Coming to Terms With a Guilty Past

BERLIN -- A half century ago, it would have been a scene weighted with peril, perhaps even a matter of life or death: a scribbling German bureaucrat asking questions of a Jewish woman.

"Your religion?" the bureaucrat asked.

"Jewish," the woman replied. The scribbling pen halted. Dead silence followed.

"I can't write that," the man finally confessed, becoming flustered.

Then he explained: "We don't say Jewish," he said. "We say Mosaisch." As in, the people of Moses.

"I've encountered just about every roundabout way of saying somebody is Jewish," said Eve Schaenen, who had come with her German fiance to get a marriage license. "But this. It was a word they still couldn't say."

There are lots of words Germans cannot easily say anymore. Sonderbehandlung (special treatment, the euphemism for sending people to the gas chamber) is one. Endl?sung (final solution) is another. Both remain locked in the forbidden glossary of Nazi genocide.

From embarrassed bureaucrats to lordly government ministers, Germany today is filled with people who either cannot or will not do certain things because of what other Germans did on battlefields and in concentration camps more than 50 years ago.

Now, however, some German leaders think the time has come to move on. And as German, Jewish and Polish leaders held initial ceremonies Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the German government has subtly set out to loosen the tight grip of history.

Advisers to Chancellor Helmut Kohl have said recently that he hopes to use the anniversaries as a starting point for a new era, moving at last out of a cramped corner of guilt and introspection.

Roman Herzog, who as Germany's president is the semiofficial spokesman for the national conscience, has also joined in, speaking recently of Germany and its neighbors "gradually beginning to write a common European history."

The success of such delicate efforts could affect everything from the way Germany deals with Europe and the United States -- by sending more troops to help United Nations peacekeeping efforts, for example -- to the way Germans deal with themselves.

But events of the past decade indicate that Kohl's attempt may be doomed to fail. Because if any single group seems determined to prevent Germany from reassuming the obligations of a "normal" nation, it is the Germans themselves, baffled as ever over how to come to terms with their history.

War-related angst creeps into debate on virtually every major policy question. "It is the most important question in our political culture," said Professor Wolfgang Wipperman, a historian at the Free University of Berlin. And it is evident in countless daily events.

Anja Kolaschnik, a German now working in Brussels, recalled how a U.S. rock band unwittingly tapped into complex currents of German thought during a Berlin concert a few years ago. The band asked the crowd of youthful Germans to raise their right hands en masse and yell, "Boom, boom."

"Most people didn't want to do it," she said, "and those who did gave the peace sign." Of course, a field of raised right hands would look uncomfortably like newsreel footage of a Nazi rally.

Then there was the soccer match set for Hamburg in April between Germany and England on, coincidentally, Hitler's birthday. Hamburg canceled it over worries about neo-Nazis, so Berlin offered its soccer field -- in Hitler's Olympic Stadium. England canceled.

In 1990, workers discovered an intact section of Hitler's underground bunker in central Berlin, complete with eerie murals of black-booted SS men and happy Aryan families. Should it be opened as a museum? No, seal it up forever, the Berlin Senate said.

One of the centerpieces of Kohl's campaign will be the visit of Israeli President Ezer Weizman, expected sometime around May 8, the 50th anniversary of V-E Day.

The timing of the visit will, in a way, represent the sum of all guilts for postwar Germany and may, at last,offer an opportunity for symbolic absolution.