Professor wrote on post-WWII guilt, suffering
Dagmar Barnouw, a USC professor and author whose provocative works about the aftermath of World War II took aim at what she called the sanctification of Holocaust survivors, the “politics of not-forgetting Nazi evil” and the idea of collective German guilt, has died. She was 72.
Barnouw died May 14 at a San Diego hospital from complications of a stroke she suffered April 14, said her husband, Jeffrey Barnouw.
In a career that produced 12 books and 150 papers, Barnouw covered many topics, including the cultural politics of Thomas Mann and feminist and utopian science fiction.
But post-World War II Germany was a recurring theme for the scholar, who was born in Berlin. Her works -- described by some critics as “brilliant and unsettling” and by others as “deeply flawed” -- challenged long-held views of guilt and innocence, suffering and memory.
In her most recent book, “War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans” (2005), Barnouw examined Germans’ failure to acknowledge and mourn their war dead and the devastation German citizens suffered in Allied air raids.
After the war, ordinary Germans were viewed collectively as perpetrators of the Holocaust and responsible for World War II. Silenced by this presumed guilt, even German war remembrances maintained an exclusive focus on Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, to the detriment of historical reality, she wrote.
“My concern is not that Germans suffered too -- all populations caught in this particularly terrible war suffered,” she wrote in “War in the Empty Air.” “The issue is the usefulness now, sixty years later, of an enduring hierarchy of suffering that has removed from historical memory the larger part of a war so familiarly and viciously destructive that it should have meant the end of all wars.”
In his review for the H-Net website, Frank Biess of UC San Diego asserted that the book was “based on a distorted diagnosis of the postwar politics of memory.” He faulted Barnouw for “rhetorical transgressions.”
“It forcefully argues for a new politics of memory that would give more room to German suffering and reduce the centrality of the Holocaust. . . . The book ultimately fails to offer a conceptual agenda for a more complex and comprehensive history of the Second World War and its aftermath,” Biess wrote.
In favorable reviews, the Journal of American Studies said Barnouw “establishes a case for creating a more complete historical remembrance for postwar generations,” and the German Studies Review said “Barnouw confronts the petrified, sanctified and officially approved memories of the German past.”
Joyce Appleby, a longtime friend of Barnouw and professor emerita of history at UCLA, called the book “courageous.”
“She raised this issue of, ‘Isn’t there enough charity to appreciate the suffering of other people in Germany during the war?’ ” Appleby said in an interview with The Times.
“It’s the kind of book that you can imagine raised some hackles. But it’s a very powerful book and one in which she examines post-World War II intellectual life in Germany as well as a bit of her own history,” Appleby said.
Born March 22, 1936, Barnouw was a child when Allied bombing destroyed her family home in Dresden. Her father served in the German army during the war. Her mother, who had been a research scientist, led the family out of Dresden to a small muddy village in northern Bavaria where they were scorned as refugees.
“Over the decades, I have sometimes remembered those years as nothing but hunger, cold, boredom and fear,” Barnouw wrote in an autobiographical essay. “But it also seemed that in these memories, the child preoccupied with finding food and staying clear of the ferocious village geese, dogs and teenage boys was retreating.”
After earning a degree in Germany, Barnouw traveled to the United States in 1962 as a Fulbright teacher at Stanford University. She earned a doctorate in German literature from Yale University in 1968, and the same year began her career in academia at the university. Before joining USC in 1988, where she was professor of German and comparative literature, Barnouw held positions at several universities including Purdue, Brown and UC San Diego.
In a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in a separate lawsuit, Barnouw accused UC San Diego of gender bias. The commission agreed, and the lawsuit was settled out of court. In 1977 Barnouw testified about her experiences in front of the state Legislature, which later passed a measure increasing UC employees’ access to their personnel files.
In Barnouw’s case, men had filled her file with unfavorable -- and sexist -- reviews, according to Karen Leonard, a UC Irvine professor of anthropology and a founder of California Women in Higher Education, which supported Barnouw against the university.
Barnouw “had a very intense, almost fierce intellect, a very lively personality,” Appleby said. “She had very strong opinions, which she had no fear about expressing.”
Barnouw also wrote about the war in Iraq, about Israel and Lebanon, about Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” as a book club choice.
“Why was the new translation of ‘Night’ so important now?” Barnouw wrote in an essay posted on the History News Network. “Why did Oprah really choose that book? . . . Are we more comfortable with the familiar horrors that do not ask for our social and political intervention now, but only for the busy timeless rituals of never-forgetting?”
In addition to her husband, Barnouw is survived by son Benjamin Barnouw of Los Angeles; grandchildren Nicholas and Natalie, also of Los Angeles; one brother and two sisters, who live in Germany.