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A Non-Manual for Developing Responsible Selfhood

jones bergersonA review by Roger Dale Jones 


Bergerson, Andrew S.; Scott K. Baker; Clancy Martin and Steve Ostovich: The Happy Burden of History. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2011.

How can average individual citizens take responsibility for past crimes against humanity? How can they take active part in developing solutions without participating in the same systems of violence they struggle against? This book takes an interdisciplinary look at questions of responsible selfhood, and places its inspection on Germany during the Third Reich. Combining backgrounds in history, literary criticism, philosophy and theology, the four authors investigate the role that myths, lies, non-conformity and irony play in the construction of the “self”. By discussing the ambiguity behind these concepts, as well as the inherent instability of the self, the authors present strategies for developing responsible individuals who are happy to bear the burden of history.

  >Table of Contents     > German Abstract                                                                      

In the globalized 21st century, questions of responsibility have taken on a new urgency. Using the past to explore the present, The Happy Burden of History investigates responsibility and encourages readers to reflect on themselves, their role in society, and their responsibility to the victims of history.   

In this monograph, four American Germanists with backgrounds in history, literary criticism, philosophy and theology take an interdisciplinary look at questions of responsible selfhood during (and after) Nazi Germany. Their investigation begins by looking at the self, not as a product but rather as a process, focusing on autobiographical storytelling as acts of self-creation. This focus suggests that responsibility lies not just in action, but also in reflective measures that critically question coherent assumptions of historical and past events, as well as of identity and self.

To understand responsibility, the authors construct a conceptual framework of myths, lies, non-conformity and irony, which make up the four chapters that create the body of the book. In turn, these chapters are informed by a multitude of largely German scholars (philosophers, theologians, theorists and playwrights), their works, ideas and biographies. The authors then populate these chapters with Nazi-era autobiographies from “everyday” Germans taken from interviews carried out in the 1990s. These “stories” not only illustrate the conceptual framework, but also further develop its conceptual foundation. Through this approach, the authors are able to exemplify the ambiguity of responsible selfhood: Myths, lies, non-conformity, and irony are crucial for the construction of coherent selfhood, yet it is this very coherency that responsible selves must deconstruct. Following this ironic approach, The Happy Burden of History can be read as a manual for constructing responsible selfhood, despite the authors’ desire to avoid authoritative prescriptions.

The authors begin their investigation with the myth of self that is created when individuals attempt to make coherent stories out of complex everyday experiences. Stories of coherent self are akin to stories of mastery that not only provide utopic visions of progress but also excuse past violence for its own sake (13). While the authors agree that there is no selfhood without mastery, they claim that responsibility stems from the fragmentary self that arises from ambiguities. Further, they argue that the myth of the coherent self is the very thing that responsible individuals must work against producing. Myths thus provide not only the foundation for historical thinking, but also for its unraveling and reworking (38). Lies, on the other hand, perpetuate the myth of the coherent self (78). Furthermore, as the book’s examples illustrate, individuals lie to themselves in order to be free from societal restraints and human relations (78). In turn, these self-liars easily become the dupes of others peoples’ lies (39). The authors’ conclusions thus suggest that lies are like myths  - they are both unavoidable and essential. The question is not how to avoid them, but how to recognize them and their influence over our lives.

Individuals lie about their role in society by taking on identities as non-conformists. On the one hand, non-conformity is often seen as rebellion from society’s norms, a sign of free thinking that comes from the autonomy and self-cultivation championed by modernity (97). Non-conformity can, however, lead to the ignoring of social responsibility and of the social construction of individual selves. Furthermore, non-conformity runs the risk of becoming merely performance and, like myths, often follows a utopic logic that easily excuses violence (96). The final concept, irony, is used not only to thematically connect the ambiguities of the previous three concepts, but also to characterize communication of the self. Ironic communication relies on the contingency of knowledge, of both the outer world and the inner self (205). While irony can be employed in communication to question the underlying assumptions of others, it can also be misused by the self as a strategy to avoid the responsibility of making decisions. Thus the ambiguity of irony is that while it can induce critical thinking (160), it can also provide refuge behind nihilistic helplessness (207).  

Although this monograph stems from the field of German studies, its subject is relevant to anyone interested in philosophy and theory of power, history and the creation of responsible selfhood. Nazi-era Germany serves as a powerful backdrop to explore the present. Even though there is no explicit engagement in discourse on contemporary conflict and crises, the stage is set for further exploration of responsibility in the 21st century. Despite this exclusion, the authors engage in an open dialogue that attempts to balance the dangers of authoritative claims to knowledge with an instruction on responsibility. In other words, they avoid providing overly simple answers to an undoubtedly complex issue. The inclusion of autobiographical stories taken from interviews complements the theoretical constructs well and makes reading the book more personal and engaging. And the concepts, myths, lies, non-conformity and irony, serve as useful tools to analyze how the self is created.  Yet despite the seriousness of the book’s topic and context, the authors’ approach to the self remains humane: they avoid punitive claims and authoritative prescriptions by showing the self’s vulnerability, and at the same time they offer the chance of redemption by insisting that the self, just like history, is a process and not a product.


Bergerson, Andrew S.; Scott K. Baker; Clancy Martin and Steve Ostovich: The Happy Burden of History. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2011. 247 pp., Hardcover, 84.95 Euro. ISBN: 3110246368


Table of Contents


List of Illustrations ... ix
About this Book ... xi

Chapter I Myths ... 1

I. Selfhood and Responsibility ... 2
I.1. Sovereign Impunity ... 3
I.2. Self-Cultivation ... 5
I.3. Historical Responsibility ... 7
II. Myths of the Self ... 11

II.1. Progress ... 11

II.2. Systems of Violence ... 13

II.3. The Self ... 15
III. The German Sisyphus ... 22

III.1. The Source of Meaning ... 24

III.2. Slave Narratives ... 25

III.3. The Nazi Past ... 27

Chapter II Lies ... 35

I. The Kaiser’s New Clothes ... 36
I.1. Our Lying Selves ... 37
I.2. Our Approach ... 38

II. The Ease of Being Duped ... 39

II.1. Nietzsche on Vanity ... 40

II.2. Nietzsche on Hypocrisy ... 42


III. Social Lies ... 44

III.1. Theodora’s Aspirations ... 46

III.2. Social Climbing ... 48


IV. Fascist Lies ... 50

IV.1. The Sincere Deceiver ... 51

IV.2. The Dupe’s Paradox ... 52

IV.3. Why We Believe Liars ... 54


V. The Lie or Normalcy ... 58

V.1. Hans the Perfect Aryan ... 59

V.2. Hans the Bystander ... 62

V.3. Hans and Heinrich ... 65


VI. Performing Lies ... 68

VI.1. Goffman on Selling the Self ... 68

VI.2. Brecht on Performing the Self ... 69

VI.3. Galy Gay the Performer ... 71


VII. The Lie of Coherence ... 78

VII.1. Benjamin on History ... 79

VII.2. Benjamin on the Self ... 82

VII.3. Brecht on Forbearance ... 83

Chapter III Non-Conformity ... 93

I. A Walk in the Woods ... 94
I.1. Our Unruly Selves ... 95
I.2. Our Approach ... 97

II. Acting on Principle ... 97
II.1. Kant on Ethics ... 98
II.2. Nietzsche on Resentment ... 99
II.3. Adolescent Rebellion ... 102


III. Working for Utopia ... 104

III.1. Schreyer’s New Man ... 106

III.2. Gerhard and Hartmut ... 110

III.3. In the Middle of Things ... 113


IV. Rejecting Politics ... 119

IV.1. The Conviction to Have No Convictions ... 120

IV.2. Theodora the Unpolitical ... 122

IV.3. The Algermissen Civil War ... 124

V. Sovereign Impunity ... 128

V.1. Günther the Non-Conformist ... 128

V.2.Theodora the Führerin ... 131

V.3. Theodora the Teacher ... 135


VI. How We Take Sides ... 141

VII.1. Arendt on the New ... 142

VII.2. Nietzsche on the Child ... 146


VII. The Unruliness of the Child ... 149 
VII.1. Thilly and Sarah ... 150

VII.2. Ruth and an Anonymous Hitler Youth ... 152

Chapter IV Irony ... 155

I. Yes, Hitler, No? ... 156
I.1. Our Ironic Self ... 156
I.2. The Challenge of Irony ... 158
I.3. Our Approach ... 159

II. Defining Irony ... 161
II.1. Hamann on Reason ... 162
II.2. Irony and Dialectics ... 164
II.3. Irony as Criticism ... 166


III. Liberating Irony ... 168

III.1. Hamann on Enlightenment ... 168

III.2. Brecht on Bourgeois Theater ... 169

III.3. Reinhard in Bourgeois Society ... 172


IV. Ironic Politics ... 176

IV.1. Some Idiot ... 177

IV.2. Macheath the Generous ... 178

IV.3. Reinhard the Clever ... 181


V. The Consequences of Nihilism ... 187

V.1. Jürgen the Apprentice ... 187

V.2. Jürgen the Hitler Youth ... 189

V.3. Jürgen the Mechanic ... 191


VI: Committing Irony ... 194
VI.1. Hamann on Intersubjectivity ... 195

VI.2. Brecht’s Mother Courage ... 199

VI.3. Anna’s Choices ... 202

Chapter V The Finish ... 209

I. Outside Himmelsthür ... 210
II. Epic Scholarship ... 219
III. Macular Degeneration ... 225
IV. Open Models ... 232
V. One Way to Imagine It ... 237

Bibliography ... 239


German Abstract

Wie kann der durchschnittliche Bürger die Verantwortung für Terror und Verbrechen in der Vergangenheit übernehmen? Wie kann man sich aktiv daran beteiligen, ohne dabei selber Gewalt und Macht auszuüben? Dieses Buch fragt interdisziplinär wie man ein verantwortliches Selbst konstruiert. Um dies zu erreichen, verortet es seine Untersuchung in Deutschland im Dritten Reich. Durch die Kombination geschichtlicher, literaturwissenschaftlicher, philosophischer und theologischer Expertise erkunden die vier Autoren die Rolle von Mythen, Lügen, Nonkonformismus und Ironie in den Konstruktionen des Selbst. Durch die Erörterung der Ambiguität hinter diesen Konzepten und der inhärenten Labilität des Selbst, präsentieren die Autoren Strategien für die Entwicklung von verantwortlichen Individuen, die bereitwillig die Bürde der Geschichte tragen.

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