West German's political faux pas is a potential problem for Kohl
Bonn — West Germans are reeling from the fury ignited last week when a top politician made a major speech which included references to Hitler's popularity in the 1930s. Philipp Jenninger, speaker of the West German Parliament, resigned on Friday - a day after a speech in which he also quoted extensively from Nazi propaganda used to incite hatred against the Jews.
Mr. Jenninger was not espousing these views. He was describing the situation which made the country ripe for Hitler's rise. But he failed to fully emphasize his own distaste for these ideas - a political faux pas in a nation where any reference to the Third Reich can be explosive.
The episode has the potential to create problems for the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Jenninger is one of the West German leader's closest associates. And, until Friday, he was West Germany's constitutionally designated head of state after President Richard von Weizs"acker. The event could be seized by critics who charge that Mr. Kohl has not done enough to root out the vestiges of this country's Nazi past.
Analysts say the speech - the keynote address in a parliamentary session marking the 50th anniversary of Hitler's 1938 pogrom against the Jews - may have also set back the West German government's attempts to normalize relations with Jewish groups at home and abroad.
Ironically, the event came at the end of a week designed to normalize these ralations. The 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazi mobs attacked and destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned shops and homes in Germany, stirred a wave of solemn commemorative programs throughout West Germany as well as in East Germany and Austria.
The ceremonies - until Jenninger's speech on Thursday - were sensitively executed and widely viewed as a positive step in the Germans' effort to grapple with the shadows of the past.
The Jenninger controversy put a wrinkle in Kohl's visit to the United States this week. The chancellor is scheduled to meet Monday with US Jewish leaders in New York, before traveling on Tuesday to Washington for meetings with President Reagan and President-elect George Bush.
As the political dust settles, it is clear the Jenninger speech will be remembered as one of the most puzzling events in West German politics.
In his resignation letter, Jenninger wrote: ``My speech was not understood in the way I meant it by many of those who heard it.''
The Christian Democrat is considered a moderate politician who has worked actively to forge closer ties between West Germany and Israel.
It was the tone and timing of the speech which caused the uproar.
Jenninger was expected to make a speech emphasizing the guilt of the Nazis and the need for Germans to face up to their history.
Instead, he chose a more controversial approach - recounting aspects of the Nazi's anti-Jewish propaganda and reading long passages from SS reports which detailed the massacres of Jews, complete with grizzly details. Jenninger said most Germans in 1938 saw Hitler as ``the greatest statesman of our history.'' He also used terms, such as the ``Aryanization of property'' (the conversion of property from Jewish to German ownership), which still carry an awkward tone when spoken by a West German politician.
During the speech, dozens of members of the Bundestag stormed off the floor.
West German commentators say the speech was probably designed to create a dramatic impact - emphasizing the nation's candor and honesty in facing up to its past. According to this view, Jenninger simply failed to find the right words or the right place for such a groundbreaking effort.