West Germany tries to outlaw distortions of its Nazi-era history

Anti-Nazi zeal is leading the Bundestag to muzzle neo-Nazi propaganda. One of the West German Parliament's last acts before the Easter recess was the first reading of a bill that would ban what are popularly called ''Auschwitz lies.''

The government bill stipulating sentences of up to one year's imprisonment for publication of ''denials'' or ''minimizing'' of Nazi genocide of the Jews will be mulled over in committee, then returned to the plenary floor. If the final vote follows the usual practice of party discipline rather than individual choice, it will pass easily. The government coalition parties of Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Christian Social Union all back it.

On the left, the Social Democrats back the concept, too, but they offer their own alternative version, which would forbid oral as well as written ''Auschwitz lies.'' The majority of Green members of Parliament probably also support the idea, judging from intraparty discussions, but a few prominent Greens oppose it.

On the right the Christian Social Union, in its heart of hearts, dislikes the notion. But it consented grudgingly to support the government draft when a last-minute clause was added criminalizing not only ''glorification or minimizing'' of Nazi crimes against Jews and other minorities, but also glorification of crimes against ''Germans'' by ''other despotic and arbitrary governments.''

The past misgivings of the right and the current misgivings of some on the left thus have different bases. The right has wanted to get its licks in at those who ''minimize'' (the German word is verharmlosen, meaning to claim something is harmless when it isn't) the sufferings of German refugees driven out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany after World War II.

The left as a whole is more than happy to cudgel neo-Nazis. But within the left a few voices are asking if outlawing rightist opinions today might not pave the way for outlawing leftist opinions tomorrow. To this precaution Green MP Otto Schily adds his observation that trying to solve by fiat what is basically a political problem is a typically German approach.

The current legislation originated two years ago in the wake of a fatal bombing in Munich by rightist terrorists. Neo-Nazi literature and recordings imported from the United States, Canada, and Liechtenstein - including bland denials that there were any Nazi extermination camps - were surfacing in West Germany more frequently than they apparently are now.

Prosecution followed under existing laws forbidding the fomenting of race hatred, slander, the public wearing of Nazi uniforms or insignia, the rendering of the Hitler salute, and the distribution of pro-Nazi propaganda, especially to minors. And the general judgment was that the resort to random acts of terrorism by the extreme right reflected political impotence rather than strength.

Nonetheless, there was general concern about gaps in the laws against neo-Nazis. The importation and possession of pro-Nazi material were not illegal. Suits against those who mocked reports of the SS extermination camps could not be initiated by public prosecutors, but only by relatives of those who had died in the camps. Anti-Jewish tracts that masqueraded as academic historical studies could escape the prohibitions.

The then Social Democratic-Liberal government in Bonn therefore drew up legislation that is now the draft the Social Democrats are again proposing. The Liberals, having switched to a conservative coalition in the meantime, revived a variant of the legislation primarily - the Bonn pundits say - to differentiate themselves from the CSU within the center-right coalition. And the CSU, after resisting the idea for a year, finally assented to the new draft so long as named ''German'' victims of unnamed regimes - as well as unnamed Jewish victims of the Nazi regime - were covered.

The resulting government bill leaves much to judicial discretion. In explaining its intent the Justice Ministry said it wanted, among other things, to stamp out ''subliminal anti-Semitism'' in ''hypocritical pamphlets'' that pose as academic inquiries. But it defined no criteria for distinguishing the permissible from the impermissible.

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