Harnessing Vernacular Memory: The “Holocaust by bullets” in Ralph Rothmann’s Der Gott jenes Sommers (2018)

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Since 2010, there has been a marked increase in German-language literary texts thematising the history of the Holocaust beyond the concentration camp. Particularly noticeable has been the renewed focus on so-called "face-to-face" mass killing, both in the context of Eastern Europe and during the final phase of the war. As the history of the so-called "Holocaust by bullets" and "Endphaseverbrechen" continue to garner more sustained attention in German-language literature, authors are finding new ways to make this history immediate and relevant to contemporary audiences. At the same time, some are
exploring why and how this dimension of the Nazi genocide has remained marginal within the cultural memory of the non-Jewish majority. In his 2018 novel Der Gott jenes Sommers (The God of that Summer), set in the countryside around Kiel during the summer of 1944, Ralf Rothmann reflects on the audibility and inaudibility (Colvin) of different histories in the German context by bringing the Second World War into productive dialogue with the Thirty Years' War. In particular, he foregrounds the relative strength of memory tropes pertaining to the Thirty Years' War, and "face-to-face" violence and killing in that context, implicitly juxtaposing them with the relative absence of similarly established imagery related to the mass shooting campaigns. While the Nazi genocide in the East is unknown to Luise, the child-protagonist of the novel, allusions to mass killing campaigns in the Baltic and other contextual clues mean that the reader is hyperaware of what is unfolding immediately outside the narrative frame of the text. Chapters set in Luise's home village during the Thirty Years' War underline this strained textual silence by foregrounding forms of violence that are relevant to both historical contexts. The villagers in the 16th century suffer under occupation and are tortured, robbed and murdered with egregious brutality, awakening associations with the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe; Rothmann's depictions of these acts also draw on symbols associated with the Holocaust (such as the collection of human hair) to underscore the multidirectional (Rothberg) intent of these sequences. At stake in this novel is not only an effort to articulate the implication of Germans on the "home front" in the genocide and
extractive occupation policies of the Eastern Front but the limited investment of the German public today in confronting that implication. The ready grievability (Butler) of 16th century historical subjects – expressed in the availability of symbols, tropes and narratives to remember the Thirty Years' War – stands in striking contrast to the representative lacunae that surround "face-to-face" mass killing in the Nazi period. In this paper, I will discuss how Rothmann achieves this implicit critique of contemporary cultural memory and explore how mnemonic tropes can be used to open new perspectives.
Period6 Jul 2023
Event titleMemory Studies Association Annual Conference 2023
Event typeConference
LocationNewcastle, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational