Europe’s bitter past still divides united Germany

Our relations with history usually improve the further removed we are from events. Positive memories shine brighter, negative ones fade, and the older generations who might express objections disappear in the natural course of things. This process of gradual normalization is not a straightforward one, however. A prime example occurred in the past decade, when the 50th anniversary (and official commemoration) of the most horrendous war in world history coincided with world-shaking events which either reinforced or reversed previous trends. The second life of historical events had a particular impact when official memory had banished the collective memory of peoples to the hibernation of silence. Moral legacy Some 12 percent of the bombs dropped on German cities during the Second World War never exploded. In Berlin alone an estimated 3,000 have not been found to this day, and continue to pose danger. But what hangs more heavily over Germans than this metal legacy is the moral legacy left by the war, which often has material dimensions. Even foreign observers have criticized the tendency to ascribe collective guilt to the Germans of today and hold them forever hostage to an undying stigma passed on from one generation to another. But Germany will never be entirely free of its Nazi past. A soccer match in 1994 between England and Germany had to be canceled when officials realized that April 21, the day fixed for the match, was Hitler’s birthday. Seemingly vindicated After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the losers in the dispute among German historians, who had questioned the uniqueness… of Nazi crimes, seemed to have been vindicated. Since the partition of Germany had been seen as punishment for Auschwitz, similarly the unhoped-for reunification seemed like absolution from above, as a sign that together with the end of the postwar period, it was time to put an end to the endless recycling of the Nazi past, in view of the fact that other peoples had sometimes committed similar crimes but had perpetuated the notion of German guilt for their own purposes. With this in mind, a large majority of Germans and of researchers (though they were more discreet about it) took the view that the half-century of raking over the Nazi period had to give way to clearing up the equally criminal and more recent purges of Stalinist and, by extension, communist terror. In fact, there was a change in researchers’ priorities; public mention of reparations and compensation started referring more to victims of the Stasi, of communism, a subject which had previously been taboo for every historian who identified themselves as progressive. Soon matters became confused. For instance, entrepreneurs who demanded the return of their estates which had been expropriated by the East German state, suddenly found themselves confronted with earlier rights claimed by relatives of Jews who had owned the properties before the war and been deprived of them by the Nuremberg laws. Boris Yeltsin’s announcement that the new documents that were to be made available would make the world tremble was definitely exaggerated. But the archives of the former communist bloc contain no fewer unexploded bombs than German territory. Numberless biographies will have to be rewritten. At the same time, huge sections of the archives reveal new dimensions to the Nazi genocide. The new material, together with the symbolic gravity of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, prevented the planned closure of the subject. Many Germans were shocked when evidence presented in a traveling exhibition showed that not only the SS were guilty of war crimes, but also that the supposedly unblemished regular forces of the Wehrmacht were deeply involved. The issue was hotly disputed, with 40,000 articles on the subject published and 800,000 visitors to the exhibition. We recently inaugurated this exhibition in Berlin in a completely new form, and this time containing references to crimes committed in Greece. Many survivors, and quite a few of their descendants, felt very bitter that they had fought and their relatives had given their lives for criminal purposes, and that there was a high statistical probability that they themselves had participated in such crimes. Defeat or liberation? The clash between the two camps – those who said, «Never again,» and those who said, «Enough is enough» – peaked on the 50th anniversary, which was in itself an historic event. Asked what the date March 8, 1945 meant to them, only 12 percent of Germans polled said it meant defeat, while the rest described it as liberation. Regardless of the reliability of such surveys, the controversial date troubled Germans and divided them over their relations with countries from the former anti-fascist alliance. This was already apparent from the start of the «marathon of memory» on the 50th anniversary (June 6, 1994) of the Allied landings in Normandy. Following strenuous objections by veterans’ organizations, London and Paris refused to invite Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who wanted to attend the ceremony. They restricted the grand event to the members of an exclusive club which had no room for the representatives of the past or present losers, Germany and Russia. Bonn was extremely indignant, and in France there was some criticism of the failure to grasp this opportunity to turn a backward-looking victory meeting into a reconciliatory Pan-European celebration of the liberation of the continent. Mixed feelings The climate had changed when Kohl was asked to celebrate reconciliation together with the four victorious powers, which had set their seal of approval on German reunification. In May 1995, dozens of state leaders celebrated the highly significant jubilee in rotation, in London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. The subsequent upgrading of Germany aroused mixed feelings in formerly occupied countries about the ethical and political equation of the «good» with the «evil,» the victors with the conquered. Some of them expressed fears that the losers wanted to engage in historical revisionism. In fact, there was a growing trend for erasure of the dividing line between the victimizers and their victims, which the first government of Silvio Berlusconi also attempted in Italy. Thus the new central exhibition in Berlin dedicated to «the victims of war and violence» initially equated murdered Jews, executed members of the resistance, fallen Nazis and those who were killed at the Berlin Wall. Likewise, the refusal of Kohl and the Western leaders to include the Russians in the celebratory departure of the Allied armies of what was by then sovereign Berlin, on the grounds that the Red Army had not come as a liberator but as a new ruler – was an attempt to reconcile Germany’s successive roles as culprit and victim. (1)Hagen Fleischer teaches modern European history at the University of Athens.

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