Anniversary Past, Germans Still Ask What War Meant

FOR Germans, the delicate job of commemorating the end of World War II is past, but the task of putting the war's lessons into proper perspective may only be starting.

Throughout months of remembrances, ending with May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, German leaders did not shy away from confronting their country's World War II legacy.

''Germans today know very well, probably more clearly than 50 years ago, that it was their government, and many of their fathers, who were responsible for the Holocaust and who brought ruin upon the nations of Europe,'' German President Roman Herzog said at a May 8 ceremony in Berlin.

The vast majority of Germans may not question their country's responsibility for starting the war and the subsequent plunder of Europe. But some are beginning to wonder about the meaning of Germany's surrender.

The debate asks these questions: Should Germans view May 8, 1945, as a day for celebration -- the collapse of Nazi tyranny? Or should it be seen as a day of national tragedy, marking Germany's division and the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans living behind the Iron Curtain?

So far, discussion has largely been confined to Germany's political and intellectual elites. But if the debate over May 8's meaning gains a wider audience, it could create tension between Germans and some of their neighbors, especially to the east. It also indirectly questions the multilateral diplomatic principles that have gained popularity in the late 20th century, some experts say.

''This reflects the controversy between the notion of world citizenship and that of national identity,'' says Manfred Funke, a history professor at Bonn University.

In particular, the May 8 debate could stir long-dormant passions in Germany over the harsh treatment of ethnic Germans, expelled in the years after the war from Central and Eastern Europe. About 12 million were forced to leave their homes in areas that are now part of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. Almost 2 million died during the ordeal.

Before unification, cold-war political constraints prevented then-West Germany from discussing the expulsions. Even suggesting that ethnic Germans had suffered after the war would have provoked international outcry about a nationalist revival in Germany. But now the expulsions are receiving more attention in the context of defining the war's end.

Over the past decade, it has been politically correct in Germany to interpret the Nazi defeat as the ''liberation of the German people.'' Such a view was first set out by then-German President Richard von Weizsacker in a landmark speech on the 40th anniversary of V-E Day.

But in the past few weeks, highly conservative politicians and intellectuals have challenged Mr. von Weizsacker's thesis. The conservatives argue that portraying May 8, 1945, solely in terms of the liberation of Germany is an oversimplification.

''The word liberation fits for West, but not for Central and East Germany,'' a leading conservative revisionist, Alfred Dregger, said earlier this month in the General Anzeiger newspaper. Mr. Dregger, a member of the lower house of Parliament, or Bundestag, who represents Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, was referring to the post-1945 occupation of East Germany by the Soviets.

''It's absurd wanting to have one word [liberation] to cover all the various things that occurred, with all their various meanings,'' Dregger continued.

The highly conservative view received little attention among the general population. Their arguments drew swift rebuttals from top government officials -- and from Roman Catholic bishops, who cautioned against distorting history.

The backlash against revisionists forced them to cancel plans to hold a May 7 ceremony of their own in Munich. They nevertheless vow to continue the attempt to popularize their views.

Recent polling data, published by the Der Spiegel weekly, indicated that the revisionist views may enjoy significant, though unarticulated popular support.

In the poll, 40 percent of Germans over 65 considered the deportation of ethnic Germans from Central Europe to be as great a crime against humanity as that of the Holocaust -- the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews. Among Germans from age 18 to 34, 28 percent equated the expulsions with the Holocaust.

That same poll, however, said 80 percent of Germans consider the Nazi capitulation to be a liberation, instead of defeat.

Some observers expect the end-of-war debate to fade quickly.

''This is all an attempt by politicians and journalists to try to sound interesting when there is nothing else to talk about because there is a lack of issues now in Germany,'' says Mr. Funke.

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