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'Monumental' divide on Holocaust in Germany

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2000



BERLIN

The plan had been that German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder and the other dignitaries who gathered yesterday morning at an expanse of mud and weeds in the city center would witness the groundbreaking ceremony for a "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

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Instead, the distinguished audience listened to speeches in the damp cold when the ceremony had to be postponed. After a decade of debate, German authorities and the memorial's sponsors still cannot agree on the exact form it will take.

The enormous hole the size of two football fields in the heart of Berlin is a vivid symbol of Germany's conflicted view of its fraught history, and of the difficulties Germans have in dealing with their past. "It tells you everything," says Andrei Markovits, who teaches German politics at the University of Michigan. "It tells you how a large part of the German population would rather have nothing, even if some people see the importance of acknowledging a uniquely heinous past."

There are indications, however, that a new generation of Germans may be helping their country face up to its past while looking forward to a more confident and peaceful future.

Eli Wiesel, the Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, praised what he called "your willingness to open the gates of memory," when he addressed the German parliament, or Bundestag, yesterday in a ceremony marking Holocaust Day. The holiday commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945. Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse noted "signs that we in Germany are on the road to accepting [Mr. Wiesel's] message: to never fight against memory." He pointed to the planned Holocaust memorial, just up the road from the Reichstag where the parliament now sits, as one such sign.

Around the world, memorials have sprung up and ceremonies have been held recalling the horror of Nazi rule. In Stockholm, the Swedish government hosted an international conference this week dedicated to ensuring that the genocide against the Jews should never be forgotten.

A mixed record

But in Germany the signals are mixed. Mr. Thierse also referred - as a sign of "remorse" - to a fund set up by German industry and government to compensate the millions of people used by the Nazis as forced or slave laborers. He did not mention that industry has so far come up with only $1.1 billion of a promised $2.6 billion. Nor that only 110 firms have joined the fund. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) yesterday updated a list of more than 400 German firms that used slave labor during the war, but which have shown no sign of wanting to make reparations.

"In Germany there is very weak public pressure against firms who don't join," says Volker Beck, a member of parliament for the Greens party. "The initiative for the fund came from companies with subsidiaries in the United States, which were facing problems with class-action suits," he explains.