The War in the Empty Air

The War in the Empty Air

Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans
Dagmar Barnouw
Distribution: World
Publication date: 9/20/2005
ISBN: 978-0-253-11182-1
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2006 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library Selection
“This book will provoke intellectually, ideologically, and emotionally loaded responses in the U.S., Germany, and Israel. Barnouw’s critique of the ‘enduringly narrow post-Holocaust perspective on German guilt and the ensuing fixation on German remorse’ questions taboos that the political and cultural elites in those three countries would rather leave alone. . . . [Barnouw] makes us understand why the maintenance of a privileged memory of the Nazi period and World War II may not survive much longer.” —Manfred Henningsen, University of Hawai’i

In Germany, the reemergence of memories of wartime suffering is being met with intense public debate. In the United States, the recent translation and publication of Crabwalk by Günter Grass and The Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald offer evidence that these submerged memories are surfacing.

Taking account of these developments, Barnouw examines this debate about the validity and importance of German memories of war and the events that have occasioned it. Steering her path between the notions of “victim” and “perpetrator,” Barnouw seeks a place where acknowledgment of both the horror of Auschwitz and the suffering of the non-Jewish Germans can, together, create a more complete historical remembrance for postwar generations.

Author Bio

Dagmar Barnouw was Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California, until her sudden death in May 2008. Her books include Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity (IUP, 1988) and Naipaul's Strangers (IUP, 2003), among other books of cultural criticism.


". . . offers an engaging, provocative outline of the political forces inhibiting the retrieval of memories [of] how the war felt to those who lived through it." —Clio

"In this book, decisively (and with great sensitivity) Barnouw establishes a case for creating a more complete historical remembrance for postwar generations." —Journal of American Studies

"The willing executioners of Hitler's project . . . had only one experience to tell. This overwhelming silencing of Germans as executioners could not last forever. Dagmar Barnouw's book, The War in the Empty Air, provides evidence of Germans recovering their voice." —Shofar

"In a deliberately polemical manner reminiscent of Arendt, Barnouw confronts the petrified, sanctified and officially approved memories of the German past . . . ." —German Studies Review

"Barnouw’s articulate War in the Empty Air . . . makes for lively reading." —German History , V.25:2

"[Barnouw's] work is a thought-provoking addition to the flourishing literature on the politics of memory in the contemporary world." —
War in History , Vol. 16 no. 4 (2009)

"[A] thought-provoking book . . . By discussing the work of Grass, among others, Barnouw raises three very important questions. First, to whom does memory belong? Secondly, what is the meaning and cost of its repression? And third, what impact does a distant memory have on attitudes today?" —

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Loss of History in Postwar German Memory

1. Historical Memory and the Uses of Remorse
2. "Their Monstrous Past": German Wartime Fictions
3. Censored Memories: "Are the Germans Victims or Perpetrators?"
4. The War in the Empty Air: A Moral History of Destruction
5. No End to "Auschwitz": Historical or Redemptive Memory
6. This Side of Good and Evil: A German Story