Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Coming to Terms with History

Historical mendacity of the sort associated with Thomas Jefferson and his legacy isn't a failing unique to Americans, as this report makes clear.

For 60 years, Germany has been feeling worried. Worried by its own criminal history, worried by the judgement of others - and worried that the lure of Adolf Hitler is not yet dead. Few Germans would seriously argue that modern German democracy is endangered. None the less, the just-in-case taboos remain in place, above all when it comes to the dictator himself.

Elsewhere in Europe, it is easy to find copies of Mein Kampf on the shelves. In the words of the English-language edition, "It remains necessary reading for those who care to safeguard democracy." In Germany, where it was once compulsory reading, it is considered too sensitive to put on sale. Even the dictator's image is subject to powerful taboos. English-language books on the Third Reich often have photographs of the F├╝hrer on the cover. When those same books are translated into German, the pictures of Hitler and the swastikas vanish, to be replaced with something more anodyne. Several decades after the war, a German commentator explained why he believed the ban on Mein Kampf to be essential: "The bacillus is too lively, the danger of infection too acute." Even in the 21st century, that fearful logic - though rarely made so explicit - remains in place.


The story of Germany since 1945 has, in many ways, been a story of changing taboos with regard to Hitler and his legacy. Initially, those taboos sought to avoid acknowledging the depth of the crimes that so many Germans had, by their action or inaction, allowed to take place. Reading the West German school- books of the 1950s and 1960s is to expose oneself to a tissue of half-truths, at best. Hitler himself is portrayed in an almost rosy light - the peacemaker, whose efforts were thwarted by a war-hungry Churchill, to whom Hitler "offered peace in vain". (Churchill "knew that England had time, and that the United States would help".)

Where Hitler's crimes are alluded to in passing, the reader is constantly assured that Germans knew little or nothing of what was happening - and that they could, in any case, have done nothing even if they had known. The mass murder of millions, planned with such unique thoroughness, is often passed over in barely a sentence. The German resistance movement, so terribly isolated, receives copious coverage, as does German suffering. Thus, a long catalogue of casualties in the Second World War in a 1956 schoolbook (including, for example, the number of Germans who lost a limb) concludes with the brief postscript: "In addition came the victims who were killed in the concentration camps, the labour camps, the death chambers etc." Whereupon the author returns to safer ground, telling us how much property was destroyed. One book talks at length of the "horrific suffering, such as the world no longer believed possible in the twentieth century". The reference is not to the Holocaust or any other aspect of Nazi crimes, but to what the Germans themselves had gone through.

The fathers-and-children revolution of 1968 and the years that followed - a generational confrontation more dramatic in Germany than anywhere else in Europe or the United States - began to chip away at the lies. The 1968 effect was by no means immediate. (The Baader-Meinhof terrorism of the 1970s, which theoretically demanded more openness about the past, perhaps slowed down the process of change.) When Basil Fawlty goosestepped his way past the German guests in the Fawlty Towers dining room, muttering (not quite sotto voce) "Don't mention the war", he was partly right, despite his buffoonishness, to believe that the Germans were still in denial at that time, in 1975.

Only at the end of the Seventies did the greater openness began to be real. In 1977 came the publication of What I Have Heard about Adolf Hitler, a 350-page book consisting of quotations from a series of school essays on the above theme. The answer to the question was: not much. Hitler was Swiss, Dutch, or Italian; he lived in the 17th century, the 19th century, the 1950s; he was a First World War general, the founder of the East German Communist Party, a leader of German democracy. The ignorance was easily explained. The subtitle of the book, which had a dramatic impact when it was published, was simple: "Consequences of a Taboo." Two years later, the screening of Holocaust - a US television mini-series derided elsewhere as "genocide shrunken to the level of Bonanza with music appropriate to Love Story" - brought the human impact of Hitler's crimes into German homes for the first time. In the words of one of several German books devoted to the extraordinary Holocaust effect: "A whole nation began - as a result of a television film - suddenly to discuss openly the darkest chapter of its history."

The underlying reason for this new openness, which grew through the 1980s, was the change of generations. The children of those who had committed crimes, or who had stood by while crimes were committed, were eager to confront the past in a way that their parents were so reluctant to do.
That last paragraph isn't in the least surprising, and I expect much the same mechanism is at work in Russia; only when the older generation has passed away will it be possible for Russians to have an honest accounting of what truly happened during what some are now trying to pass off as the "good old days."

On a broader note, I have to say that it isn't really fair to single out the Germans for being reluctant to face up to the past, as this is a tendency that's alive in pretty much every society on Earth. Few people are willing to admit to themselves that their ancestors were evil people, which is why Japan still has the same old controversies about Yasukuni and school textbooks, the British go out of their way to play down the negatives of their former Empire on the rare occasions when they mention it at all, every Frenchman above a certain age will swear he too was a member of the Resistance, few white South Africans of the older generation will admit to having thought apartheid was a damn fine idea, and there's a flourishing industry in the United States of people trying to pretend that "states' rights" really were the central concern in Southern history from the 1850s till the 1970s, rather than slavery and government-endorsed racism. In my more cynical moments, I ask myself whether much of the fuss about "multiculturalism" isn't simply a rearguard attempt by certain sectors of Western societies to maintain the whitewashed histories they've come to know and cherish: stick to teaching about "great men", big battles and high-flown treaties, and you won't get to learn what it was like to have been a slave or a menial during the years when all was supposedly right with the world.

If there is one mitigating thing that can be said about this all too common tendency most people would like to believe to be a uniquely German or Japanese failing, it is that it does at least indicate that those who fall prey to it recognize the essential immorality of the deeds from which they wish to dissociate their own dear ancestors. What would be far more worrying would be for ordinary people to not only know that their ancestors committed foul crimes against others, but to actually revel in the memory.