trace a path from courageous confrontation to prudent retreat in the face of systematically distorted communication. The article concludes by reflecting on the rhetorical significance of systematically distorted communication.


According to Jürgen Habermas, society is held together by three “steering mechanisms:” power, money, and solidarity (Between 269). The first two operate within systems-the political system, the economic system-while the third operates within the “lifeworld,” the taken-for-granted cultural and social environment in which we ordinarily interact (Communicative Action II, 119-52). The world of systems is dominated by strategic action, whose goal is the success of plans; the lifeworld, on the other hand, is the product of communicative action, interchanges of speech acts whose goal is mutual understanding and whose sole force, in the best case, is the force of the better argument. Between system and the lifeworld there exists-there must exist-a vehicle for communication, a switching station (Between 278-79; 409). This is the political public sphere, the set of forums in which the conflicts originating in the social and economic inequalities the system creates can be engaged and, possibly, resolved. It is this engagement and resolution that is the source of solidarity among citizens, strangers who share a common passport and a common past: “the communicative mastery of these conflicts constitutes the sole source of solidarity among strangers-strangers who renounce violence and, in the cooperative regulation of their common life, also concede one another the right to remain strangers” (Between 308). At the level of the nation, this solidarity has a name: national identity.

National identity can become especially problematic in nations such as Germany, in which an “unmasterable” past is palpably present, in which there is no avoiding the steady and uncomfortable realization that Goethe and Kant share a common past with Auschwitz and the Einsatzgruppen, the killer squads that roamed freely on the expanding Eastern Front. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche emphasizes the need to strike a balance between remembering and forgetting such traumatic pasts in the interest of creating and preserving national identity in the public sphere: “Cheerfulness, the good conscience, the joyful deed, confidence in the future-all of them depend, in the case of an individual as of a nation, on the existence of a line dividing the bright and discernable from the unilluminable and dark; on one’s being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time” (63). Nietzsche sees clearly the dilemma that faces nations and individuals when they attempt, simultaneously, to face their past and their future:

since we are the outcome of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions, and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not possible wholly to free oneself from this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them. The best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge of it, and through a new, stern discipline combat our inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away (76).

Given the heavy burden of the German past, efforts are understandable to re-shape that past in the interest of a more comfortable present. Among these deliberate fictions, none is more prominent than the myth of a “Wehrmacht free of moral taint,” a German army that fought on the Eastern Front with honor and dignity, along side but separated by a moral gulf from those who behaved very differently: the Einsatzgruppen, the Waffen-SS, and the Auxiliary Police Battalions. But it is precisely belief in myths like this that undermines the formation of sound national identities in the public sphere by substituting misunderstanding for understanding, systematically distorted communication for communicative action. To Habermas, “the pathology of social institutions and that of individual consciousness reside [festsitzt] in the medium of language and of communicative action and assume the form of a structural distortion [Verzerrung] of communication” (Knowledge 288).1

So inextricably imbedded is the Nazi period in Germany’s past that one need not consult the history books but only the dictionary to see it enshrined in perpetuity: Hitler Youth, Special Task Force, Final Solution. But as Victor Klemperer makes clear in his analysis of Nazi language, the influence of Nazi ideology and its prevailing myth of Aryan superiority reached beyond new coinages: “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously” (15). It is thus that “what was previously the preserve of an individual or a tiny group” became “the common property” of the German people (16). Moreover, this language within a language has by no means disappeared: “certain characteristic expressions . . . have lodged themselves so deep below the surface that they appear to be becoming a permanent feature of the German language” (14). Such words as folk, blood, and tradition are, equally, inhabitants of that language and of its Nazi sub-set, the systematically distorted communication that is the common property of every German.

It is by means of such systematically distorted communication that solidarity, the basis of an authentic and democratically-forged national identity, is undermined. When this erosion occurs, we can no longer achieve the true balance between remembering and forgetting; we can no longer confidently create a viable democratic future out of a barbaric and totalitarian past. In Habermas’s words: “the Federal Republic [of Germany] has become politically civilized only to the degree that the obstacles to our perception of a heretofore inconceivable [undenkbar] breach in civilization have become less formidable [gelockert haben]. We had to learn to publicly confront a traumatic past” (Berlin Republic 164). Although what we can learn from history is limited, that little is essential to democratic will formation. “History may at best be a critical teacher who tells us how we ought not to do things. Of course, it can advise us in this way only if we admit to ourselves that we have failed and take responsibility for that failure” (Berlin Republic 13).

The Creation of a Public Sphere

In 1995, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research attempted a Habermasian exercise in public pedagogy: to create a public sphere free from systematically distorted communication, a sphere in which the crimes of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in World War Two would be pitted against the myth of a Wehrmacht free of moral taint. The Institute initiated a traveling exhibit designed to alter the national consciousness of the German people and, in so doing, provide a new standard for museum exhibits as instruments for public enlightenment. The hope was that visitors would not simply acknowledge a difficult past; they would also struggle to make it their own and to begin to master it or, at least, to cope. The exhibit sparked controversy everywhere it went in its journey through Germany and Austria, from Hamburg to Munich, from Salzburg to Vienna. The controversy was deliberate-part of the plan of Jan Phillip Reemtsma, the Institute’s director, who was consciously creating, not only a historical exhibit, but also a model of what such an exhibit should be. In each city that wanted to host the exhibit, an appropriate venue had to be chosen and a series of accompanying educational programs devised.

This inevitably led to public debate. In the scholarly literature, there was high consensus that a “Wehrmacht free of moral taint” was a myth that the truth had already demolished. From the high command down to the common soldier, the German war machine collaborated and was instrumental in creating “a dead zone,” a devastation that was the product of murder, rape, pillage, and arson. Nonetheless this was still a picture not shared, much less deeply considered by the general public. The purpose of the exhibit was the facilitation of this sharing and consideration. The task was formidable: there were veterans groups to contend with, men with a strong investment in the myth; in addition, there was opposition from the right wing parties in Germany and Austria at whose extremes a Nazi ideology remained in play. Moreover, the stakes of demystification were high: the impact on living Germans would be general. Out of a population of eighty million, nearly three million German soldiers died on the Eastern Front, fifteen times the American rate of mortality for the whole of the Second World War (Overmans). As a consequence of this pervasiveness, controversy over the exhibit extended to two crucial and interacting forums, the Bundestag and family dinner table.

At times the protest was metaphorically explosive; at times it was literally so, though neither the robust Neo-Nazi march in Munich nor the over-night bomb attack in Saarbrucken can have been surprises to the exhibit organizers. There was, however, one sort of controversy that the Institute did not expect. Three historians-one Polish, one Hungarian, and one German-executed an academic ambush. They did not deny the criminality of the Wehrmacht in the East; they denied only that many of the photographs that so vividly depicted atrocities in the East depicted Wehrmacht atrocities. At times, they contended, no Wehrmacht soldiers were present; at other times, these soldiers were mere onlookers, not actors; at still other times, they were not Wehrmacht at all, but Waffen-SS or Hilfswillige-Ukrainians, Russians, or Latvians attached as “volunteers” to the German military machine; at others again, those depicted were not German, but Hungarian or Finnish; at others, most problematically, Soviet not German atrocities were depicted. According to one of these historians, Kristiàn Ungvàry, only ten percent of the photographs in the original catalogue actually depicted the Wehrmacht, and even these might all not be depictions of atrocity; some might be cases of suspected partisans hanged after trial by a military court. At first, it seemed to the exhibitors that some minor changes would be sufficient to correct these errors of fact. But soon the accusation became general: the inaccuracies, the critics asserted, were evidence of a comprehensive bias, a conspiracy to blacken the reputation of the Wehrmacht at the expense of the truth.

The Institute’s behavior in the face of this attack seemed exemplary. The exhibit was shut down, and Hannes Heer, its motive and creative force, was fired, along with his close collaborators. At the same time, a commission of experts was formed to evaluate the exhibit and make recommendations. As a consequence, a report was prepared and published that seemed a model of probity. After considering its recommendations with care over a period of months, The Institute produced, not a modification of the original, but a new exhibit on the same topic, one that contrasted with the original in its scrupulous attention to historical accuracy. The new exhibit emphasized text over pictures, and displayed throughout a legitimate skepticism concerning the probative value of photographic evidence.

This is one story of the exhibit, a story that the Hamburg Institute might want to tell. It preserves the moral high ground for the Institute and praises the courage and prudence of its Director when the exhibit came under an attack that, however politically motivated, could not be dismissed on political grounds. Although true, this story is not the whole truth. The original exhibit was a courageous attempt to cope with a difficult and divisive past, an act that the Bundestag debate over its significance ratified for the nation as a whole; the Director’s behavior under attack was exemplary, and the revised exhibit was free of the flaws the historians had pointed out.

But I would like to tell another story, one in which the Bundestag debate represents a retreat, not an advance, a means of avoiding rather than facing the moral and political implications of a difficult past. In this other story, the revised exhibit represents a further retreat, the minimization of moral and political risk that is also, equally, a minimization of moral and political impact. This other story emphasizes the difficulties in facing a traumatic past, difficulties to which Nietzsche testifies, difficulties that, Habermas insists, Germans must try to overcome by overcoming the systematically distorted communication that expresses a racist ideology at the root of the Holocaust, the tragedy of European Jewry that has placed a burden on the German present.

The Original Exhibit: Systematically Distorted Communication in the German Past

Invading the Soviet Union on a two-thousand mile front, from June until the end of September, 1941, the German army had advanced as far as south Dnepropetrovsk, near Kiev, and was within two hundred miles of Moscow. The invasion seemed an unqualified success. Six hundred thousand Soviet prisoners were taken. Success built upon success with astonishing rapidity. In the final quarter of 1941, the Germans had advanced to within fifty miles of Moscow and another six hundred thousand Soviet prisoners had been caught in their net. At least initially, despite mounting casualties, the euphoria of easy conquest sustained the troops, as this letter home exemplifies: “To satisfy your understandable curiosity, I will tell you about the very long journey now behind me, one almost to the Russian border. . . without exaggeration we have waltzed through half of Europe. New impressions constantly flood in and one is constantly becoming acquainted with things that are new and interesting. Virtually my whole time in the military has been an unparalleled ‘student study tour'” (Latzel 448-49).

Swift military victories seemed overwhelmingly to confirm the myth of Aryan superiority and the need, not simply to conquer but to eradicate the Slavs and the Jews. Throughout this period, the troops saw the same grim landscape peopled by the racially inferior, by untermenschen, a perspective that confirmed that of the Nazi propaganda to which they were continuously subjected: Yesterday we pulled out of our comfortable accomodations and now find ourselves in a damned pigsty. Never in my life have I seen so much filth!” (Latzel 450; see also Levin and Uziel; Bartov; Rossino). The confirmation was especially impressive in the case of the Russian Jews who, unlike their German counterparts, actually resembled the sadistic stereotypes depicted in the anti-semitic Der Stürmer:

I have good news for you today; I have received all recent issues of Der Stürmer. Der Stürmer is the true organ of the war, the only one that can give us a point of view that we cannot see with our own eyes. I have already been in the East for more than half a year and believe me, here we have already learned to recognize the terrible intrinsic menace of the Jews. The only possibility is extermination and uprooting, and we hope the time when the last of them will dig his grave is not far off (Levin and Uziel 290).

Here was an educational experience that the soldier at the front was eager to share with those at home, an eagerness whose evidence today is the existence of numerous photograph albums-mementos of participation in the epic struggle against the twin menaces of Communism and World Jewry (Rossino 314; see also Besucher 125; Goldhagen 246; Vernichtungskreig 136). In the frontispiece of the Heer-Naumann Wehrmacht collection, we have one such album page. In the upper half, there is a photograph of an older woman cradling two young boys in her arms, another of a young man in a civilian suit. Below these are three photographs. In the first, German soldiers are delousing themselves. In the last two, the same scene is depicted from two different angles: the hanging of two civilians, a man and a woman. There is little doubt that they depict an authentic crime of the Wehrmacht. An article very critical of the provenance of such photographs attests to the authenticity of the last of these photographs, also reproduced in the original exhibit catalogue (95/9): “perpetrators Wehrmacht soldiers,” Ungvàry says (594). No one could place these pictures on the same page who did not believe that cuddling young children, delousing soldiers, and hanging civilians were actions on roughly the same moral plane.

There is evidence that some of these photographs are stylized depictions of subjugation and humiliation, that they are, in other words, systematically distorted communications that are a product of Nazi ideology. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen reproduces a photograph of a man in the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer aiming a rifle at point-blank range at a Jewish mother and child. Goldhagen states that the photograph was sent home through the mail with the following inscription on the back: “Ukraine, 1942, Action against Jews, Ivangorod.” In the catalogue of the original exhibit, an analogous scene is depicted: a single rifleman shoots an unarmed man turned away from him at point-blank range (Vernichtungskrieg 202.9). There is another repeated pose. In one catalogue snapshot, two soldiers are standing beside two men hanged from tree limbs, each soldier with an arm outstretched so that his hand touches the shoes of one of the dangling corpses; in another, a soldier, smiling broadly into the camera, is tugging at the trousers of a dead man hanging from a gallows (192.52; 191.45). Yet another stylized pose is reproduced in Goldhagen: we see a soldier shearing the beard of an elderly Jewish man while his comrades stand by smiling.2 On its reverse is written: “He must work, he must be shorn” (245-46). Analogous photographs abound in the original catalogue of the Wehrmacht (33, 34, 67.5, 186.31). Goldhagen argues persuasively that the long beard was for the Germans a symbol of Jewry.

It is hard to imagine that the German troops rapidly advancing in the East had the resources to develop rolls of film; more likely rolls were sent home to be developed, and the positive prints returned by relatives or friends (Shandley 172). This means that these images were regularly shared with relatives and friends. Related by a visitor to the original exhibit, this incident illustrates the practice:

we were in the third or fourth grade and one of the girls, she came to school one morning shouting, and oh, see what I have here, what I have here, I’ll show it to you later, I can remember to this day how terrible I felt, at the first opportunity she unwrapped the pictures, and got her neighbors to see them, and take a look, take a look, and take a look again and then they were being passed up to the front. Then I got one of those pictures, from the exchange I had already gathered at the that time that it was something terrible, and I had already hardly dared take a look at it. And what I saw was so horrible that I can never forget, here a pole, and there a pole, and a cross-beam laid over them, or a stake or something or other, and from there were hanging not merely three, four, there were ten, twelve, fifteen prisoners, who were hanging in a perfect row [deep sigh], also I have, I can remember exactly, that I wasn’t able to see the pictures clearly, I believe, I didn’t take even one of them into my hands. There were several even so, but the most terrible for me, that was even, that my fellow students or this girl, said, come over, come over to the window, over to the light, then you will see all of them with their tongues hanging out, and everyone jumped up and ran to the window, and gathered in a crowd around this girl and placed the pictures in the light, also looked directly toward the window, also I knew, I believe, I headed uncertainly home, I was horrified, and I have also, I believe, also I was not able to sleep again for a night (S. 1-2, Besucher 121-22).

In these reminiscences, the boundary between past and present is erased in a rush of feeling that is also a sign of authenticity, a sense that for this woman the past and present suddenly and agonizingly coincide. In her incisive babble, we sense the pornographic immediacy of true revelations, their psychological impact represented by the repetition of “take a look, take a look, and take a look again,” by the cumulative strength of “from there were hanging not merely three, four, there were ten, twelve, fifteen prisoners, who were hanging in a perfect row,” by the phallic fascination of “come over, come over to the window, over to the light, then you will see all of them with their tongues hanging out.”

But the moral condemnation so easily generated by the photoalbum juxtaposition of family life and atrocity pales beside that achieved in the “Iron Cross” section, the climax of the original exhibit, a collection of 312 snapshots in six categories: Mistreatment of Jews, Gallows, Dead Zones, Execution by Shooting, Captivity, Deportations. Taken together, these display the brutality of warfare on the Eastern front, while, at the same time, implying the pervasive complicity of the Wehrmacht in atrocity. They do so by means of the ironic contrast between the usual use of snapshots-to memorialize the highlights of ordinary lives-and the use of these snapshots to convey the special quality of everyday life on the Eastern front: “the war photos were symbolically removed from daily life and constituted an independent dimension of the person, who saw in them, as it were, mile-stones for the part of their lives they had spent in the company of soldiers” (Boll 166). In the exhibit, this irony is incorporated into a larger and supportive ironic frame, an arrangement of the snapshots in the form of an Iron Cross, the best-known of the German military decorations. The honorable and the dishonorable are juxtaposed in stark contrast:

When you are in the “Iron Cross” you think, you cannot flee. You want to turn away from these horrific photographs, but when you turn around, there the next one is. And that is the meaning of the whole ensemble. You cannot turn away from these photographs. They are a part of German history, which you ought not suppress or forget (Dresden, Guestbook, 17.2.1998, quoted in Bopp 213).

What are we to make of “The Iron Cross?” Opponents of this “melodramatization” agree concerning its power but insist that, rather than further, it undermines any pedagogical purpose the display was meant to achieve: “the exhibit sensationalizes the crimes, an obscene, voyeuristic sensationalism. It shows not only abominable sequences of events . . . but the way in which this material is presented, accumulated, amassed, and ordered, makes the exhibit itself an abomination” (Günther Gillessen, quoted in Bopp 214). The central contrast of this sentence-between the adjective “abominable” and the noun “abomination”-powerfully conveys historian Günther Gillessen’s disgust at this display, one that, he claims, is, to its detriment, morally on the same plane as the events it describes.

But Gillessin is mistaken; he misunderstands the way the hyperbole at the heart of the “Iron Cross” works. The exhibit’s hyperboles’ “role is to provide a reference which draws the mind in a certain direction only to force it later to retreat a little, to the extreme limit of what seems compatible with its idea of the human, the possible, the probable” (Perelman New Rhetoric 291). The argumentative effect of these hyperboles is not to distort, but to dramatize reality: the effect of the photographs in the “Iron Cross” is to make the point, not that every Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front is a criminal, but that criminality is an accurate characterization of the activities of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, a brutality not sporadic and casual, but widespread and systematic. It is to give that knowledge a psychological power and, thereby, a moral valence.

To use Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca’s term, the Iron Cross confers on the crimes of the Wehrmacht an indelible presence (New Rhetoric 116-18). While the appeal of presence can be irrational, it need not be, if its purpose is not to undermine the rational basis of communicative action, but instead to create a public sphere in which communicative action becomes possible through the undermining of systematically distorted communication. The myth of the Wehrmacht free from moral taint had a strong prior presence in the German psyche. In a situation like this, “if the force of the better argument is to prevail, the psychological power that presence bestows on a particular point of view must be counter-balanced by an equal and opposite power,” one that can dramatize the deep roots of systematically distorted communication (Gross, “Presence,” 19).

But how can the “Iron Cross” section of the exhibit retain its legitimate power when its photographs, though all of atrocities, were not all of Wehrmacht atrocities? This is the position of Welt am Sonntag: since the photographic documentation of these crimes is largely absent, our view of the deep complicity of the Wehrmacht must be modified. The headline, “False Picture of the Wehrmacht,” along with its lead paragraph, clearly imply that the claim that the Wehrmacht committed war-crimes in the East is a “false picture”: “This week a commission of historians censured the controversial Wehrmacht-exhibit, which denounces German soldiers indiscriminately as criminals. WELT am SONNTAG documents the ten worst mistakes” (19.11.00). But the inference from the misattributions of the exhibit to the conclusion that the exhibit misrepresented the involvement of the Wehrmacht in war crimes is nonetheless impermissible. The evidence of wholesale Wehrmacht complicity is incontrovertible, even in the absence of photographic evidence.

Moreover, the political motive behind such accusations of bias is made clear in an article on Junge Welt: “The political mobilization against the traveling exhibit increased to the extent that its pedagogical effect in the public sphere was achieved. The biased political polemic and especially the actions and demonstrations of the old and new Nazis against the exhibit only increased its attractive force. This in spite of all the mobilization of conservative power that attempted to disqualify the exhibit on scholarly grounds, especially the witch-hunt organized by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which did not achieve its goal” (Röhr 18.11.00).

The crimes of the Wehrmacht in the East are poorly documented photographically for a reason: it was the Nazi plan not only to commit these crimes but to destroy the evidence that they occurred, in effect to commit a second crime, one against the future. Coupled with the massive evidence of wholesale complicity, the general lack of photographic documentation constitutes proof that at every level of command the nature of these activities and their likely negative impact on world opinion was widely recognized. In fact, every photograph in the original exhibit belongs, including the photographs of Soviet war crimes: none of these would have occurred if a regime with the full support of the German people and the German military had not engaged in a criminal war. Except to Germans with guilt on their consciences and exoneration on their minds, it cannot matter whether the victims are attributed to the activities of the SS, the SD, the Einsatzgruppen, the Auxiliary Police Battalions, the Wehrmacht, or the NKVD. In the deepest of senses, these are all German atrocities.

It is important to differentiate between Nazi brutality and the casual, racially-motivated brutality so commonplace in trans-cultural warfare. Not only is this behavior common in such warfare; so is its memorialization in ritual photographs. Michael Herr, a journalist, recounts one of his experiences during the Vietnam War:

The pictures were in an imitation-leather folder, and you could tell by the way the Marine stood over us, grinning in anticipation as we flipped over each plastic page, that it was among his favorite things…. There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures: the obligatory Zippo-lighter shot (“All right, let’s burn these hootches and move out”); the severed-head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open (“Like they’re lookin’ at you, man, and it’s scary”); the VC suspect hung by his heels in some jungle clearing; the very young dead with AK-47’s still in their hands. (“How old would you say that kid was?” the grunts would ask. “Twelve? thirteen? You just can’t tell with gooks”); a picture of a Marine holding an ear or maybe two ears or, as in the case of a guy I knew near Pleiku, a whole necklace made of ears, “love beads” as his owner called them; and the one we were looking at now, the dead Viet Cong girl with her pajamas stripped off and her legs raised stiffly in the air.

“No more boom-boom for that mamma-san,” the Marine said (198-99; for an example from WWII, see Sledge 120).

But the virtual omnipresence of such behavior does not alter our view of the uniqueness of the German crime. It is the consensual, public and state-sponsored nature of this brutality that is crucial to its understanding. An exhibit entitled “Crimes of the Wehrmacht” cannot make the point it needs to make-the point unique to German behavior-unless it also makes clear the wholly systematic nature of the brutality involved. This brutality was not a byproduct of infantry combat fueled by a casual racism; rather, it was a product of a state policy that had the full support of the German people. This is the point that the original exhibit made, especially its “Iron Cross” section.

The Bundestag Debate: Systematically Distorted Communication in the German Present

On March 13, 1997, the controversy over the “Crimes of the Wehrmacht” exhibit reached the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag. The brochure accompanying the revised exhibit, held two years later, calls this debate “a shining hour of parliament” (Verbrechen 34). This represents a serious misconstrual; the debate exemplifies rather the transformation of the political public sphere into a parody of itself, a display of oratorical skills that merely mimics deliberation. During this pseudo-debate, the Bundestag became, according to Habermas’s general formulation, “a place where instruction-bound party representatives meet to put their predetermined decisions on record.” Speeches that appeared deliberative were actually ceremonial; “arguments are transmuted into symbols to which… one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them” (Structural Transformation 205, 206).

Elsewhere, Habermas says of such systematically distorted communication that “at least one of the participants is deceiving himself or herself regarding the fact that he or she is actually behaving strategically, while he or she has only apparently adopted an attitude oriented to reaching understanding” (Thompson 264). Although the Bundestag debates fulfill the second Habermasian condition, they clearly do not fulfill the first: no one is deceived. In my view, this circumstance requires an amendment of Habermas’s definition to include the conscious use of systematically distorted communication with the aim of promoting its unconscious pervasiveness among the general population.

No better instance can be found than this pseudo-debate to exemplify the spurning of democratic will-formation that is the true purpose of the public sphere: “in the proceduralist paradigm [fueled by communicative action], the public sphere is not conceived simply as the backroom of the parliamentary complex, but as the impulsegenerating periphery that surrounds [einschleiBt] the political center: in cultivating normative reasons, it affects all parts of the political system without intending to conquer it” (Between 442).

The right, Christian Democrats and their allies, praised the Wehrmacht for doing its duty, while the left, the Green Party and its allies, insisted that the picture painted by the Christian Democrats and their allies caricatured the truth by ignoring legitimate German responsibility for war crimes. Speaking for the left, Freimut Duve recounts a visit to the house of his Jewish grandmother:

Last week, remarkably, I found the house in Osijek from which my Jewish grandmother was detained. Never would I have thought-in all of my 60 years-that I would speak to a woman who had seen the incident. We did not think that anyone was still alive. I spoke with this woman. She described to me exactly how it happened-right under the eyes of German soldiers. But it was the Croatian Ustascha who flung the old lady, who was crippled, onto a truck. We do not know whether she died in Auschwitz or some other camp (Thiele 190).

Speaking for the right, Dr. Theodore Waigel tells a contrasting story of fraternal and patriotic piety: the discovery of the grave of his brother, killed on the Eastern Front. Waigel’s view of the past is elaborated by Volker Rühe, the Minister for Defense, who creates before our eyes the myth of a Wehrmacht free of moral taint. To Rühe, the Wehrmacht were not so much perpetrators of an aggressive war as the victims of their sense of duty as reflected in this carefully crafted polyptoton: “the Wehrmacht caused great suffering, its soldiers also suffered greatly” (Thiele 195; emphasis added). Therefore, it is not their devotion but its manipulation that deserves our censure: “a preponderance of the loyalty to their military superiors at the highest level was expressed in good faith” (Thiele 196).

Having separated the Wehrmacht from Hitler’s criminal regime, it only remains for Rühe to divest himself of the moral weight the original exhibit imposes on his current administrative responsibility, the Bundeswehr, the new army of a democratic Germany. He does this by differentiating carefully between history and tradition: “tradition… is not at all the same as history. Tradition is the conscious choice of models from past events and men, from past attitudes and deeds” (Thiele 197). It is thus that the failed July 20th plot against Hitler can become the centerpiece of German military tradition, a symbol for the resistance to tyranny and a precursor to German democracy.

But tradition based on so promiscuous an interpretation of an authoritarian past cannot serve the interests of the democratic present. Whatever their differences, the beliefs of the July plotters were uniformly reactionary. Indeed, their views represent a general trend, the lack of democratic traditions in German society, an absence that made Hitler possible. According to the distinguished German historian Hans Mommsen, “it might be said that German society, because of its traditional political stance and the narrowness of German political thinking, itself a reflection of retarded emancipation in social matters, was incapable of countering Hitler’s dictatorship-reactionary in the profoundest sense of the word-with an alternative that would be in keeping with the circumstances of modern industrial society” (147).

On April 24, 1997, there was a second session of the Bundestag, its business to vote on a set of resolutions generated by the March debate. At issue was the question of whether the “seat” of the Bundestag should be an exhibition site, an action that would amount to an official endorsement. To the Christian Democrats and their allies, the Wehrmacht exhibit was deeply biased, unreasonably blackening the reputations of the majority of German soldiers on the Eastern Front who fought honorably for their fatherland. The Green Party and its allies expressed the belief that, on the contrary, official endorsement by the Bundestag was a political and moral imperative. When in a session of April 24 the Greens insisted on a vote, the resolution against official endorsement won a narrow margin (Thiele 219). The vote was entirely along party lines, as is appropriate for such ritual reenactments. The adopted resolution states that the “Second World War is one of most frightful tragedies of German and European history. In it, millions of German soldiers and civilians fell as victims. The criminal regime of National Socialism is responsible for this tragedy” (Thiele 222). For the majority of German soldiers on the Eastern Front, this resolution implies, their tragedy lay in the fact that doing their duty happened to coincide with serving a criminal regime. According to this resolution, then, the majority of German soldiers, then, are appropriately the objects, not of blame but of sympathy.

The refusal of endorsement at the national level echoes the almost universal refusal at the regional level. With the exception of Bremen and Hanover, the exhibit was housed in venues in private hands (Eine Ausstellung 313-20). It seems fair to infer that the position represented by the adopted resolution is behind these repetitive refusals, that it represents the view of the majority of the German electorate. In dissent in the March debate, Otto Schilly of the Social Democrats had warned pointlessly and ironically that “people ought not to adopt a form of speech in which the precise forensic distinction between the words ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ degenerates into a rhetorical open sesame” (quoting Reemtsma in Thiele 183).

At the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, between the time of the March and April sessions of the Bundestag, Jan Philipp Reemtsma spoke of the variety of reactions to the exhibit: “Conversations. Letters. Public insults. Thanks. Death threats. Confessions” (Thiele 212). The form of Reemtsma’s remark embodies the unfinished struggle to create meaning in the German response to the revelations of the original exhibit. In the debate of April 24th, Freimut Duve of the Social Democrats chose to repeat these words; it remains, says Duve, to analyze these materials as evidence of the spirit of the current times. But the possibility of such analysis was permanently undermined when the original exhibit was swept aside in a whirlwind of controversy.

The Revised Exhibit: From Living to Academic History

The charges of respected historians that the Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibit contained dubious photographic evidence initiated an avalanche of criticism in the press, a force eventually strong enough to close the exhibit and to lead its sponsor to form a Commission responsible for their investigation. The Commission’s report vacillates uneasily between criticism and support. It is severely critical of the use of photographs, especially in the case of the climactic “Iron Cross” section. It addresses three aspects of the exhibit, “errors in fact… imprecision and carelessness in the use of material and… above all through the manner of presentation an all too indiscriminate and suggestive statement” (Bartov et al. 91). In regard to these, it asserts unequivocally that “the exhibit’s argument is in part too sweeping and in addition too generalized,” a tendency that turns into a criminal every German serving on the Eastern Front (91). This is largely an effect of the emotional impact of the photographs: “in the argumentation of the exhibit, the over 1400 historical photographs, clearly overpowering the text documentation in purely quantitative terms, are given a decisive role” (18). Especially is this the case in the “Iron Cross” section: “this eye-catching representation of very different factual situations whose places and contexts are not clarified, decisively amplifies and intensifies to a provocative degree immanent tendencies to an unbounded and undifferentiated broadening of the accusation that the Wehrmacht was actively and collectively involved in practices of extermination. This is because in the arrangement of these rows of photographs in the shape of an ‘Iron Cross’ a central symbol of the German military tradition is used” (18).

But the Commission is also very supportive of the original exhibit; it states that “the photographs are… proof that crimes actually occurred”; moreover, “the fundamental assertions of the exhibit concerning the Wehrmacht and the war of extermination pursued on the Eastern front are factually correct” (18; 91). “The credibility problem of the exhibit,” the Commission asserts, “results less from individual demonstrable mistakes and carelessness than from the arrogant and unprofessional dealings of the creator of the exhibit with those who criticized it” (92). The form of the argument is ad hominem, and reductively so. It is finally the conduct of Hannes Heer, the curator, and not any errors of intention or of fact that made “a ‘moratorium’ unavoidable” (92). Despite this support, despite its affirmation that the exhibit is fundamentally accurate, the Commission, paradoxically, recommends that “on the basis of the reasons just related… that the exhibit be remounted, if possible, in a thoroughly revamped and a newly designed format” (92).

Reemtsma chose to act on the Commission’s recommendation, a tacit admission that the original was inherently flawed. Nine days after the report, an article apppeared in the Münchner Merkur in which he presented his plan for a new exhibit, one followed almost exactly in the exhibit that actually opened in Berlin in the winter of 2001. While at his insistence the expressions “war of extermination” and “crimes” still appear in its title, the moral and political implications of the exhibit have been profoundly altered. This transformation can be seen clearly in the section entitled “Elbowroom.” In “Elbowroom,” the exhibit’s “most impressive section” and its new “heart” (Ullrich; “Medienschau”), the case is made that German soldiers on the Eastern Front frequently had sufficient freedom of action to avoid criminal behavior without personal risk. “Elbowroom” is an enclosed space lined with seats, on whose inner walls is displayed a photomontage of a group of Wehrmacht officers and men, each of whom was faced with a moral dilemma. As one or another of these figures is illuminated, a female voice narrates his story. These men had a choice. Some acted decently; some did not.

The decision to give these private dilemmas a predominant presence in the new exhibit submerges the political in the personal; it allows us to forget that these soldiers were the instruments of state policy, never more so than when they were committing their crimes. The majority of the Wehrmacht in the East did their duty, as the critics of the original exhibit contended. But the implication is not exoneration, as these critics imply; it is that to do one’s duty in a criminal regime is to behave like a criminal. For ordinary men, who are not naturally criminals, to persist in such behavior requires the daily conquest of scruples, at least in the early stages, as Heinrich Himmler recognized in an insightful and notorious speech to some SS Generals in 1943:

Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or 500 lie there, or 1,000 lie there. To have gone through this and-apart form the exceptions caused by human weakness-to have remained decent [anständig], that has hardened us. That is a page of glory in our history never written and never to be written (Hilberg 136-37).

To us, Himmler’s use of “decent” is an obscenity; no clearer instance of systematically distorted communication seems possible. But it is also, ironically, a tribute to Himmler’s insight: to behave like a criminal is, over time, to become one because, as habit supervenes, the conquest of conscience becomes so routine that the struggle to do the right thing may altogether disappear.

In the creation of this habit of criminality, the German people are fully implicated as abettors. There is no such thing, of course, as collective guilt: the German people as a whole cannot be held responsible for the criminal acts of the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SD, the Einsatzgruppen, or the Auxiliary police, activities in which they did not participate, and of which they may have had no knowledge. Nonetheless the fact that these men were the instruments of that people and their racist ideology meant that to defy criminal orders required more than ordinary moral courage, not only to stand up to particular superiors, but to ignore the lessons of respected teachers and officials, to set aside professional ambition, to spurn the wishes of friends and family. Surely the collectivity of the German people must take the responsibility for creating so few barriers in the way of routine barbarity.

In addition to submerging the political in the private, the revised exhibit transforms the crimes of the past from living into academic history, a focus designed to add to our knowledge rather to transform our consciousness: the political public sphere had been transformed into its academic counterpart. From a professional point of view, this shift in rhetorical stasis represents exemplary curating. The historian-critics of the exhibit-Musial, Schmidt-Neuhaus, and Ungvàry-had raised the use of photographs as historical evidence to a new academic level, a standard to which the new exhibit tried strenuously to adhere. Under this new scholarly regime, photographs were carefully studied for clues as to their provenance. The uniforms of the military personnel were examined with care; backgrounds were scrutinized for buildings that might still exist and to confirm locations. Archival records were consulted to settle conflicting attributions of time and place; still-living eyewitnesses were interviewed; troop movements were traced to determine whether the Wehrmacht was in the area where the atrocities took place. The Commission, appointed to examine allegations of false attribution, acknowledged these standards implicitly, as did Jan Philipp Reemtsma who planned and executed the revised exhibit (“Reemtsma” 11/24/00). In the revised exhibit, for example, the originally misinterpreted sequence of photographs from Tarnapol is reconstructed before our eyes in masterly fashion. In the correct sequence, two separate episodes are represented: the one, the work of the Soviet secret police, the other, of the Polish pogrom that followed. In neither was the Wehrmacht involved.

Although, pedagogically, this reconstruction works beautifully, its focus is on the photographs as historical evidence, not on their horrific content and its moral dimension. This shift away from moral provocation is acknowledged by Volker Ullrich in an insightful story in Die Zeit. He says that “the new exhibit no longer rests on the suggestive power of photographs,” and that it “no longer triggers long-suppressed emotions that the old stirred up.” He ends with an ironic twist: “Whether, as a result, as was already supposed, another phase in the politics of German history was inaugurated, in which the stormy controversy over the Nazi past was replaced by a consensus-creating historical narrative, remains to be seen.” The best sign of that this new phase had begun was the general lack of opposition to the revised exhibit. In Berlin, the opposition to the revised exhibit consisted solely of a neo-Nazi demonstration-estimated at 3,000 strong (“Wehrmacht”). An exhibit had been created that would unsettle not Germany, but only its extreme right. It is this incipient amnesia about a difficult past-an amnesia kept in place and constantly reinforced by systematically distorted communication-that makes Habermas so uneasy about Germany’s future.


Germany has learned a great deal about the public sphere from America, or, at least, from one American. Jurgen Habermas is no exception to the rule that all contemporary theorists of democracy and the public sphere are deeply indebted to John Dewey. Dewey is the most important 20th century exponent of the creation and protection of public spaces in which serious citizen reflection can occur and democratic national identity can be legitimately formed. He saw, not only that “genuinely public policy cannot be generated unless it be informed by [historical] knowledge,” but also that the formation of sound public policy with a broad citizen base depends on the clear and cogent presentation of the relevance of the past to the present (“Search” 640). Such knowledge must remain unrealized, however, in the absence of a public sphere characterized by free citizen interchange: “the essential need,” Dewey asserts, “is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion. This is the problem of the public” (Public 208; his emphasis). In this matter, Dewey was surely prescient: recent studies confirm that citizen competence must be based on informed democratic participation (Popkin and Dimock). They show that this need is especially crucial in social welfare democracies dominated by the forces of late capitalism, nation states where, at their most insidious, the powerful can prevent conflict from arising, not by direct confrontation, but by surreptitiously manipulating sources of information and by tacitly shaping political beliefs and ideologies (Gaventa 57), systematically distorting communication among its citizens.

Although systematically distorted communication is not currently part of the armamentarium of rhetorical critics, it should be. Its incorporation within the rhetorical tradition would cause no special difficulties, for it is no more than an extension of Aristotle’s thinking on rhetoric: it supplements and enlarges his attempt to explain the figures, especially the figure of metaphor, in conceptual terms. To take one of his examples, when we call piracy a business, or a business, piracy, we re-conceptualize these terms; we imply that piracy is legitimate, a business, illegitimate (1450a). To take a modern example, we easily recognize the difference between calling a run-down neighborhood a “slum” and calling it an “area ripe for revitalization” (Schon).

Habermas generalizes this line of thought; he links complex ideological constellations to their systematic expression. For rhetorical critics, therefore, systematically distorted communication becomes a probe that permits the reconstruction of ideologies through the analysis of verbal and visual patterns otherwise barely visible in the on-rush of cognitive processing. Conscious manipulation-the traditional zone of rhetoricity-is thereby supplemented by its unconscious counterpart, a category of strategic action not currently within the scope of rhetorical theory.


1 I have felt free to alter existing translations when I thought they misrepresented Habermas’s intent. None of my corrections is meant to decrease my debt to the heroic efforts of his translators.

2 While Ungvàry authenticates this photograph, oddly he expresses doubts about the same photograph reproduced elsewhere in the catalogue but differently cropped (186.35).


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Alan G. Gross

Department of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Address correspondence to Alan G. Gross, Department of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA. E-mail: grossalang@aol.com

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