Memory Markets

by Mark A. Wolfgram, University of Ottawa

One can think about collective memory or one’s general orientation toward the past as the outcome of a process through which (a) an individual (b) encounters a representation of the past in (c) a given social, cultural and political context. There are three different variables that we want to keep in mind. Individual psychology is going to play a role, and so will social psychology. And we will want to give careful attention to the context within which individuals are encountering representations of the past and within which they may discuss these with others.

Using the concept of memory markets gives us analytic leverage over (b), the representations of the past. As some representations of the past begin to circulate more frequently than others, they can have an increasing likelihood of shifting individual and social sentiments regarding the past. What narratives are generated (films, radio shows, art exhibits) and how widely they circulate (viewers, listeners, visitors) matters a great deal.

States and markets shape the production and circulation of these narratives about the past, and the memory-market dictum provides a concise way to think about this relationship: “memory makers need access to ‘capital’ to take their products to market, and the more capital intensive a product is, the more sensitive the producer will be to prevailing attitudes in the population at large (democratic regime) or in state ideology (authoritarian regime)” (Wolfgram 2011: 21).

A good illustration of this from postwar West German is the film Das Haus in der Karpfengasse (1964) by Kurt Hoffmann, which Hoffmann based on a novel of the same title by M.Y. Ben-Gavriel (1957) (Wolfgram 2019: 47-48). Once completed, Hoffmann could not find a distributor for his film, in large part because the film told the story of Jewish suffering during National Socialism from a Jewish perspective, and less from a German perspective. This was unusual for the time, and it was controversial. Ben-Gavriel was able to have his book published because book publishing, compared to filmmaking, is very inexpensive. He and his publisher required relatively little capital to bring his memory product to market.

Telling the same story through film was far more expensive. Hoffmann was probably only able to make the film in the first place because of his prestige in the film industry. Nonetheless, distributors did not want to touch a film that appeared to be highly controversial. It could be bad for business. It almost became a film that no one would see. But then the West German WDR public television station decided to broadcast the film. The WDR also recognized that the film would prove controversial. But as a public broadcaster, the WDR had a different mandate and was not dependent on commercial advertisers; the WDR saw it as a risk worth taking. Its status as a public broadcaster did not fully insulate it from public and political pressure, but it did insulate it from market pressure.

This is not the only example of the commercial film industry in the early postwar decades shying away from more difficult narratives about the Holocaust or changing the film’s narrative to make it less controversial (Wolfgram 2019: 66). But the 1980s were a different decade. For example, there were more mainstream films made about the Holocaust in the 1980s than in all previous decades combined (Wolfgram 2011: 223). The same is true for public radio broadcasts, with the amount of material produced in the 1980s towering over all the previous decades (Wolfgram 2014). The memory market is dynamic. As the broader social context changes, more segments of the population may become more open to new interpretations of the past.

There are also authoritarian legacies that linger on many years after the collapse of the regime. During the Nazi regime, Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda was able to control the official visual narrative of Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Nazi pogrom against Germany’s Jews, by focusing attention on the destruction of property and hiding the violence against persons. What is striking to discover is how this focus on the destruction of property rather than assaults on persons remained part of the Kristallnacht memorial culture in West Germany in the early postwar decades (Wolfgram 2021). This is a good example of how memory-markets are embedded in a specific cultural context within which actors (editors, filmmakers, authors) make choices on how to represent the past. In the 1950s and 1960s, Kristallnacht remained linked primarily to the image of the burning synagogue, but by the late 1970s it increasingly became connected to the Holocaust and violence against Jews. These memory market phenomena are by no means limited to postwar West Germany. I have found further confirmation of the memory-market dictum in my most recent book, which compares Germany, Japan, Spain, Yugoslavia and Turkey (Wolfgram 2019).


Wolfgram, Mark A. “From the Visual to the Textual: How Nazi Control of the Visual Record of Kristallnacht Shaped the Postwar Narrative,” History & Memory, 32:2 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022): forthcoming.

Wolfgram, Mark A. Antigone’s Ghosts: The Long Legacy of War and Genocide in Five Countries. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2019.

Wolfgram, Mark A. “Didactic War Crimes Trials and External Legal Culture: The Cases of the Nuremberg, Frankfurt Auschwitz and Majdanek Trials in West Germany.” Global Change, Peace & Security 26:3 (2014): 281-297.

Wolfgram, Mark A. “Getting History Right”: East and West German Collective Memories of the Holocaust and War. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2011.

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