GERMANS are at odds over claims that harsh potty training is to blame both for Nazism and modern thuggery.
A friend of mine is convinced that the German national character in all its complexities can be traced back to Germans' rigorous potty training.
Teutonic infants, he claims, are made to sit on their lowly thrones for hours on end, until pronounced spiffy clean, usually at a remarkably tender age.
Out of this early purgatory of life emerges a nation of precision engineers obsessed with waste disposal, with an unquenchable yearning for order and authority.
My Jewish friend, referring me to the works of Sigmund Freud, believes this explains everything in German history, including the Holocaust.
Ridiculous. Or so I thought until I recently opened Die Zeit, Germany's most intellectual weekly. There it was: a 6,000-word essay on this very subject.
Forget the Holocaust for one moment. What the author wanted to establish was whether East Germans were really susceptible to neo-Nazi views because of the harsh potty-training regime of the Communist era. For that is what a noted West German criminologist claims.
Christian Pfeiffer, director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, thinks the xenophobia permeating East German society can be traced back to the nursery schools.
Mr. Pfeiffer had been looking into the reasons why youth in eastern Germany are four times more likely to commit racially motivated crimes than their Western counterparts.
It all boils down to "das Topfen," a word which exists only in the east German dialect, a noun forged bureaucratically from the word Topf -- "potty."
It denotes the ritual of potty training, a sacred act codified by precise instructions passed down from the Politburo. "As soon as the child is able to sit without help, the teacher can begin with regular potty training," reads the official instruction manual for preschoolers.
At set times, children were herded into a communal toilet and made to sit on rows of potties. "Potty times" were the nurseries' main activity, potty training the supreme goal of the institution.
It served an ideological purpose. Through their synchronized bowel movements, the children of the proletariat shared the vicissitudes of life. Those who did not perform remained seated, while the avant-garde left to play. The dunces soon caught on.
Thus did East Germany become the country of world champion toddlers, faster out of their cotton diapers than those in any other nation.
But the prodigies, Mr. Pfeiffer says, were mentally scarred. They had been deliberately stripped of their individualism, and their first encounter with authority ended in humiliation and defeat: "The children's souls were raped."
Had Freud not warned about the dangers of tampering with children's "anal phase" of development?
West Germany, on the other hand, has been a beacon of enlightenment. After World War II, its greatest thinkers put their minds to work on the question of what had made Germans worship Hitler.
The Frankfurt School philosopher Theodore Adorno blamed the authoritarian experiences of early childhood. And so, in an effort to produce a new generation of free thinkers, the federal republic banned potty training and decreed anarchy in the nursery schools. The kids could defecate wherever they liked, for as long as they liked.
I asked around, as discreetly as one could under the circumstances. The expression "Topfen" drew a blank among West German friends.
Westerners all thought potty training was an outdated, authoritarian, practice. And yes, they conceded, maybe it did explain Hitler.
One friend remembers sitting in her soiled trousers in her parents' car for what seemed like an eternity, and resolving to do the big job henceforth in the toilet. She was three years old at the time.
None of my acquaintances from the east have any recollection of wet pants.
Imre Karacs wrote this for the Independent newspaper in London.