December 10, 1993|By Gary Krist

IN Poland, the Wolf's Lair, the Nazis' Eastern Front command post in World War II, is being converted into a theme resort.

According to Travel & Leisure magazine, staff members are to dress in replica uniforms of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, and there will be dancing nightly at "Hitler's Bunker Disco."

In Germany, a 28-year-old entrepreneur has announced plans to open an amusement park near Berlin. His theme? East Germany under communism.

Bartenders and chambermaids will double as mock agents of the secret police. If any visitors are overheard making comments critical of the government, they will be thrown into a fake jail.

Don't look now, but history is being reshaped into a tourist attraction. And not just its prettier moments; nowadays, no episode of our past is too tragic, no act too appalling, no institution too shameful to escape the ingenuity of the tourism industry.

Political and racial oppression seem to be the hottest thing in travel.

This kind of chamber of commerce surrealism isn't only flourishing abroad. Near Atlanta, Ga., Holdings Inc. is developing a "Gone With the Wind Country" theme park, complete with replicas of Tara and Twelve Oaks, horse-drawn carriages, a golf course and a full array of theme shops. No one involved seems to find anything at all questionable about celebrating a way of life founded on the institution of slavery, about transforming the antebellum South into an innocuous fantasy for family consumption.

And now the Walt Disney Co., the virtual inventor of the theme park industry, has announced plans for its own history-qua-entertainment park near Manassas, Va. Visitors will be able to enjoy an authentic and educational "Civil War experience," complete with Mickey and Goofy, within a few miles of the battlefield where 4,200 soldiers lost their lives.

Among other things, the exhibits will dramatize the experience of slavery. "The goal here is to make this real," says a Disney official.

Another part of the park will depict the early years of industrial capitalism. Here, in a replica steel town called Enterprise, a roller coaster will speed through a pseudo-factory, under overflowing vats of artificial molten metal -- all, one presumes, to "make real" the harsh labor conditions that prevailed back then.

And so the brave new development plans keep piling up.

But so, too, do the troubling questions they inspire: Can we really learn anything from history when its most sobering lessons are defanged and turned into vacation amusements?

Will we eventually become morally obtuse to the shame of slavery, of political oppression, even of genocide, when such things are routinely depicted as part of a feel-good experience for the whole family?

And how do I explain to my 2-year-old daughter the difference between the Third Reich and the Magic Kingdom?

Gary Krist, a former magazine travel writer, is author of the forthcoming short-story collection "Bone by Bone."

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