Senior public history major Suzanne Grimmer earned a Lee Honors College Research and Creative Activities Scholarship for her project, “The Politics of Memory: Interpreting Nazi History in Modern Germany for a Global Audience.”
She conducted research in Poland last year, visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto to see how sites like these are preserved and interpreted for the modern world. She has also completed two internships at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where she administered surveys on wartime documents and artifacts.
Here, Grimmer discusses her work in understanding how nations with contentious histories address their roles as perpetrators, bystanders and victims – and ultimately, how ownership of past atrocities can shape cultural heritage, memory and legacy.
Q: What have you discovered from researching the politics of memory?
A: I’ve discovered that the narratives of various Nazi historical sites have changed over time due to the influence of special interest groups and shifting government bodies. While changes to narratives can be a good thing (especially when these changes occur to correct falsehoods), they can affect how different generations understand and remember their own history.
Q: How would you describe your research?
A: My research investigates the transition of former Nazi sites of violence in Germany into heritage sites, which are landscapes and structures of historical and cultural significance. This study analyzes how wartime sites of atrocity in Germany have been used since World War II as tools for remembrance, reconciliation and image recovery through a system of preservation, interpretation and memorialization. I’m also looking at postwar tourism’s role in shaping national and global memory by evaluating a select group of Nazi and Holocaust memorials, monuments and sites in Germany, and through one-on-one interviews with site directors, curators and visitors.
Q: How do you conduct your research?
A: The two core aspects of my research include 1) analyzing secondary sources to see who has written about the subject so far, what questions they’ve asked and answered, and how my research can contribute to the subject, and 2) conducting field research at the sites to analyze how they are physically preserved and presented to the public, and how visitors interpret their narratives.
Q: What interests you most about your research topic?
A: What interests me most about how we understand and present difficult histories to a modern audience is how nations with contentious histories address their roles as perpetrators, bystanders and victims. And, how responsible ownership of past atrocities can shape cultural heritage, memory and legacy. Germany is an excellent model for this, as the wartime sites preserved throughout the country since the 1950s offer crucial evidence of how visitors of different backgrounds bear witness to and comprehend the hard truths of traumatic history.
Q: What are the intended outcomes of your research? How can your work be applied to solving real-world problems?
A: My hope is that in analyzing Nazi sites of violence, this research will provide cultural heritage and museum professionals with guidelines for facilitating honest and responsible interpretation of U.S. heritage spaces with contentious histories, specifically those relating to Native American and African American history.