Intergenerational transmission of resistance against National Socialism and Visual Practices of Remembering

In 2008 I interviewed a woman who was born in 1921 in Vienna. Coming from a socialist family background she was involved in the National Socialist society in Vienna by profiting from the system in terms of social advancement. In 1943 she married her husband who was a soldier in the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) at the time. After the breakdown of National Socialism she got informed that her husband had been executed by the Nazis because of his resistance activities within the Wehrmacht. Three years later she married a former Jewish resistance fighter. After his death she tried to find out what happened with his executed brother and other murdered family members.

Olaf Nicolai: Memorial for the victims of Nazi Military Justice. © Iris Ranzinger/KÖR
Olaf Nicolai: Memorial for the victims of Nazi Military Justice. (© Iris Ranzinger/KÖR)

In knowing these biographical data we talked intensively about her biographical experiences, and during our talk it became clear that she was very involved in the question of remembering resistance, but that she had difficulties to find the words to speak about the resistance of her husbands. Her narration was mainly influenced by public discourses which make it almost impossible to talk about resistance in the Austrian public or in other social spheres like working places and even families. Especially the national victim discourse is responsible for silence and broken narratives. This discourse was established after 1945 and aimed to position Austria as the first victim of Hitler Germany and thus to legitimize the Austrian majority’s refusal of responsibility for their participation in the NS system. From the start, the “Austrian resistance” was stressed in order to refute responsibility for NS crimes. This anti-fascist variant of the national victim discourse also becomes manifest in the erection of memorials for victims of political resistance. Historians have reconstructed, however, that only a few years after the end of National Socialism, Austrian resistance was propagated mainly abroad as an important argument for the negotiation of the State Treaty (Staatsvertrag) of 1955. In the interior, towards the Austrian population, it was increasingly kept quiet, and in particular communist resistance fighters were defamed as “traitors to the nation”. For example, in 2012 the Austrian Freedom Party described a planned memorial for deserters as a memorial for “killers of fellow soldiers”. Different groups, individual researchers and especially the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance which was founded by former resistance fighters and researchers in 1963 have been doing and still do important work in making these actions and experiences visible.

Beside this, several researches on descendants of victims or survivors of the Shoah as well as on descendants of collaborators and perpetrators were conducted, and based on its results we know much about the impacts of the experience of (great-)grandparents and parents during National Socialism for the psychological development of their descendants, not least for their structures of action and biographical developments. Concerning descendants of NS survivors, research shows that they maintain symbiotic relationships with their parents or suffer from anxiety or long-term grief. Sociological multi-generation studies of the German society after 1945 also come to similar conclusions and show which effects denial of or silence on the past produce and how they affect the biographies of descendants But, the impacts of resistant experiences is not part of these studies.

Against this Austrian historical-discursive background and results of several studies, I was wondering in which way the family history (which include both – the experiences of perpetrators and resistance fighters) of the woman I talked to, affected the biographies of her four grandchildren. This interest was the starting point of my current research, in which I investigate the intergenerational processes of transmission of acts of resistance against National Socialism. A process in which bodies of experience, values and norms, but also ways of life and thinking are “transmitted” to the next generation. This latent but also manifest process is manifest above all in so-called delegated assignments within families: Descendants are given tasks and produce (unconscious) biographical patterns of action. But this process is not just individual, it is penetrated by discourses of politics of remembering and hegemonic collective memory as well as the national victim discourse and the invisibility of resistance. Therefore the project also raises the question in which way discourses influence the intergenerational process of transmission.

The methodical baselines are biographical case reconstructions and analysis of the inter- and intra-generational dialogue. Concerning this dialog, a further particular focus will be the fact that the majority of those who have acted out resistance and were able to transmit their own experience orally are not available as interlocutors any more. Thus the importance of other forms of memory in intergenerational transmission processes increases, in particular of photographs, as they visually present familial historic legacies. Photographs are a medium along which the past and the present, and thus family and social issues, can be examined; they point to the experience and the structures of meaning and significance connected to it. Therefore I include the question of visual practices of remembering within families. Directive research questions in this context are: How are (great-)grandparents and parents remembered in photographs? What meaning do photographs have in the transmission of family history to following generations? Are there differences to oral family dialogue?

The aim of the research is to obtain a diversity of perspectives on intergenerational transmission processes by combining biographical case reconstruction with the analysis of family conversations and the analysis of photographs. Here the focal point is the systematic combination of biographical case reconstruction with the analysis of photographs.


Maria Pohn LauggasMaria Pohn-Lauggas studied sociology at the University of Vienna. Currently she is a Hertha-Firnberg Fellow (post-doc research position funded by FWF – Der Wissenschaftsfond) at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. Her research interests are in the areas of impacts of National Socialism in present-day society, transgenerational transmission, narrative and visual practices of remembering and memory.

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