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Bonn Resignation Spotlights German Sensitivity Over Nazi Past

November 13, 1988|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

BONN — The forced resignation of West German parliamentary Speaker Philipp Jenninger shows that the 1933-45 Nazi era in German history still smolders and can erupt in national guilt and anger, analysts agreed Saturday.

"It indicates that Germans are still extremely sensitive about what you can say or not say about the Nazi period," commented one Western diplomat with long experience here. "That history is still deeply etched in the German psyche."

Jenninger resigned Friday after a firestorm of criticism following his speech to the Bundestag (Parliament) commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht , the vicious 1938 Nazi rampage against German Jews, their homes, businesses and synagogues that heralded the Holocaust. The term Kristallnacht , or "crystal night," came from the shards of glass littering the streets.

Stunned by Reaction

After the speech, Jenninger was stunned by the adverse reaction, declaring he believed he had given a proper historical account of the mood of the Germans during the rule of Adolf Hitler.

But he said Saturday he discovered that "one must learn that not everything can be called by its real name in Germany."

On Thursday, Jenninger described Hitler's early years in power as "fascinating," saying that they "created an atmosphere of optimism and self-confidence" for the German people.

The main accusation against Jenninger was that he did not make sufficiently clear his own perspective in describing why Germans enthusiastically backed Hitler in the 1930s.

Jenninger's speech and the subsequent furor that prompted his resignation raised again the perplexing question among Germans as to how they should personally react to Hitler and his policies that led to World War II and the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated in death camps.

And the controversy reflected a running argument in German intellectual circles about whether the Holocaust was a unique crime or just another form of genocide and mass murder.

The dispute involves supporters of Prof. Ernst Nolte, an eminent historian, who in widely read books and articles argued that the world should stop judging Hitler's Third Reich and its atrocities in isolation from the rest of history's grimmer pages.

Nolte, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, reasoned that Hitler's decision to make Europe's Jews his scapegoat was determined by his view that Soviet communism was the major menace and that the Jews had helped create it.

"From this," Nolte wrote recently, "I developed my thesis that in the gulag archipelago (Soviet labor camps) lay the origins of Auschwitz, and that anti-Bolshevism was a far more compelling motive for Hitler than anti-Semitism.

"He tried to explain Bolshevism in terms of its having been created by the Jews in their quest for international capitalism. This connection made the uniqueness of Auschwitz comprehensible."

Thesis Disputed

Nolte's thesis has been disputed by other historians, including Wolfgang Mommsen, a professor at Duesseldorf University and president of the West German Historical Assn.

"The historical roots of Hitler's anti-Semitism are much older than Bolshevism itself," he replied.

Further, Mommsen says that Nolte's listing of other mass murders in history--the European religious wars, Josef Stalin's massive purges, Turkey's campaign against the Armenians and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's killing of Cambodians--was "almost cynical."

"These cases are enumerated in order to balance the atrocities of the National Socialist regime against similar atrocities committed by other nations, to present them in a milder light," he wrote.

"Such comparisons are manifestly misleading because the Holocaust amounted to deliberate mass murder on an unprecedented scale."

The sum total of Nolte's "half-truths," charged Mommsen, is to justify the view that "National Socialism was not so bad after all."

Recently, Nolte was "disinvited" to lecture at Oxford University's Wolfson College once the full faculty learned of the invitation and his controversial views of modern history--an action which was criticized by other scholars as stifling free discussion.

Even Federal President Richard von Weizsaecker stepped into the debate in an address to an assembly of German historians last month, insisting that the Germans bore full responsibility for the Nazi era and warning against attempts to play down its horrors.

"Nothing that historical science brings to light today can diminish the crimes of the Nazi era," said Von Weizsaecker. "Auschwitz is still singular. This is incontrovertible. And it won't be forgotten."

Some observers suggested Saturday that Jenninger might have been influenced by the historical debate and tried to reflect the feelings of Germans during the 1930s toward Hitler and toward the Jews--rather than giving a speech that simply emphasized remembrance and contrition.

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