Shadow of Shame

Germany Comes To Grips With Its Past

The Holocaust. It's constantly on television, at the movies, on stage, in countless relics and monuments, in the country's museums and in its schools. It is recalled every year on Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 assault on Germany's Jews.

Even Germany's tiny Jewish community is a living emblem of what happened in that country. Half a million strong before the war, it's a fraction of that now.

As Morley Safer reports, most of Germany's Jews live quietly and see that country as one of the safest places in the world to raise their children. But one of the leaders of that community is anything but quiet. Michel Friedman, a television star with his own talk show and a Jew who gets on the nerves of a lot of Germans, never lets them forget that they must be careful about what they say.

Friedman is the subject of a lot of German hate mail, a focal point for anti-Semitism. He acknowledges that Germans have tried to make up for their past, but adds "I am not responsible that Germany invented the Holocaust. They are responsible, and that's a part of their life."

Most Germans would not argue the point. Even young Germans, born decades after the war, bear the burden.

"It's not always that we think about it. It's, we know it, we have this responsibility and we think about it when we make any decisions," says Carsten Schneider who, at 27, is the youngest member of the German parliament.

Young Germans live in a society devoted mostly to life, liberty and the pursuit of a good time, but psychologically they still carry the sins of their grandparents. In most German public schools, reckoning with the past is an academic requirement. Back in the 1930s, the Bettina School in Frankfurt was all girls, and a third of the students were Jewish. Three of them died in the camps, the rest immigrated. Today's students recall their memory with a home-made memorial.

"I don't feel really guilty," says one student there. "I mean, I totally don't agree to what has happened before. But I think it's our duty to remind, or to keep reminding people for the future."

Is there a danger in raising generation after generation with this shame as the central characteristic of their society?

"No, not at all," says Friedman. "I don't want that any young German is ashamed or responsible or guilty for that what his parents and grandparents did. I want him only two things: know what happened, understand how it happens, and try during your life that it will never happen again, in that anybody, I don't speak only about the Jews, will be persecuted because he's a member of a minority in your society."

While other countries may grapple with their dark histories from time to time, in Germany, history is a fact of daily life, says Heinz Bude, a Hamburg sociologist.

"It is a core thing of our identity," he says. "There's no question about that." And he believes that it is healthy for the central characteristic of a society to be guilt "because guilt is a feeling to get an idea of yourself. What you have done and what you are responsible for."

Not everyone agrees. More and more Germans are fed up with all this self-flagellation, and no one more fed up than 75-year-old Martin Walser, one of the country's most revered authors and a man who has been writing about the legacy of the Holocaust for 40 years.

Like most everyone of a certain age in Germany, Walser has to grapple with his own personal history. His mother was an ardent member of the Nazi party, and at the age of 17, in 1944, Walser joined the German army. Walser is in no way a Holocaust denier, but he says that the constant dredging up of German history, on television, for instance, has become absurd.

"Hitler's doctors, Hitler's dogs, Hitler's fools, Hitler's generals," he says. "You know, and I said that's an abuse."

And another abuse, says Walser, is the way that other countries help to keep alive the image of Germany as a recovering Nazi. "They treated a whole nation as a criminal on probation,' he says."And you have to keep alive this state of mind that you are not yet accepted, and that you are not yet a normal man or a normal nation."

A lot of Germans feel they've done everything in their power to face up to that past -- paying reparations, apologizing. What more, they ask, can they do?

What they are doing now is building a permanent memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe - 2,700 stone markers to remember the six million – in the heart of Berlin, over the bunker where Hitler died.

"Here, in the heart of Berlin, it's the best place, in my eyes, to have this reminder," says Schneider. "To remind our generation, our country, that what happened shouldn't happen again."

He is against the "enough" debate, he says, "because history is never enough."

Not so for writer Walser. Last year, Walser published a novel that many considered to be a blatant anti-Semitic tract. It set off an agonizing debate about just how far a German writer, even an eminent literary figure, can go.

Walser's detractors say that he crossed the line. His novel is a thinly disguised and very ugly portrait of the most powerful literary critic in Germany - Marcel Reich-Ranitzky - a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, and a television star with a brutal way of reviewing books. He trashed Walser's work, so Walser trashed him. In Walser's novel, the critic is portrayed as an all-powerful, lecherous, and abusive Jew - a figure that recalled for many the brutal anti-Semitic caricature of Jews in the years leading up to the Nazi period. The leading German newspaper refused to serialize the novel, calling it a document of hatred against Jews.

Walser is outraged at the accusation and its repercussions. "You just state it's anti-Semitic, and basta - that's like a death sentence," he says.

For Walser's reputation, perhaps, but not for the book. The scandal turned the novel into a number one bestseller. Walser denies that the book is anti-Semitic and says that he was just exercising his freedom as a novelist. But Michel Friedman says that Walser's own past makes a mockery of such statements.

"He can't accept the destiny of his generation and his individual life," says Friedman. "That his generation, and he also, and his family was a part in the Third Reich who didn't do what civilized persons had to do to stop Hitler."

It's something that Friedman says every German should remember. Last year, he became a target when one of the country's best known politicians - Juergen Moellemann - used a blatant anti-Semitic attack on Friedman to try and drum up election support.

"It was the first time that the Democratic party took this strategy, trying to mobilize extremist voters with an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist campaign in an election campaign," Friedman said. That strategy failed miserably at the polls but it did succeed in breaking the taboo.

In other countries, breaking that taboo might be regarded as merely offensive or irresponsible. In Germany, it conjures up the worst crimes of the century, and reminds Germans that there may be no escaping the specter of that past, even when the generation who experienced the war, perpetrators and victims alike, are dead and gone.

"If we say we are normal, that means there is no doubt that we are a democratic country," says sociologist Bude. "That we are a civilized society. But, of course, this idea of normalcy, there's always a dark shadow in it. And we can't get rid of it."