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Herr Jenninger Is in Exile, But It's Hard to Find the Clue to All the Trouble

November 20, 1988|DAVID SCHOENBAUM | David Schoenbaum, who teaches history at the University of Iowa, is on leave this year at the German Society for Foreign Policy in Bonn

BONN — There lately have been two interesting stories out of Bonn. One was Bundestag Speaker Philipp Jenninger's speech on the anniversary of the nationwide assault on German-Jewish life and property of Nov. 9, 1938. The other was figuring out what caused the smoke, and whether there had even been a fire.

What was certain, at least, was that Jenninger was not now, and had never been, a Nazi. In fact, he is barely conservative by current European or American standards. A 56-year-old professional politician, still respected by his colleagues even as they bought him a one-way ticket to political oblivion, the Speaker seemed as easily imaginable on Capitol Hill as in Bonn.

Ironically, it was Jenninger himself who had scheduled the Kristallnacht commemorative session. With the eyes of the nation and the political Establishment upon him, he had clearly intended to deliver the speech of his life. An hour later, he was the loneliest man in town. By mid-afternoon, network executives were clearing the screens and the news magazines were rescheduling their cover stories. Within a day, the Speaker was already the former Speaker.

"A German tragedy," said one witness. There was something to this. But there were elements of psychodrama, melodrama and even screwball comedy in it too. "German multimedia" might be more like it.

Depending on who was watching, there seemed to be three explanations for what had happened. The first, taken practically for granted in Bonn itself, was that Jenninger had given an offensive speech. The second, widely though not universally held outside of Bonn, was that foreigners might think Jenninger had given an offensive speech. The third, the choice of foreign observers who noticed that domestic reaction led foreign reaction, was that Germans themselves were afraid that foreigners might think Jenninger had given an offensive speech.

Yet for anyone who read the text--though only one of the three national dailies actually printed it in full--it was hard to find conclusive clues to what caused all the trouble. The mainstream British and American, as well as West German, historians who were Jenninger's sources had been saying the same things as far back as the 1950s.

It was true that Jenninger's speech contained passages on Hitler's "fascination" for Germans in 1938, and how Germans had rationalized their anti-Semitism. There were also extended quotes from the monstrous Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and S.S. Commander Heinrich Himmler, and an eyewitness account of a mass shooting. But for the reader, at least,it was hard to confuse the Speaker with his quotes. "Why, I could have given that lecture myself," said one American historian.

At the same time, Jenninger got no points at all for tracing November, 1938, and everything that followed to the traditional German weakness for tribal nationalism, social-Darwinistic racism and knee-jerk authoritarianism reaching far back into the 19th Century.

Revealingly, one of his few public defenders was Michael Fuerst, 41, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Fuerst was the only panelist on a national TV special to express amazement at the public fuss. He understood the speech to say that the majority of Germans in 1938 had supported Hitler. This seemed to him both true and candid. But Fuerst resigned his post a few days later.

According to one report, Jenninger had first seen the speech the night before he gave it, too late for a second opinion from senior staff or colleagues. Yet despite Bonn's all but seismic sensitivity to even anticipated rumbles from abroad, it is far from certain that anyone would have thought to save the Speaker from himself.

"You really had to be there to understand it," said the parliamentary correspondent of a major German daily. First, a chorus sang "Es Brennt," one of the most moving ghetto songs of World War II, in the original Yiddish. Then Ida Ehre, an 85-year-old German-Jewish actress who herself survived the camps, recited the Romanian-Jewish Paul Celan's "Death Fugue," one of the classics of postwar German poetry.

By this time, practically the whole room was holding its breath. "And then," the reporter said, "this big, rather nervous man stepped to the microphone and began, like any other day, with 'Ladies and gentlemen.' "

"On the other hand, the art of listening wasn't exactly well-developed," he added. Nobody heard, or wanted to hear, the quotation marks. Yet nobody seemed to notice even the biggest words like "crime," "responsibility" and "the burden of history," either.

The day before, the reporter continued, he attended the local commemoration near his home on the other side of the Rhine. The village mayor recalled his Jewish classmate from 50 years before and expressed his shame for what had happened. If Jenninger had only done the same in as many words, he speculated, instead of trying to be so fancy, there might have been no story and the Speaker might still be Speaker.

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