Innocence is central to German memory politics; indeed, one can say that the German memory landscape is saturated with claims of innocence. The Great War is commonly portrayed as a loss of innocence, while the Nazis sought, in their way, to reclaim that innocence by proclaiming Germany as the innocent victim. After World War II, denazification and courts established administrative and legal boundaries within which claims of innocence could be formulated and adjudicated, while the "zero hour" and "economic miracle" established a basis for a different form of reclaiming innocence, one roundly critiqued by Theodor W. Adorno in his essay "What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?" (1) In the 1980s, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's famous pronouncement of the "grace [Gnade] of a late birth" (also translatable as "mercy," "pardon," or "blessing") became the touchstone for a resurgence of war children's (Kriegskinder) memory. In the 1990s, the myth of the Wehrmacht as largely innocent of atrocities was publicly challenged. Today, right-wing critiques that cast Holocaust remembrance as a politics of shame draw upon tropes of innocence, of German air war victims and post-war generations, while right-wing images of migrants are cast in classic forms of threats to the purity of the "national body" (Volkskorper). (2) The quickening pace of contemporary debates over Germany's colonial past pointedly questions the innocence of today's beneficiaries of colonialism, drawing attention to the borders and contours of implication.
This special issue highlights the role of innocence in post-war German public memory. In this introduction, we argue that the politics of memory rests in significant ways on a politics of innocence. A politics of innocence calibrates who can be remembered--and how--through the construction of a hierarchy of empathic value based on degrees of purity. These constructions, in turn, become the basis for action in the present and future. Miriam Ticktin has shown the politics of innocence at work in the field of humanitarian intervention, where the projection (or withholding) of moral purity onto designated Others enables interventions in their name, be they refugees, migrants, casualties of violence, or even non-human actors such as animals or the environment. (3) Our focus is narrower but concurs with her framing of innocence as fundamentally about policing the boundaries of purity, and hence identity. As such, the politics of innocence sets important parameters within which memory work unfolds.
Theorizing Myths of Innocence
By invoking myths in the title of this issue, we aim to convey a dual meaning that can be read across the following articles. First, the articles discuss specific narratives of innocence in the German context that serve mythical functions by addressing questions of group identity and embodying "ideals to which members of the group aspire." (4) These myths are not dependent on their truth value, because even if they rely on notions of a shared past, that vision of the past is mostly aspirational. The critical reaction to such narratives is, most commonly, to scrutinize them for factual errors and then debunk them for falsification of...