Germans Argue Over How to Mark War

BERLIN -- The original official plan for Monday, when Europe marks the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, was for Germany to bundle its guilt-laden past upon its back and move on.


So much for plans.


As the occasion approaches it has instead become another opportunity for Germans to argue with ever more heat about the past. In the last few weeks, prominent figures have alternately accused one another of identifying too much with the war's victors, identifying too much with the Nazis, ignoring the countries that became the Third Reich's victims or ignoring Germany's own wartime sufferings.


But nothing in all the wrangling has created a bigger stir than a large advertisement placed last month in the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine by a group of political conservatives calling themselves the May 8th Initiative.


The ad had the headline "8 May, 1945 -- Against Forgetting'' and was signed by about 280 people, including members of parliament, and complained that official commemoration plans were "getting out of focus'' -- that those official ceremonies were "one-sided" because they emphasized May 8 as a "Day of Liberation."


"What people forget more and more," the ad said, "is that this day was not only the end of the horrors of Nazi government, but also the beginning of the terrors of expulsion (of Germans from Eastern Europe) and new oppression in the east, and the beginning of the division of our country. An image of history which doesn't mention these facts ... cannot be the basis for the self-definition of a self-confident nation, which we Germans must become."


The group then announced plans for its own commemoration ceremonies on Sunday in Munich.


That sounds pretty tame only if one is unattuned to the way subtle turns of language bring volcanic reactions here whenever the subject is Third Reich history.


Many people saw the ad and its pointed omission of the Holocaust as an attempt to minimize Germany's guilt in the war. "The reactionary voices may get more of a response than is good for Germany's reputation," the Berliner Zeitung newspaper fretted. "There may be lasting damage if the forces of moderation do not bring their counterweight to bear." Germany's conference of Roman Catholic bishops were moved to issue a 10-page statement denouncing the signors of the ad, warning that historical events should not be distorted.


The sponsors of the ad, who had argued that it was the political left that was guilty of distortion, saw the dispute as further proof that their country has been brainwashed.


"There is a tendency of some politicians here to bow down to the dictatorship of political correctness," said Rainier Zitelmann, culture editor at the Berlin daily newspaper, Die Welt.


Zitelmann co-sponsored the ad and helped organize Sunday's event along with Alfred Dregger, a prominent member of parliament from Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party.


Zitelmann has been particularly rankled by planning for a major May 8 event in Hamburg, sponsored by two major television networks and Stern magazine. "This ceremony is called 'Liberty's Birthday,' and it is planned to be a huge party with performances, music and so on," Zitelmann said. "This is not the adequate way to celebrate a date like this, because for many people it also meant tragedy, expulsions, hunger and death."


There also has been far from unanimous opinion on whether Kohl has handled planning for May 8 correctly. By inviting only the representatives of the four victorious Allied Powers to Germany for May 8 he was seen by some as trying to place Germany among the war's victors.


Others have questioned why Kohl will journey to Moscow for more ceremonies on May 9. And still others have wondered why Germany is participating in anybody else's commemorations at all, when it has earned nothing but exclusion. Ironically, one of the strongest rebukes of the seemingly endless German debate has come from a Russian.


Nikolai Portugalav, who was in charge of the Soviet-German liaison during German reunification talks in 1989, wrote last month in a Cologne newspaper, "How can you learn lessons from history without letting them become history?"


"The Germans won't forget the Holocaust any more than we will forget the Gulag," Portugalav wrote. "But you can't make major-power policy with a bad conscience. The sooner the Germans lose their uptightness as a nation and come to terms with the highs and lows of their history, the better."