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Shadow Over Only Half of Germany : If World Must Get in a Frenzy, East Must Be Accountable Too

January 23, 1989|TIMOTHY W. RYBACK | Timothy W. Ryback, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, is the author of the forthcoming "Rock Around the Bloc: Rock Music in East Europe and the Soviet Union 1954-1988" (Oxford).

The international media have been mauling West Germany's public image, even prompting the German press to set upon its people with cannibalistic ardor. German complicity in the construction of a poison-gas plant in Libya has implicated German businessmen, embarrassed German political leaders and maligned the image of West Germany as a nation. Columnist William Safire, with strident eloquence, recently wrote of the "Auschwitz in the desert," dubbing the West German people Todeskraemer --merchants of death.

This is not the first time the Nazi past has raised its lurid head over the West Germans. In May, 1985, the laying of wreaths at the Bitburg cemetery sparked similar outrage when it was disclosed that the burial ground contained the graves of several SS members. Last fall, Bundestag Speaker Philipp Jenninger, a Christian Democrat, resigned after he offered some well-intended, but poorly received, remarks commemorating Kristallnacht , the Nazis' pogrom of November, 1938.

Such events make one thing clear. Forty years after the collapse of the Third Reich, the German people, still living under the shadow of the Nazi legacy, must be careful with what they say--and with what they export. The recent past has vested West Germans with the moral imperative to carry themselves more prudently than other nations. The involvement of Belgians, Danes and Austrians in the poison-gas business has not evoked a similar sense of outrage.

But what about the East Germans? From the outset it was known that East Germany was also involved in the construction of the poison-gas plant in Libya. Yet East Germany has received only passing mention in the world media. Should not East Germans bear the same moral burden for German fascism, German racism and German crimes against humanity?

The territory occupied by East Germany constituted nearly one-third the landmass of Hitler's Grossdeutschland and provided Lebensraum for approximately 20 million Aryan pure bloods, over 30% of whose electorate cast their votes to the Nazis in 1933.

However, the shadow of the Nazi crimes that haunts West Germany rarely troubles the Germans to the East. How is it that the East Germans have avoided this stigma? In part, the East Germans were generally more assiduous in persecuting former Nazis. They also consciously distanced themselves from many aspects of the German past, adopting a new national anthem and leaving the people in Bonn to toil with the tainted lyrics of "Deutschland uber alles." East Germany also promoted the handy Marxist-Leninist syllogism that equates capitalism with fascism, explaining that West Germany, as a capitalist state, inherited the Nazi legacy.

The inaccessibility of East Germany to the Western media further helped to insulate the country from recrimination. While East Germany remains a closed society under Soviet domination, West Germany provides a more accessible target for the world media. Camera crews can button-hole citizens on the streets of obscure towns like Lahr. Reporters can comb West Germany's free press for significant disclosures about government complicity in scandalous affairs. Public officials can be called to account before the national and international media.

At the same time, the West Germans' attempts to deal with the Nazi legacy in a meaningful way have drawn attention to their role in the Holocaust. Films like "Heimat," a mini-series that did for German fascism what "Roots" did for American racism, pulled the skeletons out of the communal closet and paraded them before prime-time television audiences. The highly acclaimed German painter Anselm Kiefer, whose work was exhibited in Los Angeles and New York, creates vast, painful canvasses that place Semitic and Teutonic imagery in ominous constellations.

West Germans neither defend their past, nor deny their complicity in Nazi crimes. As Chancellor Helmut Kohl observed during the commemoration service at Bergen-Belsen on April 21, 1985, "reconciliation" for Nazi crimes can be achieved only "if we Germans acknowledge our shame and our historical responsibility."

The world media are justified in finding German interests in Libya's poison-gas plant morally reprehensible, just as they found Kohl's initial denial of West German involvement politically irresponsible. However, West German involvement in Rabta, Libya, is not the same thing as fascist atrocities in Auschwitz, Poland. Let's hold the Kohl government accountable for its transgressions, not for those of the Nazi regime. Further, if we want to insist that the West Germans, because of their past, have a moral obligation to act more responsibly than other nations, let's not forget that the East Germans share the same historic legacy and the same present complicity.

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