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W. Germany Rising From Its Nazi Past : New Perceptions of Nation's History Add to Its Self-Confidence

February 23, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

BONN — The recent West German parliamentary election campaign has brought to the surface a new, and sometimes controversial, mood of self-confidence about the country.

The mood was mostly expressed by the conservative party candidates, but they echoed sentiments held by many Germans of all political persuasions.

The new attitude goes something like this:

More than 40 years after World War II, West Germany has maintained democratic and economic stability for longer than any other period in its modern history. Therefore, it is time to throw off the angst and guilt about the Nazi period, the years from Adolf Hitler's assumption of power in 1933 to his downfall in 1945. This period was a historical aberration rather than a reflection of the true German character.

During the national election campaign that returned Kohl and his allies to power, the new feeling was often couched in references to a reawakening spirit of patriotism and in the use of words that had been in disfavor: Vaterland (fatherland) and Heimat (homeland), both of which convey a deep feeling for ancestral terrain, physical and psychological.

'Individual's Place in the World'

In one speech, Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl told an audience, "Terms such as 'patriotism' and 'fatherland' and national symbols are once again being used as a means of identifying an individual's place in the world."

In another speech, Kohl exhorted young voters: "Don't let yourselves be convinced by some jackass that (patriotism) has something to do with Nazism or National Socialism. Love of fatherland is a virtue that becomes every people, the Germans as well."

But Kohl was outdone by Franz Josef Strauss, the right-wing leader of the Bavarian branch of the party, the Christian Social Union, who repeatedly declared:

"Without denying the lessons of history, we must finally step out of the shadows of the Third Reich. We need a normal, self-confident national identity."

Strauss insisted that German history consists of more than the period of two world wars and that the German people today should not be "criminalized."

Strauss added that "while I was a passionate opponent of Nazism, the Germany people should not be forced to go through life wearing sackcloth and ashes."

In the campaign, Strauss also brought up an issue that has stirred a debate among German historians, declaring that "it is wrong to say that history shows Nazi crimes were too horrible to compare with other crimes in history."

Strauss suggested that Soviet leaders' crimes against their own people and atrocities committed by Russians against the Germans in 1945 were equally reprehensible.

The vocalization of the new German self-confidence and need to break with the past has been traced by some observers to Kohl's insistence that President Reagan visit a military cemetery in Bitburg with him two years ago, despite presence of the graves of some soldiers of the Nazi SS elite combat arm.

More recently, a debate erupted among German historians when Juergen Habermas, a sociologist at the University of Frankfurt, accused two academics of engaging in historical revisionism in articles about the Nazi period.

Compared to Stalin's Purges

He charged that historian Ernst Nolte had compared the Nazi extermination of the Jews with Stalin's purges of his enemies, the implication being that the Germans were no more guilty of atrocities against mankind than the Soviets.

Habermas also accused West German historian Andreas Hillgruber of papering over the extent and depravity of the Holocaust, Hitler's systematic extermination of 6 million Jews, as well as of members of other groups, such as Gypsies and the mentally ill, that he considered socially undesirable.

Habermas' charges launched a long, convoluted debate in West German intellectual circles.

Despite the learned figures that came to the defense of Nolte and Hillgruber, Habermas believes that some conservatives are trying to revise the darkest outrages of the Nazi period in an aufrechnung , or balancing of accounts, equating them with other atrocities in history, and that such a balancing may eventually come to be accepted by readers.

Certainly, most researchers agree, younger Germans who were not even alive during the war would like to be relieved of any moral burdens from a past that they had no part in. And there is a feeling among the young, the researchers say, that there is no point in continually raking over the coals from that horrible period of German history.

Some commentators, particularly opposition Social Democrats, profess concern over what they considered a dangerous tendency for the new self-confidence to wipe out the past.

For instance, Peter Glotz, the Social Democratic Party campaign manager, declared in the Bundestag (Parliament) that Kohl had deliberately "lowered the taboo threshold" in praising patriotism to secure the far-right vote.

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