AS Germans reclaim their ``Einig Deutschland,'' the past is not high on their agenda. It certainly hasn't been a priority with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who waves off cautionary reminders of the Nazi era as ``deliberately slandering'' today's Germans. The moral tissue of a body politic cannot be X-rayed. But one test of Mr. Kohl's defensive rhetoric will be the conviction with which his government and his people support a reborn campaign for a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
A group called Perspektive Berlin, composed of German Jews and non-Jews, is collecting money and signatures for the project in Germany and abroad. The group counts former chancellor Willy Brandt and novelist G"unter Grass among its supporters. This plan, for a German version of Israel's overpowering Yad Vashem memorial-museum, merits international support. It would give Germans a timely chance to show they have a unified will to remember.
German cities have plaques and monuments referring to the Nazi era. Concentration camps in and outside Germany are preserved. But this would be the first national monument, a declaration of the Holocaust's dark centrality in Germany's past.
The proposed location would be in the center of Berlin, on a 12-acre expanse that Berliners call the old Gestapo site. There, Hitler's men plotted the Holocaust, and 7,000 SS and Gestapo bureaucrats systematically dictated life and death in the Third Reich. The bombed wreckage of this Nazi government center was carted away after the war, leaving a garbage-strewn urban void that gradually has gained the force of a metaphor for willful ignorance and silent shame.
The proposal for a memorial was first made in 1980, by Nazi-persecuted members of Germany's Social Democratic Party. An early supporter was Richard von Weizs"acker, then mayor of West Berlin, now the West German president and a spokesman for an exactingly clear view of the Nazi past. Mr. von Weizs"acker reminded a national conclave of historians several years ago that Nazi crimes were committed ``by the German people,'' not ``in the name of the German people,'' as Mr. Kohl had put it.
But the call for the memorial went unanswered, succumbing to such issues as whether it would spoil a planned neighborhood park nearby. ``Some people were worried that it would be difficult for children to play so close to such a memorial,'' said Rainer K"olmel, who has written a history of the site. This park vs. memorial debate is an example of German ambivalence toward the past.
The memorial found renewed support in the mid-'80s as a solemn part of the planning for the 1987 celebration of Berlin's 750th anniversary. The city celebrated but the memorial fell through again, amid furious debate.
Disputes focused on an aggressive sculptural design that won a city-sponsored contest, and on whether the extermination of Jews, compared to the losses of other groups, should be emphasized. People also asked if a central German Holocaust memorial made sense in a divided Germany. The Berlin Wall runs through the old Gestapo site.
The wall is now open. Perspektive Berlin's 120 members, who address a range of social causes, are at work in both East and West Berlin on behalf of the memorial. They envision a memorial that would be unique in conveying a nation's inheritance of its own brutal history. They also hope it would promote human rights in a Germany where antiforeign sentiment, especially against Turks and Poles, is rising.
Ideally, the memorial would be championed completely by the Germans, rooting it as deeply as possible in their own sense of responsibility. Ideally, Kohl would challenge the conservative constituency he represents to accept the most honest rendering of history possible. But he hasn't, and his reluctance to refer to the Holocaust in recent weeks may well be a dye-marker showing his chauvinism about Germany's future. Such an indicator becomes especially significant in light of the chancellor's recent vagueness about a united Germany's borders. Even after reassurances from Bonn that the Polish border would be respected by a unified Germany, Polish officials said that they remain nervous. So as Kohl runs for reelection on March 18, non-Germans have a clear stake in supporting the memorial.
Another current circumstance infuses the memorial with new urgency. As Germans unify, they are joining two hemispheres of memory. The Soviet-backed state of East Germany disowned its German heritage, including the Holocaust. ``Stalin,'' goes an East German saying, ``was Hitler's salvation.'' The government in East Berlin, unlike that in Bonn, refused to make war reparations, a policy that its new leaders want to change. Perhaps part of the Wall could be left standing as part of the memorial, symbolizing the meeting of two views of the past after 45 years.
When reunification becomes official, a worldwide d'ej`a vu, a vast flicker of memory, will illuminate a continent of missing lives. That does not exaggerate how the renewed reality of a massive Germany in the middle of Europe will affect Hitler refugees in New York, Auschwitz survivors in Tel Aviv, and war widows in Moscow (and Berlin). Germans could honor those memories by realizing the plan for a Holocaust memorial in the new Germany.
It would be like a pledge that, in their unity, they will respect the value of human differences and the sanctity of life.