Historical Notes: Sins of the parents and grandparents

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The Independent Online
LAST MAY when the EU humanitarian commissioner Emma Bonino was asked to characterise the catastrophe in Kosovo she replied without hesitation: "It's like Schindler's List." The fact that her reference point was Hollywood illustrates just how far the generational shift has transformed the meaning of the Second World War. Nineteen thirty-nine to forty-five is no longer the memory of the majority. It is the possession of a dwindling minority and for this reason we instinctively look to the second-hand experience of film to convey the horror of total war and ethnic cleansing.

The complex interplay of politics, memory and demography has been clearest in Germany. For Helmut Kohl the assertion that by the mid-1990s two-thirds of Germans were born after 1945 became an article of faith. For this new generation, fully European and fully committed to democratic values, the Second World War is no longer a touchstone of shared experience. Why, Kohl argued, should they be forced to revisit the sins of their parents and grandparents? Why should Nazism dictate the way in which Germany and Germans are still understood?

The attempt to draw a line under the war years, and thereby get Germany accepted as a normal nation state, has continued under the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. It was the prime motive behind his creation of a fund to compensate slave labour victims of the Nazis earlier this year. By getting 13 of the biggest names in German business to admit their "moral responsibility" for Adolf Hitler's regime, and by getting them to contribute to a fund of pounds 1bn, he wanted to close the book once and for all on the difficult issue of wartime reparations.

Most claimants are over 70 and this sense of impending mortality has magnified anger. Survivors want justice before they die and they have accused the German government of cynically dragging its feet because fewer living claimants will mean a far smaller pay-out. Polish, Russian and Ukrainian survivors have also attacked Schroder. They claim that Germany has concentrated its efforts on the 130,000 Jewish claimants living in Israel and the US, thereby neglecting Slavs, who made up 90 per cent of the slave labour work force.

Yet, if demography is the first explanation for the shift in meanings attached to 1939-45, the second is the end of the Cold War. Under the Communist regimes, official doctrine hailed the Red Army as the liberating force which freed Eastern Europe from Nazism. Since 1989 such history has been subjected to a merciless process of revisionism and rehabilitation. Thus in post-Communist Romania the collaborationist Marshal Antonescu is now openly feted as a national hero; in Italy the Berlusconi press have been campaigning for a monument to commemorate the Fascist volunteers who fought on the Eastern Front; whilst in Austria the Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider is unapologetic about his country's Nazi past. In Haider's eyes SS veterans are heroes who defended Western-era civilisation against godless Bolshevism.

In Croatia President Tudjman has argued that the Ustashe was not a Nazi puppet government but the first step to independence, eventually won in 1991. For this reason he was reluctant to prosecute Dinko Sakic, the commander of Jasenovac, an archipelago of camps along the banks of the Sava river where hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, gypsies and Croat anti-Fascists were slaughtered.

Eventually the need to improve relations with the EU as well as the pressure of Jewish groups and human rights organisations forced Croatia to extradite Sakic from Argentina and in October he was sentenced to a maximum 20 years for war crimes. However, how far this is a genuine confrontation with the past or how far this is one based upon immediate political expediency remains to be seen.

Martin Evans is the co- editor of `War and Memory in the Twentieth Century' (Berg, pounds 14)