Germany Still Struggling with Ghosts of Nazi Past

June 12, 1994|By DAN FESPERMAN

NUREMBERG, GERMANY — Nuremberg, Germany. -- Fifty years have passed since Werner Weinlein fought for the German army at D-Day, time enough for a mighty Nazi Reich to crumble, burn and transform itself into one of the century's model democracies.

Yet, after all these years, Mr. Weinlein cannot face up to the fact that he fought for the bad guys.

He complains that Allied planes strafed German Red Cross trucks, saying German soldiers would have known better. He carps about the way the Allies and the Jews "conspired" after the war to make all Germans seem evil. He rails against the wartime brutality of the Russian "Bolsheviks." And with a triumphant flourish he pulls out his copy of a "sworn statement" from Austrian military police, which he says proves that no one was executed at 10 different German concentration camps, including the notorious sites at Buchenwald and Dachau.

As he carries on with this tirade, Mr. Weinlein is an extreme example of one of his country's darker obsessions: denying recent history.

The practice, even in is milder forms, is a window onto Germany's tortured conscience. After half a century, Germany has still not come to terms with its Nazi legacy. Some seek to accept guilt and blame when none is warranted, while others, such as Mr. Weinlein, pronounce defiantly that there has never been a need for shame.

The result is that the gremlins of history put their stamp on every major policy debate in Germany, much in the way that the difficult issue of race seems to play a role in so many U.S. matters, from welfare reform to budgeting, from crime to foreign policy in Haiti.

Just look at some typical questions and answers heard when Germans discuss the issues.

Should the Bundeswehr be a stronger army and serve abroad in United Nations missions? Well, maybe, but wouldn't that frighten the rest of Europe because of what we did before?

Should we tighten controls on how many refugees can enter the country? Sure, but won't that make us sound like a bunch of you-know-whats?

Should we admit that neo-Nazi violence has become endemic to our society, thereby confessing that we still haven't reined in our own worst instincts? Or should we simply regard neo-Nazis as isolated examples of thuggery and invite criticism that we're again ignoring a horror in the making?

Should we assert leadership in the European Union and bring on the whispers that we've again become a bully? Or should we disengage from the Union and be accused of retreating into dangerous nationalism?

You get the idea.

Such debate is most angst-ridden among the younger generation, the majority of which is well-meaning and earnest to the verge of crashing boredom, hashing out issue after issue on deadly serious television talk shows. The young are also inclined to shush their elders whenever the wartime generation complains of the genuine suffering endured by Germans during the war and its aftermath, as if afraid the rest of the world will overhear and misunderstand.

All of which only makes the Werner Weinleins of Germany more disgruntled and determined to spread their version of the truth. He hardly seems the type. He is quiet and amiable, and in excellent shape for a 76-year-old wounded severely at Normandy.

The New Germany has served him well. After returning from the war to find his home burned, he has built a prosperous new life in the city where Germany's war criminals were brought to justice.

On the day of his interview, where he discussed his D-Day memories for another story, he sat in the sunny garden of his backyard. It was a pleasant, comfortable day, and his wife poured coffee and offered wonderful little sugary cakes as he spoke.

Mr. Weinlein showed his visitor a scrapbook of wartime photos. Most were snapshots from Russia. There are he and his comrades, their young, tanned faces neat and well-groomed. In one picture, they're washing themselves in a stream. In another, the young Mr. Weinlein has shaving cream on his face as he fires an anti-aircraft gun. Dive bombers had just surprised his unit with a morning attack.

For most of the interview he seemed just like two other genial old veterans interviewed earlier in the month. They, too, had offered some minor gripes about Allied conduct, while affirming the impeccable behavior of their own units.

But in the two earlier interviews that's as far as the complaining went. Mr. Weinlein felt compelled to keep digging his argument deeper into revisionism. Sure, he admitted, some Jews were executed, and that was terrible. But the rest has all been a con job.

After a few minutes of this, one wonders whether he's simply being more honest than the others by admitting to these feelings. Or whether he's embraced this fiction simply to keep himself from thinking he nearly gave his life for something so monstrous.

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