In October 1985 I went to Berlin for the third time in my life.
My first visit, on Sunday, August 27, 1939, had lasted barely two hours. I had arrived by train from Warsaw and was en route to Copenhagen. The date was not notable or memorable, except that it happened to be just four days after Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, to the shock of the whole world, had signed a nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. No one knew it then, but only four days later the Germans would invade Poland.
My train pulled into the Schlesischer Bahnhof. Cannons were mounted at the entrance to the station, trained on the tracks. Everywhere within sight was an endless sea of soldiers and Nazi flags, with the equipage of war—cavalry, tanks, cannons—rising like heavy swells above the human tide. My taxi had to inch its way to reach the Stattner station on the other side of Berlin.
Notwithstanding the protection of my American passport and the bravado of youth, I was frightened by the massive German military presence. The atmosphere was thick with swagger, bluster, and bullying. Despair tempered my rage against the Germans. One did not need to be a political expert to know that war was inevitable, or a military expert to know that Poland was no match for Germany.
Those two hours in Berlin were my only firsthand encounter with National Socialist Germany.
The second time I came to Berlin was in February 1947. Now I wore an American Army uniform whose blue-and-white chevrons with the letters AJDC identified me as an officer with the American Joint Distribution Committee, the leading Jewish relief organization. The JDC then operated in the American and British zones of occupied Germany under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). Its task was to care for the Jewish displaced persons, the survivors of Hitler's war against the Jews.
Berlin was not my regular station, but JDC business took me there. As everywhere in Germany, I photographed with grim satisfaction the ruins and wreckage that survived as monuments to Hitler's Thousand Year Reich. It was especially gladdening to me to photograph Berlin, for the devastation there had been even more massive than in Frankfurt or Munich. The rage against the Germans which agitated every fiber in my body was released at the felicific vistas of burned-out hulks of buildings, tottering skeletons of houses, the shards and rubble to which the Third Reich had been reduced.
My work for JDC often brought me into contact with Germans, from whom I needed to get services and materials so that we could provide the necessary educational and cultural supplies to the Jewish survivors. As if on cue, every German I encountered, without exception, in an unvarying and predictable routine, volunteered that he knew nothing about the murder of the Jews. All swore innocence; none had ever been a National Socialist. They were as craven in defeat as they had been insolent in victory. I liked to watch them scrounge and scramble for cast-off American cigarette butts.
At the end of 1947, when I had completed my service with the JDC, I returned home to New York. I never again visited Germany until this past October. For forty years I had never bought German products. Some people I knew still believed in the existence of that “other” Germany, the Germany of Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and Bach. But for me there was only one—the Germany of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich, the Germany that had conceived, planned, organized, and carried out the systematic murder of six million European Jews, the Germany that had turned Europe into a vast Jewish necropolis.
Why, then, did I return to Berlin almost forty years later?
The occasion was a scholarly conference about the life of the Jews in National Socialist Germany in the years between 1933 and 1939. It was organized by the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI), which in the thirty years of its existence has dedicated itself to preserving, through research and publication, the historical past of German-speaking Jewry. By traveling to Berlin for its first public and collective appearance in Germany, the LBI hoped to tell the Germans how the Jewish community had responded to the persecution which the German dictatorship had unloosed against it. This return of the Jewish exiles, refugees, and survivors of National Socialist Germany to confront the Germans with that terrible past seemed to me a momentous occasion, a minidrama of Jewish history. And so I was disposed to have a part in it, at least as a witness.
Yet the very thought of returning to Germany unnerved me. I feared that spoken German would grate on my ears with the resonance of Nazi-Deutsch. I feared I would encounter Germans old enough to have been Nazi party members, to have relished the anti-Semitic propaganda in the Völkischer Beobachter and Der Stürmer, to have set a torch to a Jewish synagogue in 1938, to have volunteered for action in an Einsatzgruppe to murder Jews in Eastern Europe, to have joined an SS Death's-Head unit administering Zyklon B in a death camp.
A young friend, no doubt disapproving of my indecisiveness, suggested that I was mired in the past, unresponsive to contemporary realities. “Why not take a look at Berlin today?” he asked. “It stands at the center of Europe, at the crossroads of East and West.” And so I decided to go, to try to see the place not only through the lens of the past, but for what it is today.
Long before I set foot in Berlin I was preoccupied by the problem of reconciling past and present. How could I be an objective observer in the land of the murderers of the Jews? Could I ever forget that wherever I walked, I trod on ashes?
Unexpectedly, West Berlin's cityscape came to my aid. Right after I checked in to my hotel I went to have a look at downtown Berlin. I walked to the Kurfürstendamm, that broad boulevard with its department stores, boutiques, movie houses, pubs, cafés displaying an abundance of pastries. It was a gloomy overcast Sunday afternoon, with a chill in the air, yet the street was alive with people, noisy with traffic and human voices, bright with lights and the glare of neon advertisements atop the buildings. Nearly everything looked contemporary, built of steel and glass, shiny and glittery.
Unlike other European cities, West Berlin offers few relics of its historical past for the sightseer to explore. The extensive Allied bombings, beginning in 1940 in retaliation for the London blitz and accelerating thereafter into the major strikes in February 1945, destroyed much of the center. Then came the intensive Soviet artillery barrages, followed by street-by-street fighting, which reduced much of what is now West Berlin to a vast stretch of rubble. Even the trees are postwar plantings, for the Battle of Berlin left the earth parched and scorched. As West Berlin was being rebuilt, many rickety structures of earlier times were bulldozed out of existence.
The division of the city between East and West further contributed to the erasing of the architectural past. In August 1961, in response to the massive flight of Germans from the East, the Communists erected the infamous 29-mile-long wall along the boundary lines, with its few heavily guarded crossing points. The construction of the wall soon brought changes also in the landscape on the western side. Many old buildings near the wall were torn down and on their site several spectacular buildings have been erected that form an emerging cultural center.
Back on the Kurfürstendamm, the flow of vehicular traffic was ceaseless. The sidewalks were crowded with promenaders, window-shoppers, girl-watchers, mostly young people strolling in couples or in small groups. They were, from their appearance, a varied lot—sporting fur coats or leather jackets, punk hair styles or cropped cuts, boots or high heels, jeans or heavy winter skirts. Following them, eavesdropping, I felt like a voyeur.
What I expected to see or hear I can't now imagine. But it was the youthfulness of the crowds that disconcerted and even disoriented me. These were not the Germans I had expected to confront. All of them were obviously born after 1945 and most were probably born after the Berlin Wall was erected. They were ordinary young people, too young to be charged with the burden of Germany's terrible history. They were not the ghosts of the Nazi past.
Perhaps it is only in Berlin that one gets this sense of discontinuity. There, indeed, it is nothing new. As far back as 1821 Heine wrote that it was very difficult to see ghosts in Berlin: “The town contains so little of old days, and it is so new. . . .” So little has remained of many old neighborhoods that one hears the same anecdotes repeated time and again about exiles and refugees who have returned to Berlin to look for their childhood homes and cannot find them. Sometimes even the streets have changed beyond recognition or even disappeared.
Still, there are buildings that have remained intact, that go back even before World War I. They are massive, solidly constructed, with exterior architectural ornaments of the kind that builders can no longer afford. The windows are high and wide, bespeaking spacious high-ceilinged apartments. Walking on such a street, I heard a piano being played. Suddenly I felt the presence of ghosts. I imagined that once upon a time, a prosperous Jewish family lived there. I could see the heavy Biedermeier furniture, the large dining-room table, the china closet with its fine pieces, the dark velvet drapes and portières. In the parlor, at the piano, the teenage daughter of the household, a Shulamith with dark braids and a white pinafore, was practicing her scales.
Who lives in that house now and whose golden-haired daughter Margarete practices her scales there now? Who appropriated the furniture, the piano, and the household effects after the Jewish owners were deported? Antique dealers in Berlin, so I was told, are now buying up the backlog of stolen Jewish property that had been stashed away for decades, and are said to be getting good prices for old prints, fine art, silver, china, and porcelain figurines.
Among West Berlin's surviving remnants, mute testimony to worse times gone by, surely the most dramatic is what is left of the old Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm's Memorial Church) just off the Kurfürstendamm on Breitscheidplatz. A neo-Romanesque church built in 1895 to memorialize Wilhelm I, it is now a hollow shell, its once proud tower a broken stump. The Berliners decided to preserve this ruin as a memorial to the havoc and horror of war. What Germans think, as they strain to penetrate the darkness of the gutted church, I don't know. Perhaps they reflect bitterly on the Allied bombing—or perhaps, remembering the past or what they learned of the past, they ponder the destruction which National Socialist Germany unloosed on all Europe.
But when one enters the new Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, an austerely modern octagonal structure, erected alongside the old one, there is no doubting what one remembers and on what one meditates. On the back wall, to the left of the entrance, is a 13th-century Spanish sculpture of the Crucifixion, spare and sorrowful. It is dedicated “To the Evangelical Martyrs: In the Years 1933-1945.”
The next day I went sightseeing. My guide was a Gymnasium teacher of history and literature, a young German from the Rhineland, obsessed with the history of his people, with the Nazi past. He takes his students to visit the synagogue on Pestalozzistrasse, which was destroyed in November 1938 but has since been restored. He shows them the sights he showed me.
Our first stop was in suburban Berlin, long a fashionable lakeside resort with lovely beaches and promenades. It is still an elegant neighborhood. We stopped on a quiet street, Am Grossen Wannsee, where the privacy of the houses and their fine grounds is secured by stone walls and iron gates. The day was gray and drizzly; the street was strewn with fallen yellow leaves. No one was about. At No. 56-58 we read the memorial plaque embedded in the exterior wall:
In diesem Haus fand im Januar 1942 die berücktigte Wannsee-Konferenz statt.
Dem Gedenken der durch Nationalsozialistische Gewaltherrschaft umgekommenen Jüdische Mitmenschen.
[In this building in January 1942 the infamous Wannsee Conference took place.
In memory of Jewish fellowmen murdered by National Socialist despotism.]
Here, in this secluded villa, once known as the Polizei-Palais, Reinhard Heydrich, second to Heinrich Himmler in the SS, convened the Wannsee Conference. They were altogether fifteen at this meeting, counting Heydrich and his assistant Adolf Eichmann, and they represented the second-command level of the state ministries and of the Nazi party's ideological and killing apparatus. The main item on the agenda was how to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies involved in carrying out the murder of the Jews. They did not call it murder; they used the code name, “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” The meeting lasted less than two hours, after which drinks and lunch were served.
The minutes of that meeting, which Eichmann prepared, were found among the mountains of documents retrieved by the Allies from the rubble of the Third Reich. Those minutes were used by the prosecution in the trial of the major German war criminals in Nuremberg and later at Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. They were vital evidence in the effort to document how Hitler's Germany had planned, organized, and carried out the murder of the Jews.
Nowadays the building at Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58 is used for more beneficent purposes, but the gate was locked and no one answered the bell. All we could do was look through the iron grates. The house was set back about a hundred feet from the gate, but its porticoed entrance was clearly visible at the end of an arbored driveway. It was elegant and serene, enshrouded in silence. I visualized the sleek black limousines driving in, the chauffeurs opening the car doors for their prestigious passengers, saluting. I pictured the conferees emerging from the cars, stiff and erect in their black uniforms and polished boots, walking toward the portico. There, I suppose, Eichmann stood, waiting to greet his guests.
It was an eerie exercise in imagination, for this quiet house betrayed no sign of the evil function it once served. It was merely a building whose appearance was incongruous with its history. It was no memorial site for the six million murdered Jews, nor was it haunted by their ghosts. Like the tormented dead of ancient legends, the six million never rest in any one place, but are present everywhere the record of history is preserved.
Later we went to Levetzowstrasse, at the corner of Jagowstrasse, in Moabit, a middle-class residential neighborhood that reminded me of streets in Queens in New York City. Jews had lived in this section of Berlin and at this corner the Levetzowstrasse synagogue once stood. It had been burned during the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, but in 1941 it served as a Sammellager, an assembly camp, from which the Jews of Berlin were deported. In October 1941, when they began to be rounded up, they were brought here, to Levetzowstrasse. From this assembly camp they were taken to the Moabit railroad station just nearby. The trains then brought them to the ghettos of Lodz, Riga, and Minsk. In 1942, when the gassing facilities at Auschwitz had been put into operation, the train transports went directly to the camp. In time, additional assembly points were set up in other places in Berlin. Altogether, 63 death transports left from Berlin with over 35,000 Jews.
A playground now occupies the site of the Levetzowstrasse synagogue, but a plaque has been erected which memorializes the synagogue's destruction and the deportation of the Jews. At the Grünewald railroad station, another place from which Berlin Jews were deported, there is also a memorial tablet.
Afterward we went to Gedenkstätte Plötzensee, a prison and place of execution in northwest Berlin, now a somewhat macabre museum and also a memorial “To the Victims of the Hitler Dictatorship in the Years 1933-1945.” Here about 2,500 Berliners were hanged, some because a neighbor informed police that they had listened to forbidden Allied broadcasts, others because they had belonged to underground resistance groups, still others because they had participated in the failed assassination attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944. Busloads of schoolchildren are regularly brought here to study the documents on exhibit—the charges and verdicts of the Volksgericht (People's Court)—and to gape at the execution chamber. Plötzensee is also on the itinerary of Berlin tour buses.
To tell Plötzensee's ugly history, the Berlin Information Center has produced a 32-page illustrated brochure in German, French, English, Spanish, and Turkish (for the substantial Turkish segment of Germany's foreign workers). Answering its own question—“Do we really want to know this today?”—the brochure refers to the horrible deeds committed by the SS. To illustrate, it cites the following passage from Himmler's speech to his top SS officers on October 4, 1943, surely one of the most grisly texts in the annals of National Socialist Germany:
I also want to make reference before you here, in complete frankness, to a really grave matter. Among ourselves, this once, it shall be uttered quite frankly; but in public we will never speak of it. . . . I am referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the annihilation of the Jewish people. This is one of those things that are easily said. “The Jewish people is going to be annihilated,” says every party member. “Sure, it's in our program, elimination of the Jews, annihilation—we'll take care of it.” And then they all come trudging, 80 million worthy Germans, and each one has his one decent Jew. Sure, the others are swine, but this one is an A-1 Jew. Of all those who talk this way, not one has seen it happen, not one has been through it. Most of you must know what it means to see a hundred corpses lie side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck this out and—excepting cases of human weakness—to have kept our integrity, that is what has made us hard. In our history, this is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory. . . .
That evening the LBI opened its conference at the Otto-Braun-Saal of the Staatsbibliothek, an attractive auditorium in Berlin's architecturally stunning public research library. Many of the nearly 500 seats were occupied by West Berlin's political dignitaries and notable intellectuals. The press and the TV cameras swarmed over the hall, especially to cover Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of the Federal Republic, who was to address the conference. After the blunders of Bitburg in May 1985, his speech was awaited with curiosity, apprehension, and even hostility.
This time, the Chancellor committed no blunders. Speaking in a low-keyed colorless drone that is, so I was told, his habitual form of address, he delivered a talk that was right and fitting. It may be said that he wanted to exploit this opportunity to speak to a Jewish audience, but with barely 5,000 Jews in West Berlin and fewer than 30,000 in all of West Germany, Kohl has no Jewish constituency to appeal to. He was in fact addressing not only the Jews in the hall but, through the television cameras and the press, his countrymen.
He began by welcoming the LBI's decision to meet in Berlin, and then he said:
Never can we undo the injustice and evil of the past. But we can, we must, and we want to ponder it—what happened, how it came to happen, and how we must try to master it. And from this we must draw a lesson for the future.
He then unfolded a minihistory of National Socialist Germany's assault against the Jews, starting with the boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933, and continuing date by date, episode by episode, to the terrible end. It was an elementary lesson in history, unimaginative, unreflective, impersonal. When he completed his mournful chronicle, he said: “We are ashamed as Germans, because the National Socialist crimes were committed in the German name. We are ashamed as human beings. . . .” Kohl's talk was carried by all German television stations and reported in the press all over Germany.1
To be sure, the passages I have quoted have the ring of ceremonial public rhetoric, of a kind to which no weight is given, especially not in a nation founded by Otto von Bismarck, who once declared that “the great questions of the time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions . . . but by iron and blood.” Nevertheless, public rhetoric reflects political reality and civic values. Even in Weimar, no political leader would have ventured publicly to come to the defense of the Jews.
Later in the week, after the conference had ended, I continued my tour of Berlin. I began with an exhibition at the Staatsbibliothek, co-sponsored with the LBI, “In the Catacombs: Jewish Publishers in Germany, 1933-1938.” Mounted by the Deutsche Literaturarchiv of Marburg, largely from its own holdings, the exhibit depicted how Jewish publishers coped with the restrictions and limitations which the Nazis imposed on them. The glass cases displaying the Jewish books, journals, and papers issued in those terrible times, with photographs of the publishers, their authors, and accompanying documents, formed a wide circle around the large room. On the walls themselves were hung reproductions of the contemporary German press, with its virulent and still-intimidating anti-Semitic headlines, some of them in heavy red ink, and poster-sized enlargements of official National Socialist laws and regulations against the Jewish community, and especially against Jewish publishers and writers. The very arrangement—the wall displays surrounding, encircling the glass cases—conveyed the sense of siege under which Jewish publishers and writers lived and worked in National Socialist Germany so long as they were permitted to live.
Afterward I explored the spacious Staatsbibliothek. I looked up my name in the catalogue and found several of my books, including the original English and the German translation of The War Against the Jews 1933-1945. I looked up other Jewish historians. Their works were all in the library. Then I came upon the exhibition room of the Mendelssohn Archive, which, I learned, is a collection on which the Staatsbibliothek's Music Department especially prides itself. The archive includes not only the compositions and papers of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, but also documents, art work, and artifacts of the whole Mendelssohn family, going back to Felix's grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn. In 1979, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his birth, the Staatsbibliothek had mounted an impressive exhibit, “Moses Mendelssohn: His Life and Work,” whose catalogue is still in print.
From the Staatsbibliothek I walked to the Reichstag. The route goes along the Berlin Wall, from Potsdamer Platz past the Brandenburg Gate, on Ebertstrasse, named for the first president of the German republic. Since the Communists first erected the Wall in 1961, they have massively reinforced it. The Wall's function is not to keep Westerners out of East Berlin but to lock the Easterners in. In this respect it is now virtually unassailable, standing 13 feet high, topped by oversize concrete tubing whose diameter is much too wide for any handhold. Behind the wall lies a 160-foot no-man's-land of concrete and grassy plots. It is not entirely a wasteland, for it is enlivened, so to speak, by watchtowers, tank traps, patrol dogs, searchlights, and a 16-foot-deep ditch. To ensure that the Wall is escape-proof, the eastern side of the no-man's-land is further secured by an electrified fence.
In contrast to the watchtowers and armed guards on the eastern side, the West Berlin authorities have provided on their side observation platforms for tourists who want to look over the Wall into East Berlin. Kiosks at Potsdamer Platz sell postcards and souvenirs of the Wall. Wherever it is accessible, the west side of the Wall is scribbled with graffiti, some of them like the graffiti in the New York subways, but some political—Weg mit dem roten Nazi-Regime (“Away with the red Nazi regime”); Wer Mauer, hat's not (“Who builds a wall, must need one”). In my walk I passed an enormous graffito in red paint, each letter about 3 feet high, immortalizing John F. Kennedy's declamation, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” At several places simple memorials—wooden crosses, plaques, floral wreaths—marked the sites where people trying to flee from the East had been shot down. Since the Wall was first erected, 72 persons have been killed by the Communists for attempting to escape the prison that is East Germany.
The Reichstag stands literally with its back to the Wall, between Schei-demannstrasse, named for the first Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, and the Spree, whose western bank demarcates the East-West border. One of Berlin's most imposing buildings, the Reichstag was first damaged in the fire of February 27, 1933, when its large assembly hall was gutted and its glass dome shattered. That fire, whose origins are still disputed by historians, gave Hitler's cabinet the excuse to impose emergency decrees suspending all the basic liberties which the Weimar constitution had guaranteed. When the Reichstag finally convened on March 23, 1933, it was in the Kroll Opera House, and there the Enabling Act was passed that gave Hitler the power to issue emergency legislation without recourse to the legislature. Hitler thereafter had little use for the Reichstag building.
During the Battle of Berlin in 1945, the Reichstag, at the very center of the shelling and fighting, was devastated. Its restoration began in 1957 and was completed in 1971. Except for the glass dome, which was not replaced, the exterior now looks as it did in 1894. Inside, however, except for assembly halls and conference rooms used occasionally by some ministries and legislative groups, the Reichstag has been converted into an enormous permanent exhibit entitled “Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte” (“Questions Put to German History”), which first opened in 1974. Since then, about 640,000 persons have visited the exhibit every year.
The exhibit combines the latest in audio-visual technology, stylish graphics, photography, and old-fashioned historical materials—dates, names, facts, statistics—to offer a survey course in German history from 1800 until the present. I chose to look at only two of the seven chronological sections—“The Weimar Republic: 1919-1933” and “The Third Reich: 1933-1945.”
No museum show has ever gripped me so. Walking from one display to the next, I felt entrapped in a history which I was compelled to reexperience. Drawn into the maelstrom of that history, I moved from one display to the next as the past unfolded before my eyes with relentless inevitability. At times I was possessed by a surreal desire to stop the course of events, to turn it back, or freeze it where it was. But I continued on, a sleepwalker in the toils of a nightmare. I witnessed the unraveling of the Weimar Republic, the rise of the National Socialist party, the collapse of democracy, the mounting violence, the terror, the inexorable anti-Semitism.
The fate of the Jews ran as a thread through the exhibit—photographs, placards, charts. Then I came to a display with an enormous six-pointed yellow star superimposed on a map of Europe. It gave the statistics of the annihilation of the European Jews, country by country, totaling five-to-six million. The catalogue for the exhibit, 456 pages of texts, photographs, documents, diagrams, and maps, contained comparable material. One passage explained that the murder of the Jews, “like the attainment of Lebensraum for the ‘German master race,’ was an ultimate professed war aim.”
Then I approached what seemed to be a cave, barely illuminated by the images on a small television screen. People leaned against the walls or sat on the floor in front of the screen. An unseen voice provided the running historical commentary for newsfilm clips of the Hitler era. As I entered, the speaker was describing the anti-Jewish program of the Hitler regime—the exclusion of the Jews from the civil service, the Nuremberg laws, Kristallnacht. The screen showed the synagogues of Germany going up in flames. The voice intoned these words: “Und dann kommt der Krieg. Es war auch ein Krieg gegen die Juden” (“And then came the war. It was also a war against the Jews”).
The images continued to flicker on the screen, but I could no longer see them. My eyes were blurred by tears. I went out to find a corner where I might try to control myself but a wave of hysteria swept over me. The old rage returned. The six million Jewish dead could not be restored to life. No atonement was commensurate with the crime.
Back in the hotel, after my emotion had abated, I tried to sort out my feelings. The exhibit had released the tension building within me ever since I had arrived in Berlin. Though I knew and had long known that the National Socialist regime expired in the rubble which I so happily photographed in Berlin nearly forty years earlier, contemporary Germany nevertheless had no real presence for me, for my consciousness of Germany as National Socialist Germany totally preempted any other idea. What knowledge of postwar Germany I had accumulated over the years remained stored in a remote corner of my brain, unassimilated, undigested. No wonder I was discomposed by the acknowledgments of shame and guilt which I had encountered in public places and on public occasions.
I felt like a morbid Rip Van Winkle, awakened to a reality I had slept through all these years. Could I have really supposed that the Berlin of 1985 was a continuation of the Berlin of 1935? Could I have thought that the Germans on the street were the same Germans who had jeered at Jews on the streets of Berlin in 1938? Of course I did not believe that Germans were a killer species among the nations of the world, like the killer whale among mammals, a race whose murderous instincts were inbred and immutable, who killed and would always kill. (This is in fact what many Frenchmen used to think, as John Colville notes in his recently published wartime diaries, The Fringes of Power.) Yet though 1 did not believe in inborn German murderousness, I knew that German anti-Semitism had been an integral part of German society and its culture for centuries. I was skeptical that in my lifetime it could be eradicated.
There was another reason why I resisted the reality of contemporary Germany. Would not an acknowledgment that Nazi Germany is now a closed chapter in history mean, or be taken to mean, that the murder of the six million European Jews is similarly a closed chapter, to be stored away in the historical file cabinet? Does not such an admission sanction the lapse of memory into forgetfulness? But the parallel, I soon realized, was misleading, for the place of Nazi Germany in history is not the same as the place of the murder of the European Jews. One belongs to a transient past, the other to an enduring past.
Hitler's Germany lasted twelve years. It came into existence on January 30, 1933, supplanting the Weimar Republic, which then was relegated to the annals of the past. It, in turn, was supplanted by the two postwar Germanies. The entire edifice of National Socialist Germany, with all its political, social, and cultural institutions, disintegrated into the dust of the past. Except for the murder of the European Jews, Nazi Germany left no lasting heritage.
The perpetration of the murder of the six million European Jews occupied an even shorter stretch of time than the twelve years of Hitler's Germany, yet, as an event in history, it has no terminus ad quern. It did not cease to exist as a historical and moral reality, even when the killing ceased, nor was it supplanted by anything else. Its historicity belongs to the timeless present, like any fundamental scientific truth. One might say that the murder of the European Jews is forever lodged in history's throat. The murder of the European Jews may be compared to the destruction by the ancient Romans of the Temple in Jerusalem—both are historical events that have not receded into the past but continue to remain alive in human, and especially Jewish, consciousness—while the Hitler regime may be likened to the reign of Titus, a historical event that belongs only to the domain of the past.
Yet even conceding the pastness of Nazi Germany, how are we to resolve our nagging doubts about the survival, in other forms, of Nazism in Germany today? What of the former citizens of Hitler's Reich who are still what they once were—nationalists, militarists, racists, anti-Semites, who have not renounced their old ideas, prejudices, and habits? What influence have they had on their children and grandchildren? What potential do they provide for the reemergence of a murderous Germany?
For an answer we must turn once more to history, to chart the course of events in Germany over the last forty years. By looking backward from today to April 1945, when National Socialist Germany collapsed, we may hope to discern whether and to what degree Germany has changed from what it was.
Back in the 1950's, even into the 1960's, no one could yet tell whether Germany's collapse in 1945 had brought an end as well to those characteristics of German society that had shaped its politics and governments for over a century. Like many people I knew, I had little confidence that the short term would bring a lasting change. I used closely to scrutinize every anti-Semitic incident reported from Germany, to examine every utterance as if under a magnifying glass, in search of signs of that deadly disease which had caused the murder of six million Jews. But the longer perspective of forty years has made it easier to see that the great disjuncture in modern German history came not in 1933 with Hitler's advent as Führer but in 1945, with the end of his dictatorship.
It was then, in 1945, that the course of Germany history changed. Three things happened to produce that change. First of all, defeat brought the Germans face to face at last with the unspeakable crimes their country had perpetrated. That confrontation was made possible when the Allied armies first came upon the camps with the dead piled high and the living nearly dead. Then the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, established by the victorious Allies, began its hearings in November 1945 with the trial of twenty-two major war criminals. Twelve subsequent trials were held before Nuremberg tribunals for a wide variety of war crimes—medical crimes, the murders committed by the Einsatzgruppen, the complicity of the state ministries and the armed services in war crimes, and the participation of industrialists in the exploitation of slave labor.
Public revelation of the immensity and monstrosity of Germany's crimes forced most Germans, whether they had once been enthusiastic Nazis, merely obedient citizens, or inner émigrés, to retreat into shame, guilt, and revulsion. Thomas Mann summed up that response in Doctor Faustus, through the words of his most sympathetic character:
Germany had become a thick-walled underground torture chamber, converted into one by a profligate dictatorship vowed to nihilism from its beginnings on. Now the torture chamber had been broken open, open lies our shame before the eyes of the world. Foreign commissions inspect those incredible photographs everywhere displayed, and tell their countrymen that what they have seen surpassed in horribleness anything the human imagination can conceive.
In those days there was much talk of Germany's “unmastered past”—as if such a past could then have been mastered.
Secondly, whether they tried to confront the past or to evade it, most Germans realized that their country had become the pariah of the nations, that everywhere in the world other peoples looked upon them as a nation of murderers, beyond the civilized pale. Even if they were not motivated by moral revulsion against the Nazi past, they knew that they had to make postwar Germany a different kind of country from prewar Germany.
Thirdly, the victorious Allies, especially the Americans, undertook to “reeducate” the Germans, to teach them the fundamentals of political democracy and the essentials of civil liberty. Already in 1945, the Allied occupiers, hoping to prepare for an independent and, in time, democratic postwar Germany, established “denazification courts” to try and to punish former Nazis. Those found guilty of substantial participation in Nazi institutions were sentenced to prison terms; less important Nazis were fined. Most were barred from political activity and excluded from employment in the public sector.
To be sure, denazification proceedings were not popular with Germans who wanted to gloss over the past. When, in 1946, the Americans turned over responsibility for these proceedings to the Germans themselves, the German public seemed more hostile to the denazifiers than to the former Nazis. Indeed, in the first decade after the war, the denazification courts amnestied many Nazis or quashed their cases. These unreconstructed Nazis tried to return to political life, to restore their good old days. Some began forming neo-Nazi parties. In 1949, in the first Bundestag elections in the newly constituted Federal Republic of Germany, several such parties managed to win a total of 9 percent of the vote, 37 seats out of 402. In those days, we were certain that renazification was a greater likelihood in Germany than denazification.
Potentially, the most dangerous of those neo-Nazi parties was the Socialist Reich Party (SRP) in Lower Saxony, whose leaders were former Nazis, some of whom had been interned during the Allied occupation. One had openly defied the ban on his participating in any political activity. In 1951 the SRP received 11 percent of the vote in Lower Saxony, electing sixteen delegates to the state's legislature. Within the year, however, West Germany's government moved to have the party declared unconstitutional, on the ground that it was a successor organization to the Nazi party. Its followers then rallied to another neo-Nazi party, but three years later, in state elections in Lower Saxony, that party received less than 4 percent of the vote and soon after petered out.
Ten years later a new neo-Nazi party emerged, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), winning nearly 10 percent of votes in state elections in 1966. Yet this threat too fizzled out in 1969, when the party received less than 5 percent of the vote in the federal election, failing to win a single seat in the Bundestag. Since then, the neo-Nazis have barely mustered 1 percent of the vote in West Germany's communal, municipal, state, and Bundestag elections.
With the virtual disappearance of neo-Nazi parties, the era of anti-Semitism in German political history has come to an end. For the first time in over a century, German political parties no longer appeal for votes with anti-Semitic planks and programs.
Forty years is, in the long run, merely the twinkling of an eye. Nevertheless, it is a time span of generations. In those forty years, the Federal Republic of Germany has become a successful model of a democratic country. It has evolved a stable two-party system which has, in turn, produced stable governments. The government formed under Konrad Adenauer in 1949 stayed in power for seventeen years—three years longer than the entire lifetime of Weimar. The government formed under Willy Brandt in 1969 stayed in power for thirteen years—one year longer than the entire lifetime of Hitler's Reich.
Unlike Weimar, the West German government has the support of the German people. Voter turnout has increased over the decades. In 1950, only 53 percent of respondents in a public-opinion poll throught it was better for a country to have several political parties than one, and as many as 24 percent actually favored a one-party system. In 1979, the responses to the same questions were, respectively, 90 percent and 4 percent. In 1955, only 30 percent of respondents expressed support for Germany's constitution; in 1978, 70 percent did so. Respect for civil liberties has increased too, though not to the same degree.2
Once the Federal Republic came into being in 1949, anti-Semitism lost its political legitimacy. Just then, however, a rash of anti-Semitic incidents erupted all over the country. But in a response unprecedented in German history, government officials, political-party leaders, church dignitaries, and intellectuals spoke out unequivocally. Chancellor Adenauer declared that “as Germans and Christians we have a duty to repair the wrongs committed against the Jews and strongly to oppose the anti-Semitic outbreaks.”
Two years later, on September 27, 1951, Adenauer announced in the Bundestag his government's readiness to enter into negotiations with Israel and with representatives of Jews in the Diaspora regarding material reparations. “Unspeakable crimes,” he said, “were perpetrated in the name of the German people which impose on us the obligation to make moral and material amends.” In a year's time, agreements were concluded which provided for the payment of nearly $1 billion in reparations to Israel and to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization representing Jewish communal organizations outside Israel.
The sense of shame for the crimes of National Socialist Germany, the feeling of obligation to make amends for the past, and the political imperative to combat anti-Semitism in the present have been evident in the words and deeds of most of West Germany's political leaders over the last four decades.
It is true that exceptions upset the general practice. Some elected officials and party functionaries do occasionally speak in accents appropriate to National Socialist Germany. But their anti-Semitic remarks invariably elicit outraged counter-statements and eventually have to be retracted. Recently a spokesman for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democratic party, said that Jews show up “whenever money tinkles in German cash registers.” Quickly the Christian Social Union dissociated itself from the words of its spokesman and he himself later had to apologize. Shortly thereafter the Christian Democratic mayor of a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia said that “a few rich Jews” should be slaughtered in order to balance the town's budget. He was pressured by the CDU to resign.
Both incidents, widely reported and nationally discussed, prompted a debate in the Bundestag on the danger of recurrent anti-Semitism. A few days later, at a ceremony marking Brotherhood Week, organized by the Association for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in Bonn, Richard von Weizsäcker, West Germany's President, in an appeal to world Jewish public opinion, apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks.
Some 89 extremist right-wing organizations still operate in West Germany. Altogether they have about 22,100 members, of whom 6,100 belong to the NPD, still the largest neo-Nazi group. But anti-Semitism no longer shapes public policy or government action. Indeed, in order to constrain neo-Nazi propaganda which denies that National Socialist Germany ever murdered six million European Jews (popularly known as the “Auschwitz lies”), the Bundestag last year enacted legislation making that denial punishable by law.
No one can deny that anti-Semitism remains a disturbing presence in Germany, the more disturbing precisely because it is Germany. But it expresses itself primarily, as elsewhere in the West, in personal attitudes, opinions, and feelings. Countless polls and surveys seek to elicit the German public's attitudes toward Jews, their feelings about Hitler and National Socialism, and the level of their commitment to democratic institutions. Here are some of their findings. In 1954, a survey showed that 15 percent of Germans “would vote for a man like Hitler”; in 1961, only 5 percent said they would. In 1962, a public-opinion poll conducted among Germans aged sixteen to eighteen asked whether some Jews had only themselves to blame for what happened to them during the Hitler era. Sixteen percent replied in the affirmative. More than twenty years later, only 5 percent said yes to the same question. Most Germans, when asked about their sympathies in Middle Eastern matters, if they have an opinion at all, are favorably inclined toward Israel. Only a small percentage has pro-Arab sympathies.
From the welter of polls and statistics one concludes, first, that a substantial segment of Germans—anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the population—still harbors anti-Semitic attitudes, some overt, some latent, and, second, that with each passing decade the proportion of anti-Semitic responses declines. Predictably, anti-Jewish prejudice remains stronger among older and less educated Germans, among those who are the survivors of National Socialism, and among those who were not raised and educated in the changed political milieu of the Federal Republic.
While younger Germans are less susceptible to the traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, pockets of them have succumbed to other variants. “Skinheads,” lower-class unemployed young people, given to violence and driven by resentment, direct their rage against the Jews who—so they think—have everything they do not. In Germany this variant is also known as “Fussball” anti-Semitism because it has erupted at soccer games; when fortified by beer, skinheads scream vicious anti-Semitic slogans at the opposing team.
More visible than skinhead anti-Semitism among younger Germans is the anti-Semitism of the Left, which turns up in the media and the arts. It is also politically more mischievous, concentrating as it does on hatred of Israel and Zionism in the familiar strains of the propaganda one associates with the UN, the Third World, and the Soviet Union. During a recent debate in the Frankfurt City Council, an SPD faction leader denounced Menachem Begin as “a murderer, fascist, and terrorist.” Like the anti-Semites of the Right, he later apologized.
Borrowing from Soviet anti-Semitism, the German Left likes to compare Israel with National Socialist Germany, while assigning to the Palestinian Arabs the role of the Jewish victims. In East Berlin, that is everyday propaganda. (There, even the murder of the European Jews is a non-subject.) One might have thought that in West Germany, intellectuals would know enough history to see the Nazi-Israel comparison as a species of gallows humor. Alas, they do not. Wolfgang Bergmann's film, Schatten der Zukunft (“Shadow of the Future”), which has been shown on prime-time German television, is dead serious in presenting this “version” of the Israel-Arab conflict.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, German left-wing anti-Semites often claim that they are “only” anti-Zionist, “only” criticizing Israel. Their real complaint, however, is that “normal” anti-Semitism is taboo in Germany, and that they cannot make anti-Semitic remarks without being accused of wanting to put Jews in gas chambers. Their anti-Semitism, in other words, takes the form of an openly expressed resentment at the fact that they are not permitted to be anti-Semitic.
The most notorious example of Left anti-Semitism in Germany has been the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder's play, Garbage, City, and Death, whose aborted production in Frankfurt on October 31, 1985, set off a loud controversy. Fassbinder had dramatized a novel by Gerhard Zwerenz, a best-selling left-wing writer, which had itself provoked charges of anti-Semitism when it appeared in 1973 on account of its ugly pornographic portrayal of a greedy and unscrupulous Jew. In Fassbinder's version, the anti-Semitism is even more blatant. The Jewish real-estate speculator has no name or personal identity; he is called, Brechtian-style, “The Rich Jew.” His parents were murdered in the gas chambers, and the characters in the play think it a shame that he was not murdered as well. One of them puts it this way:
He sucks us dry, the Jew does. He drinks our blood and puts us in the wrong because he's a Jew and we are guilty. . . . But the Jew is guilty, for he makes us guilty, just because he's here. If he'd stayed where he came from or if they had gassed him, I could sleep better today. They forgot to gas him. That's no joke. That's how I think inside me.
Like Fassbinder's characters, the Germans who cannot come to terms with National Socialist crimes want desperately to forget them. Consequently, the evocation of the Nazi past has unloosed among them an anti-Semitic temper that cuts across generational lines and political differences. Germans who cannot stand to remember the past, who resent having to feel guilty about it, blame the Jews for keeping it alive. Such feelings, which have now become overt, surfaced most visibly during the Bitburg episode.
But blaming the Jews for keeping alive the memory of National Socialist crimes is, like other anti-Semitic charges, a canard. In Germany that memory is preserved by other Germans, those for whom remembrance of the past is a form of expiation for the crimes committed by their country, by their fathers and grandfathers. It is their way of coming to terms with themselves. Germans, not Jews, marked the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht in the Federal Republic by commemorative gatherings, silent marches, radio and TV programs, and religious services. An estimated twenty million West Germans and Berliners saw the American TV film Holocaust on German regional television in 1979. (Polls taken at the time reported that 68 percent of the viewers responded favorably.) Just lately, hundreds of West Berliners crowded into a theater for the premiere of Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half hour documentary, Shoah.
The interest in things Jewish expresses itself in many ways among Germans who wish to master their past. Thousands, for instance, belong to local societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation, an organization which conducts educational activities among young Germans. Hundreds of thousands have visited Israel. After the United States and Israel, Germany is one of the largest publishers of serious books on Jewish subjects—even books about the murder of the European Jews. Lectures and courses about Jewish history and culture sponsored by Jewish institutions attract nearly as many Germans as Jews. The Jüdische Gemeinde in Berlin, for instance, offers an extensive adult-education program, which, several board members told me, Germans attend in large numbers.
In 1963, the city of Cologne mounted a major exhibit, “Monumenta Judaica,” depicting two thousand years of Jewish history on the Rhine. It was opened by then-Bundestag President Eugen Gerstenmaier and it attracted tens of thousands of visitors from all over Germany. Last November, the Berlinische Galerie presented an exhibit of German-Jewish art which had been collected by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. The reviewer for Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin's most respected newspaper, wrote of this exhibit:
If someone should ask what we [Germans] lack today—intellectually, culturally, in terms of human decency and cultural history—I would point to the row of paintings here. . . . This is doubtless the most important cultural-historical exhibit that Berlin has confronted since the war. It displays a major portion of that intellectual substance that was cold-bloodedly murdered, while the city silently tolerated it. . . . One leaves the exhibit with a mixture of shame, shamefacedness, rage, and historical admiration.
The desire on the part of Germans to learn more about Jews and Jewish civilization is, it seems to me, a form of moral education. It is as if, by acquiring rational knowledge and a firmer grasp on the historical reality of Jews and Judaism, they might thereby hope to exorcise the demonic image of the Jew which Nazi propaganda implanted in the German consciousness.
This, finally, is what I came to see in my third visit to Berlin.
1 As far as I know, except for a brief piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, no American newspapers carried an account of these proceedings, nor did any Jewish press service here, in England, or in Israel.
2 The best survey of German public opinion on these questions is Frederick Weil, “The Imperfectly Mastered Past: Anti-Semitism in West Germany Since the Holocaust,” New German Critique 20 (Spring/Summer, 1980), pp. 135-153. It has been republished as a pamphlet by the Anti-Defamation League.