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As Helmut Kohl Exits, Will the Far Right Enter?

January 23, 2000|JACOB HEILBRUNN | Jacob Heilbrunn, a columnist for Politicalwag.com, an Internet journal, has lived in Germany and traveled there extensively

WASHINGTON — When former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stepped down from office a year ago, his iconic status as the architect of German unity seemed untouchable. But now that Kohl's involvement in his party's financing scandals has been exposed by state prosecutors, his status looks as shaky as the Berlin Wall.

After initially refusing to acknowledge any responsibility, on Tuesday Kohl finally resigned from his party, the Christian Democratic Union, but he obdurately continues to defy calls to name the contributors, including weapons dealers, who allegedly funneled millions of dollars into party coffers in exchange for political favors. Moreover, Kohl's former deputy and current head of the party, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has admitted to accepting $52,000 in unreported contributions, and, Thursday, Wolfgang Huellen, the Christian Democratic head of the parliamentary budget and finance committee, committed suicide. More revelations are sure to come. As perhaps the worst financial scandal in German history continues to unfold, it could even spell the demise of Kohl's party, which has governed Germany for most of the postwar era.

The conventional wisdom in Germany is that Kohlgate will have a cleansing effect, but the destruction of Kohl's reputation and the Christian Democrats may well lead to something else: the rise of the far right.

Kohl and the Christian Democrats exemplified the mainstream conservatism that replaced the radical, far-right conservatism that existed before World War II. The party championed repentance for the Nazi past, a pro-American stance and opposition to nationalism. The destruction of Kohl's Christian Democratic Party would remove a fundamental barrier against antidemocratic forces and create an unprecedented opportunity for German nationalists to reemerge.

On everything ranging from treatment of immigrants to relations with its European neighbors, the memory of the Nazi past has played a powerful role in shaping German behavior. The demise of the Christian Democrats could lead to a far more unstable political system, making the Kohl era look like a golden age.

Even before Kohl's current troubles, the potency of the German right had been growing. Since reunification, a culture war has broken out over the politics of German memory. After 50 years of repentance, many Germans are increasingly fed up with lectures about the past. They've turned against the culture of contrition advocated by such imposing figures as Nobel Prize-winner Gunter Grass.

Thus, "The Black Book of Communism," which compares the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships, was a bestseller in Germany. The notion that Soviet crimes under Josef Stalin were just as bad as the Holocaust is attractive to Germans, because it means there was nothing uniquely evil about the Third Reich. Especially in eastern Germany, where the communist regime made no effort to discuss the Holocaust, the trend is to see Germans as victims of both the Nazi and East German dictatorships.

In East Germany, the term "Bolshicaust"--meaning Bolshevik Holocaust--is in vogue. A number of neonationalists have seized on these attitudes to denounce a German left intent on ignoring Soviet-style totalitarianism and to argue there was nothing unique about the Holocaust. They call for an end to taboos about the past and for a "self-confident nation" that would consign the guilt-ridden Bonn republic to the ash heap of history.

Indeed, it is a cadre of novelists and professors who have been preparing the ground for a nationalist revival. The country's leading playwright, Botho Strauss, has condemned the Enlightenment and defended the neo-Nazis who attacked immigrants to Germany as understanding it is necessary to "sacrifice blood."

But perhaps the most prominent neonationalist is the writer Martin Walser, who has written a series of novels about the German past. "If we could master Auschwitz," Walser wrote in a a 1988 essay, "Handshake with Ghosts," "we could again turn toward national tasks." With reunification, Walser's views grew even more radical. In his long autobiographical novel "A Flowing Spring," which takes place in the 1930s, there is only a fleeting reference to a Jewish character and the word "Auschwitz" never appears. Walser's aim is to depict the Nazi era as a normal time for most Germans, or about as normal as life in a war can be. He suggests that economic misery made it logical for Germans to join the Nazi Party.

Walser's novel, however, was only a warmup for his acceptance of the 1998 German Booksellers' Peace Prize. Before an audience in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt that included German President Roman Herzog and Ignatz Bubis, head of the German Jewish community, Walser voiced popular sentiment when he declared he had "learned to look away" from terrible events.

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