Germany begins effort to shed Nazi past, end national preoccupation

January 22, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- A half-century ago, it would have been a scene weighted with peril, perhaps even a matter of life or death: A scribbling German bureaucrat was asking questions of a Jewish woman.

But this was the 1990s, and the woman, who was American, had come with her German fiance to get a marriage license.

Then history cast its shadow.

"Your religion?" the bureaucrat asked.

"Jewish," the woman replied. The scribbling pen halted. Dead silence followed.

"I can't write that," the man finally said. He became flustered, then turned an imploring gaze to the fiance, as if to say, "You're German, you understand."

Then the man explained. "We don't say Jewish," he said. "We say Mosaisch." As in, the people of Moses.

"I've encountered just about every roundabout way of saying somebody is Jewish," Eve Schaenen recalled later. "But this. It was a word they still couldn't say."

There are lots of words Germans can't say easily anymore. "Sonderbehandlung" (special treatment, the euphemism for sending people to the gas chamber) is one. "Endloesung" (final solution) is another. Both remain locked in the forbidden glossary of Nazi genocide. Nor does the word "Hitler" roll easily off many tongues.

From embarrassed bureaucrats to lordly government ministers, Germany today is filled with people who either cannot or will not do certain things because of what other Germans did on battlefields and in concentration camps more than 50 years ago.

Now, however, some German leaders think the time has come to move on. And with this week's 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp looming as the first in a series of end-of-World War II observances, the German government has subtly set out to loosen the tight grip of history.

Advisers to Chancellor Helmut Kohl have said recently that he hopes to use the anniversaries as a starting point for a new era, moving at last out of a cramped corner of belated guilt and introspection.

Roman Herzog, who as Germany's president is the semiofficial spokesman for the national conscience, has also joined in, speaking recently of Germany and its neighbors "gradually beginning to write a common European history."

The success of such delicate efforts could affect everything from the way Germany deals with Europe and the United States -- by sending more troops to help United Nations peacekeeping efforts, for example -- to the way Germans deal with themselves.

War-related angst

But events of the past decade indicate that Mr. Kohl's attempt may be doomed to fail. Because if any single group seems determined to prevent Germany from reassuming the obligations a "normal" nation, it is the Germans themselves, baffled as ever over how to come to terms with their history.

War-related angst creeps into debate on virtually every major policy question, much in the way racial questions lurk within so many U.S. issues. "It is the most important question in our political culture," said history Professor Wolfgang Wipperman of the Free University of Berlin.

And it is evident in countless daily events.

Anja Kolaschnik, a German who recently moved to Brussels, Belgium, to work for the European Parliament, recalled how a U.S. rock band unwittingly tapped into complex currents of German thought during a Berlin concert a few years ago. The band asked the crowd of youthful Germans to raise its right hands en masse and yell, "Boom, boom."

"Most people didn't want to do it," she said, "and those who did gave the peace sign."

The reason?

A field of raised right hands would look uncomfortably like newsreel footage of a Nazi rally. Besides, it's illegal in Germany to give a Nazi salute. It is illegal, too, to shout "Sieg heil" -- Hail victory.

Many awkward moments concern Der Fuehrer himself. When educators last winter proposed a Hitler comic book for teaching the Nazi era to younger children, authorities canceled the plan, fretting that the Hitler character might be too seductive despite his obvious evil.

There was the soccer match set for Hamburg in April between Germany and England on, coincidentally, Hitler's birthday. Hamburg canceled it over worries about neo-Nazis, so Berlin offered its soccer field -- in Hitler's Olympic Stadium. England canceled.

In 1990, workers discovered an intact section of the underground Fuehrer bunker in central Berlin, complete with eerie murals of black-booted SS men and happy Aryan families. Should it be opened as a museum? Seal it up forever, the Berlin Senate said.

Germany's history neurosis can also be found in the noticeable philo-Semitism co-existing alongside lingering strains of anti-Semitism. A few non-Jewish Germans go so far as to wear replicas of the Star-of-David arm patches Jews had to wear during the Nazi years.

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