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June 24, 1988 - Image 18

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-06-24

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

I NEWS I

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debate is raging in
Germany that could
have profound im-
plications for the way that
country — and much of the
rest of the Western world —
view the Holocaust. The
debaters include some of the
most prominent modern
historians in Germany.
Though the debate is osten-
sibly concerned with history,
it is of contemporary impor-
tance because many of those
involved are convinced that a
nation's memory determines
its community and politics;
or, to paraphrase George
Orwell, whoever controls the
past will win the future.
This battle, born in the
wake of Bitburg, has been
described as a search by con-
temporary Germans for a
usable past.
The individual at the center
of the debate is Ernst Nolte,
one of Germany's most out-
standing historians. Asso-
ciated with him are some of
Germany's prominent intel-
lectuals. Their arguments can
be briefly summarized as
follows:
1. Except for their use of
gas, the Nazis copied the
USSR which in the 1930s had
killed peasants and estab-
lished camps in which
multitudes died.
2. Genocide was practiced
by both the Germans, who
killed people based on their
"race," and the communists,
who killed people based on
their economic class.
3. "Provocative" statements
by Jewish leaders such as
Chaim Weizmann, who in
1939 proclaimed Jewish loyal-
ty to Britain, convinced the
Nazis that the Jews were
their enemy. Therefore,
though the outcome was hor-
rendous, the Nazis' annihila-
tion of the Jews was an attack
on a potential enemy.
Joachim Fest, one of Nolte's
compatriots and the author of
a massive biography of Hitler
and the editor of one of Ger-
many's most prominent
newspapers, the Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, took the
argument to its next "logical"
step. In an attempt to demon-
strate that other nations have
continued the practice of
genocide his article echoing
Nolte was accompanied by a
photograph of a pile of Cam-
bodian skulls, remnants of
the victims of the Khmer
Rouge. The message was
clear. The Nazis were part of

a continuum which they had
neither begun nor completed.
Their actions were wrong but
hardly unique.
It hardly seems necessary
but one is fearful of not
answering these arguments.
Irrespective of the numbers
killed by the Soviets or any
other country, none of these
constituted attempts to an-
nihilate all the members of a
particular group. The effort to
totally "exterminate" the
Jews make it different from
anything done by the USSR.
If Nolte believes that the
Holocaust was the German
response to Weizmann's pro-
fession of loyalty to Britain in
1939 how does he explain the
six years of anti-Semitism
which preceded it, and
Hitler's anti-Semitic ravings
in "Mein Kampf?"
I recently was in Germany
as a guest of the German
Foreign Offi c e. Though my of-
ficial purpose was to see how
Jewish history in general and
the Holocaust in particular is
taught and to meet with
representatives of the Jewish
community, the "historians'
struggle," as this debate is
known in Germany, became
an important sub-text of the
visit. It was quickly apparent
that it had already trans-
cended the province of the
historians. It was mentioned
by historians, politicians,
religious leaders, government
workers, students and, in one
unique interchange, a taxi
driver.
This debate has struck such
a responsive chord in Ger-
many because it is a means
for Germans to try to nor-
malize their past. It allows
them to argue that what their
parents had done was some-
thing that was and is prac-
ticed by many other nations.
By arguing that Germans
were no different they can call
a halt to the seemingly never-
ending discussion of the ques-
tion of guilt. They can shake
off the burden of the sins of
their fathers and regain a
respected place in the annals
of history.
While some people use it as
a means of restructuring the
past, others are profoundly
worried about its long-range
implications. Some Germans
openly and directly confront
their history. While they
legitimately reject the con-
cept of "collective guilt" they
recognize the need for coming
to terms with the past. The
eloquence of the president of
West Germany. Richard von
Weizacker, in the days im-

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