Germany shows again that ghosts of Reich won't go away

April 12, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- In darkened movie houses across the land, the lock-step thunder of Nazi jackboots fills the air, drowning out the cries of Jews. Huge audiences watch "Schindler's List" in awed horror.

In the northern German town of Lubeck, an arsonist attacks a synagogue, setting off candle-lit protests around the country.

In Hamburg, an uproar develops over a soccer match scheduled for Hitler's birthday, so the game is moved. The new site? Hitler's Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The uproar worsens, and the game is canceled.

In Bonn, government leaders look back across 50 years of history and wring their hands, fretting first over how to react to the approaching anniversary of the D-Day invasion, then over how to best say farewell to the Allied forces that flattened, then rescued their country.

In almost every corner of Germany, it seems, the ghosts of World War II have roared back to life in recent weeks. Never far from the German consciousness to begin with, their vivid re-emergence has set off a national outbreak of angst and soul-searching.

It is a demonstration yet again of how much Germany remains psychologically enmeshed in its deeds under Hitler. It also serves as a caveat to outsiders, including some from the United States, who are puzzled by German reluctance to lead in the emerging new order of Europe.

"Dealing with the Nazi past is a central part of our political culture, and I think it always will be," says Wolfgang Wipperman, a history professor specializing in studies of the Third Reich at the Free University of Berlin. "Many Germans would like to say now that we are a 'normal' state with a 'normal' history. Then things like this come up and it just can't be done."

The Third Reich's latest surge in the Zeitgeist is apparent in everything from the allocation of museum space to the topics of Germany's almost nonstop stream of TV talk shows (and not the kind you see with Geraldo, Oprah or Arsenio. These are sober, sit-around-and-chat affairs).

The hottest topic is "Schindler's List," the American film from the director Steven Spielberg about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Polish Jews from Nazi death camps by employing them in his factory.

Entire high schools have turned out to attend as part of their studies, and even without these mandatory audiences the theaters would be jammed, mostly by people born since the end of the war.

So far about 2.4 million have attended the film in Germany. Most watch quietly and intently as the horrors of their country's history pass before them in black and white, but on rare occasions the horror has come to life right in the aisles of the theater.

At a late-night showing Easter Sunday in the northeastern city of Stralsund, a gang of youths applauded as Jews were killed on screen. Fearing violence was about to erupt, many others in the audience got up and left. Police attributed the incident to "drunken youths."

The film is hardly the only recent reminder of Nazi times. All through March Germans watched as Chancellor Helmut Kohl grappled with other ghosts.

First Mr. Kohl announced that he would not attend the June 6 ceremony in France commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Apparently the French had not invited him, although President Clinton and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, representing the victors, had already accepted invitations.

Then word leaked out that Mr. Kohl had canceled plans for a September parade to honor the departing Allied Forces of Britain, France and the United States. After winning World War II, the Allies had stayed on in Germany for more than four decades of the Cold War, standing guard against communism. But there would be no fond farewell.

The French were miffed.

A day later the French defense minister canceled a commemorative ceremony scheduled for D-Day week at a Normandy cemetery. The German defense minister had been scheduled to attend. The French explained they'd discovered that members of the Waffen SS were among the German soldiers buried in the cemetery.

The Germans were miffed.

Opinions on the D-Day flap began firing back and forth among various German opinion makers: Mr. Kohl should be invited, but shouldn't go. Mr. Kohl should go, but won't be invited. Mr. Kohl shouldn't be invited and shouldn't go. Mr. Kohl should stop being so petulant and re-schedule a parade for the departing Allies.

Whatever the case, Mr. Kohl isn't going, and he has forbidden any German ambassadors to go, presuming any are invited.

In the meantime, protesters of one sort or another began laying plans for April 20, Hitler's birthday. A "friendly" soccer game between Germany and England -- World War II combatants and Cold War allies -- had been canceled in Hamburg over fears that neo-Nazi violence might spoil the day.

Berlin soccer authorities came to the rescue, agreeing to hold the game. Ignatz Bubis, head of Germany's Jewish community, applauded the move, saying Hitler's birthday shouldn't get special treatment.

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