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Shades of Germany's 'Unmasterable Past'

February 12, 1989|AMOS PERLMUTTER | Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies

On Jan. 30, a far right-wing party in West Berlin made a surprisingly strong electoral showing in the local election, capturing 11 seats in the Berlin Parliament, which has a total of 144 members.

In gaining this foothold, the Republican Party, led by former Waffen SS officer Franz Schonhuber, also got two seats in the German Bundestag. In and of themselves, the numbers seem minuscule. But the development is alarming and indicative of Germany's continued inability to deal with its recent past. Bernard Andres, the party's Berlin chairman and a former policeman, called for a return to such traditional German values as "cleanliness and punctuality."

The language, style and the titular leaders of this new party are strongly reminiscent of Germany's not-so-recent and ugly past.

Of course, West Germany is not the only European country endowed today with extremist parties of both the right and the left. The right-wing National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen gained over 10% of the vote in the 1986 French parliamentary elections. Neo-Fascists won local and national elections in Italy. Right-wing extremists are especially strong politically in Belgium. They are also an ominous presence in Britain and Spain. On the left, the Communist Party remains a strong political factor in France, even though it has experienced a period of decline there and in Italy.

Unlike the Nazis and Fascists of old, the new right-wing extremists do not boldly advocate the formation of new political systems in the countries in which they operate. But their motives show up in their embrace of racist, anti-Semitic causes.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is a metaphor for all the old antis--anti-liberalism, anti-parliamentarianism and anti-democracy. These days, the extremists have their own Untermenschen to focus on, the new wave of Asian and African immigrants and workers. In Great Britain, it is the Pakistanis and Africans. In Germany, especially in West Berlin, it is the Turkish workers. And in France, it is the North Africans. The postwar extremists feed on unemployment and xenophobia and the latent resentment of local workers who have to compete for jobs with the new immigrants.

In Germany, however, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, anti-parliamentary and anti-socialist ideologues are also strongly reminiscent of old Nazi sentiments. And in Germany, such sentiments traditionally have been strongly anti-communist, or more precise, anti-Soviet. Thus, they represent a sort of nationalist-international feeling.

In this sense, the rough and rowdy political forces of the right, the xenophobic Republicans of Berlin, share intellectual kinship, however primitive, with the more respectable professors in West Germany who are debating anew the meaning of Germany's recent past.

There exists today a deep division among German historians as to the burden of the Nazi past and its relationship to communism, and it goes by the name of the Historikerstreit, or the Historian's Conflict.

The central issue in the debate is whether or not Nazi crimes were uniquely German, evil in a class by itself, or whether it was comparable to and inspired by Stalinism, as if the Holocaust was simply a more gruesome manifestation of the Gulag.

The themes of German nationalism and anti-Semitism are not that far removed from the West German varieties of postwar extremism, except for the fact that the argument is couched in academic, intellectual terms. If anything, the historic-philosophic debate is more extreme, albeit seemingly more reasonable. It suggests that the Holocaust was somehow an outcrop of Leninism-Stalinism, and hardly German in character. In his masterful book, "The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German Identity," the American historian Charles Maier details why Germany's recent history, and particularly the Holocaust, resists accommodation and explainable integration. What is unmasterable for Ernest Nolte, the German historian-cum-metaphysician who is credited with starting the Historikerstreit , is clear to extremists--that foreigners are evil and the Jews are agents of Bolshevism. No self-respecting extremist today would suggest, say, gassing the Turkish workers, but they do advocate sending them back to Turkey.

Should we be alarmed by these recent developments? Probably not to a large extent. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the Germans must come to terms with that "unmasterable past." The burden of Nazism still lies heavily on the German social and political consciousness, in spite of efforts by Chancellor Helmut Kohl to alleviate guilt. The very presence and periodic political successes of the extremists remind us that a nation that cannot come to terms with its past is a troubled nation with a troubled future.

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