'Monumental' divide on Holocaust in Germany

The plan had been that German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder and the other dignitaries who gathered yesterday morning at an expanse of mud and weeds in the city center would witness the groundbreaking ceremony for a "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

Instead, the distinguished audience listened to speeches in the damp cold when the ceremony had to be postponed. After a decade of debate, German authorities and the memorial's sponsors still cannot agree on the exact form it will take.

The enormous hole the size of two football fields in the heart of Berlin is a vivid symbol of Germany's conflicted view of its fraught history, and of the difficulties Germans have in dealing with their past. "It tells you everything," says Andrei Markovits, who teaches German politics at the University of Michigan. "It tells you how a large part of the German population would rather have nothing, even if some people see the importance of acknowledging a uniquely heinous past."

There are indications, however, that a new generation of Germans may be helping their country face up to its past while looking forward to a more confident and peaceful future.

Eli Wiesel, the Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, praised what he called "your willingness to open the gates of memory," when he addressed the German parliament, or Bundestag, yesterday in a ceremony marking Holocaust Day. The holiday commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945. Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse noted "signs that we in Germany are on the road to accepting [Mr. Wiesel's] message: to never fight against memory." He pointed to the planned Holocaust memorial, just up the road from the Reichstag where the parliament now sits, as one such sign.

Around the world, memorials have sprung up and ceremonies have been held recalling the horror of Nazi rule. In Stockholm, the Swedish government hosted an international conference this week dedicated to ensuring that the genocide against the Jews should never be forgotten.

A mixed record

But in Germany the signals are mixed. Mr. Thierse also referred - as a sign of "remorse" - to a fund set up by German industry and government to compensate the millions of people used by the Nazis as forced or slave laborers. He did not mention that industry has so far come up with only $1.1 billion of a promised $2.6 billion. Nor that only 110 firms have joined the fund. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) yesterday updated a list of more than 400 German firms that used slave labor during the war, but which have shown no sign of wanting to make reparations.

"In Germany there is very weak public pressure against firms who don't join," says Volker Beck, a member of parliament for the Greens party. "The initiative for the fund came from companies with subsidiaries in the United States, which were facing problems with class-action suits," he explains.

Under the terms of a deal worked out with US lawyers last month, German firms contributing to the $5.2 billion dollar compensation fund will be immune from compensation lawsuits in US courts. In Germany, however, "there is not enough public pressure because people don't understand it's a matter of civic responsibility, not a question of guilt," says Deidre Berger, director of the AJC's Berlin office.

Many Germans feel that the world has made them feel guilty enough already, and that their country has paid for what the Third Reich did in its name. Since 1945, authorities have paid about $50 billion in reparations to Nazi-era victims and their survivors. The mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, has made no secret of his opposition to the whole idea of a Holocaust memorial, and his national popularity suggests he is voicing widely shared opinions.

Older people "are more prone to say 'let's bury the past' " says Peter Reichel, who teaches politics at Hamburg University. "It's an inner defense mechanism by people who lived through the experience and a sign of exhaustion."

But this desire to close the book on history, or rather, as Wiesel put it, "to tear the page out of the book," no longer finds official favor. "It has taken us a long time to admit our responsibility for the past in an open and unanimous manner," Thierse told the Bundestag. "For far too long there were far too many attempts to escape that responsibility."

Young Germans want to know

Today "the debate is changing," suggests Mr. Beck. "The younger generation is more open to accept the full dimension of the injustice that was done. We do not have to explain or apologize for what we did or did not do."

German schoolchildren "ask how we can summarize and digest the past, and they want to learn from history," says Michael Roth, a deputy from the ruling Social Democratic party who has campaigned for a more open debate about Germany's past. "My generation has an opportunity to look back" in a way that earlier generations were afraid to, "and an obligation to look forward."

One element of this new approach is to go beyond sympathy for the Jews and other victims of the Nazis, such as the Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and disabled people, to ask how such persecution could have happened in Germany. "Germans have tried very hard in the last 10 years to deal with their Nazi past, but the emphasis has been in the wrong place," argues Professor Reichel. "There has been too much attention paid to the victims, and too little to how such a murderous regime came to power."

How and why the Holocaust happened, Wiesel implied in his speech, is perhaps an unanswerable question. After a lifetime of studying everything written on the subject "I still don't understand it," he confessed.

But the question is, at last, now firmly on the agenda of German public debate. Even if differences still cloud the future of Berlin's Holocaust memorial, the lengthy and impassioned debate it has stirred has served a useful purpose, Roth suggests. "Some people even say that this discussion is the most important part of the memorial," he says. "And the longer it is not built, the longer the discussion will go on."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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