Why `Shoah' didn't shock W. Germany like film `Holocaust'
Bonn — ``Shoah'' finishes its showing on major West German television stations this week -- with none of the shock effect of the ``Holocaust'' miniseries shown here seven years ago. It's not that the West Germans are now refusing to think about the murder of 6 million Jews by Hitler's Germany. But there is no longer the burning question of the statute of limitations as there was in 1979. And ``Shoah,'' for all its innovation in interviewing survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses about the mechanics of annihilation, is still too close in content to the scores of grisly documentaries that West Germans have already seen to give any new perspective.
Certainly no mainstream West German newspaper would dream of faulting the 9-hour work of French director Claude Lanzmann -- as did a review in the New Yorker -- for repetitiveness or for presuming the guilt of every Gentile who was swept up in Adolf Hitler's machine. But then neither have West Germans been prodded to go beyond the seriousness with which they treat any film about the death camps to argue fiercely about the implications for themselves.
Such controversy did accompany ``Holocaust'' -- and produced a double impact. First, the Bundestag (the lower chamber of Parliament) finally buried the statue of limitations for crimes of genocide; trials of old concentration camp guards or administrators may now still proceed 40 years and more after these crimes. Second, Germans suddenly realized that even a Hollywood soap-opera approach like ``Holocaust's'' tracing of two fictional families might be legitimate in inducing a much stronger emotional identification by viewers than all the meticulous German documentaries.
In this context ``Holocaust'' hit West Germany like a bombshell. Some 20 million -- a third of the total population -- watched each installment and the anguished panel discussions that followed late into the night. Tens of thousands, many of them crying, called the networks to say they were glad ``Holocaust'' had been shown.
With ``Shoah'' there have been no comparable panel discussions after the four installments that began showing March 3 on regional TV channels and ended on most of them today. Nor is there a fresh round of agonized soul-searching, either about the old question of the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust or about the best way to educate young people about this still inconceivable horror.
In this sense ``Shoah'' is only one of several current reminders of Hitler-era crimes in West Germany today. Following anti-Semitic remarks by two right-wing politicians, the Bundestag condemned anti-Semitism this month and debated ways of combating it. Demands are again being raised by Jewish and Gypsy survivors of forced-labor camps for compensatory payments by German companies that exploited them in the 1940s. And a trial is now proceeding in Frankfurt of two doctors charged with killing thousands of mentally ill persons in the ``euthanasia'' program of 1940-41 that was a trial run for the future systematized gassing of Jews.
So far only one of the doctors who participated in that, a murder of more than 70,000 mental patients, has ever been convicted on similar charges. The two doctors currently on trial, both now in their 70s, were acquitted in an earlier trial 20 years ago on grounds that both the public and an appeals court found scandalous. Basically their argument then was that they were blinded by Hitler's ideology. After the appeals court disallowed this argument, the doctors were brought to a new trial in the 1970s. For 10 years they pleaded inability to stand trial for health reasons, though they continued in active medical practice. Currently the court is meeting for three hours a week.
More unusually, another septuagenarian is being tried now on charges of having helped murder communist leader Ernst Th"almann in a concentration camp in 1944.