History is never neutral. But it is even less neutral in Germany than anywhere else. The latest proof is found in the raging controversy about erecting new museums of history in West Berlin and Bonn. In the fashion of Soviet-bloc museums that trace the upward swing of history from dinosaur to communism, East Berlin has long had its own dusty museum of heroic history. But West Germany has not. The reasons for this dearth lie partly in the agonizing nature of 20th-century German history, and partly in aversion to the manipulative uses history was put to in the 19th century to stimulate Prussian aggrandizement and in Adolf Hitler's time to justify revenge for the ``stab in the back'' and the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I.
As far as the history of the 37-year-old Federal Republic of (West) Germany goes, hesitation is further reinforced by the hoary German conviction that anything that happened more recently than 70 years ago belongs in newspaper gossip columns rather than history books - and by the hope that the postwar division of Germany would prove to be only transitory, a mere footnote to history.
Now the whole controversy has come into the spotlight of current politics. The center-right government in Bonn announced two years ago that it would establish a museum of German history in West Berlin and one devoted specifically to West German history in Bonn. The intent, it said, was to fill the vacuum of national identity among young Germans.
The left intelligentsia immediately challenged the idea, suspicious of the kind of history (and identity) that might be propagated in these museums. They charged that the museums would be used to justify the conservative federal government that has now been in power for four years and is likely to be reelected in January. They fear that the museums will glorify the ``Fatherland,'' preach patriotism, slight Hitler's atrocities, and suppress a ``pluralistic'' interpretation of history.
Conservative historians like Ernst Nolte of West Berlin's Free University retort that it is the left that rejects alternative interpretations of history and insists on its own condemnatory view of German history and glorification of Marxist class explanations of events. In an interview he expressed this view freely, though he has been less involved in the museum debate than in the more fundamental controversy and polemics about ``revisionism'' in treating Nazi history.
Werner Knopp, chairman of the commission that is designing the museum here, avoids attacking the critics directly. But he says it is absurd to object to a concept that has not yet been worked out in detail and is in any case fully intended to represent varying points of view. The first commission report, issued last April, stated the museum must present varying interpretations of history.
Certainly there will be some insurance that different viewpoints are represented if museum displays are worked out by the witty, irreverent team that put together West Berlin's Prussian exhibit four years ago and is staging the decentralized 750th anniversary celebrations of the city in 1987.
Professor Wilhelm Kewenig, current interior senator (minister) for West Berlin, and science and research senator when the center-right city administration launched its own idea for a history museum four years ago, thinks the criticism is overdrawn. He says the original premise was that ``without history the future is ununderstandable.'' This is particularly the case, he suggested in an interview, in a city that for so long was provincial, then suddenly became the capital of an empire, and today is again provincial and probably will continue to be so for a long time to come. ``America is so strong that it can go into the future without knowing the past,'' he commented. But ``Europeans must always carry around 2,000 years of history.''