For 60 years, Germany has been feeling worried. Worried by its own criminal history, worried by the judgement of others - and worried that the lure of Adolf Hitler is not yet dead. Few Germans would seriously argue that modern German democracy is endangered. None the less, the just-in-case taboos remain in place, above all when it comes to the dictator himself.
Elsewhere in Europe, it is easy to find copies of Mein Kampf on the shelves. In the words of the English-language edition, "It remains necessary reading for those who care to safeguard democracy." In Germany, where it was once compulsory reading, it is considered too sensitive to put on sale. Even the dictator's image is subject to powerful taboos. English-language books on the Third Reich often have photographs of the Führer on the cover. When those same books are translated into German, the pictures of Hitler and the swastikas vanish, to be replaced with something more anodyne. Several decades after the war, a German commentator explained why he believed the ban on Mein Kampf to be essential: "The bacillus is too lively, the danger of infection too acute." Even in the 21st century, that fearful logic - though rarely made so explicit - remains in place.
Now, however, remarkable change is on the way. Two new German films both put the Führer unashamedly centre screen. Heinrich Breloer has filmed a huge documentary drama focusing on the role of Albert Speer, Hitler's star architect. Speer and He will be screened on German television in the spring, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Hitler's death.
As Der Spiegel points out, Breloer's three-part, €12m (£8.5m) documentary series breaks with a long German tradition: "If the dictator appeared at all, then only for a few seconds and usually without words." Demystification is the key. In preparation for the role, Tobias Moretti, who plays Hitler, listened for hours to a unique tape recording, secretly recorded by a Finnish radio technician in 1942: Hitler not as the demagogic orator, but speaking in the voice of an ordinary human being. A second film, Bernd Eichinger's The Downfall, focuses on the last days in the bunker. Bruno Ganz, star of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, takes the role of Hitler.
As Frank Schirrmacher, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has noted, the release of the films will mark an important turning point. "A type of pictorial fear was at work here; a dread of turning the man who has dominated German imagination to the present day into a product of artistic imagination. This is over now." Schirrmacher suggests that these are "the most important historical projects in many years".
These changes do not take place in isolation. Germany's new relaxation is everywhere - in film, literature, and politics. The old taboos are crumbling month by month, day by day. Confrontation with the past, and confrontation with German worries about the past, are inextricably intertwined.
The story of Germany since 1945 has, in many ways, been a story of changing taboos with regard to Hitler and his legacy. Initially, those taboos sought to avoid acknowledging the depth of the crimes that so many Germans had, by their action or inaction, allowed to take place. Reading the West German school- books of the 1950s and 1960s is to expose oneself to a tissue of half-truths, at best. Hitler himself is portrayed in an almost rosy light - the peacemaker, whose efforts were thwarted by a war-hungry Churchill, to whom Hitler "offered peace in vain". (Churchill "knew that England had time, and that the United States would help".)
Where Hitler's crimes are alluded to in passing, the reader is constantly assured that Germans knew little or nothing of what was happening - and that they could, in any case, have done nothing even if they had known. The mass murder of millions, planned with such unique thoroughness, is often passed over in barely a sentence. The German resistance movement, so terribly isolated, receives copious coverage, as does German suffering. Thus, a long catalogue of casualties in the Second World War in a 1956 schoolbook (including, for example, the number of Germans who lost a limb) concludes with the brief postscript: "In addition came the victims who were killed in the concentration camps, the labour camps, the death chambers etc." Whereupon the author returns to safer ground, telling us how much property was destroyed. One book talks at length of the "horrific suffering, such as the world no longer believed possible in the twentieth century". The reference is not to the Holocaust or any other aspect of Nazi crimes, but to what the Germans themselves had gone through.
The fathers-and-children revolution of 1968 and the years that followed - a generational confrontation more dramatic in Germany than anywhere else in Europe or the United States - began to chip away at the lies. The 1968 effect was by no means immediate. (The Baader-Meinhof terrorism of the 1970s, which theoretically demanded more openness about the past, perhaps slowed down the process of change.) When Basil Fawlty goosestepped his way past the German guests in the Fawlty Towers dining room, muttering (not quite sotto voce) "Don't mention the war", he was partly right, despite his buffoonishness, to believe that the Germans were still in denial at that time, in 1975.
Only at the end of the Seventies did the greater openness began to be real. In 1977 came the publication of What I Have Heard about Adolf Hitler, a 350-page book consisting of quotations from a series of school essays on the above theme. The answer to the question was: not much. Hitler was Swiss, Dutch, or Italian; he lived in the 17th century, the 19th century, the 1950s; he was a First World War general, the founder of the East German Communist Party, a leader of German democracy. The ignorance was easily explained. The subtitle of the book, which had a dramatic impact when it was published, was simple: "Consequences of a Taboo." Two years later, the screening of Holocaust - a US television mini-series derided elsewhere as "genocide shrunken to the level of Bonanza with music appropriate to Love Story" - brought the human impact of Hitler's crimes into German homes for the first time. In the words of one of several German books devoted to the extraordinary Holocaust effect: "A whole nation began - as a result of a television film - suddenly to discuss openly the darkest chapter of its history."
The underlying reason for this new openness, which grew through the 1980s, was the change of generations. The children of those who had committed crimes, or who had stood by while crimes were committed, were eager to confront the past in a way that their parents were so reluctant to do.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 caused rejoicing across Germany and even, briefly, throughout Europe. But the prospect of German unity the following year quickly soured the mood for many who had privately grown to like the existence of the Iron Curtain. President François Mitterrand believed that a united Germany "would mean certain war in the 21st century"; Margaret Thatcher was equally determined to "check the German juggernaut". The wave of neo-Nazi violence in the chaotic and embittered years after unification confirmed the worst fears of those who believed that Germans, in the vivid formulation of Martha Gellhorn, have "a gene loose".
Meanwhile, however, confrontation with the past was by now everywhere. That may have been one reason why far-right parties have failed to gain a single seat in Germany's national parliament in recent years - in sharp contrast to many of Germany's European neighbours, Hitler's native Austria included. (As the East German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann noted, historical honesty has not always been Austria's strong point: "Austria and East Germany were linked by a common piece of hypocrisy: both pretended to have been forcibly occupied by Hitler's Germany in the Second World War.")
Through the 1990s, Germany continued to feel worried about itself and about how others might perceive it. There was resentment or weariness at the persistence of the Basil Fawlty stereotypes, above all in the UK. But there were self-imposed taboos, too. Thus, less than a decade ago, the opposition Social Democrats roundly condemned the conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl for daring to think of letting German planes be used in policing a no-fly zone in Bosnia, "because of the German past". In the past few years, such taboos have been forgotten. The Social Democrats, now the government party, argued for stronger military action than Kohl and his allies would ever have dared to contemplate, in the Balkans and then Afghanistan. Joschka Fischer, foreign minister and a leading member of the almost-pacifist Greens, explained why he was in favour of sending German ground troops to Kosovo, with reference to the same Hitler legacy that had in the past been a reason for Germany not to send troops abroad: "No more Auschwitz, no more genocide, no more fascism. All that goes together for me."
The preoccupations with German identity, as reflected in Hitler's legacy, have continued into the 21st century, but now with a new twist. In 1969, President Gustav Heinemann obliquely confronted the taboos by wistfully declaring: "There are difficult fatherlands. One of these is Germany." Thirty-five years later, the newly elected president, Horst Köhler, is simultaneously defiant and relaxed with his 21st-century Heinemann update: "I love our country." Just a few years ago, such a statement would have seemed unthinkable. Even now, Germans wonder aloud if it is acceptable for a German president to sound so relaxed about national identity. The words Ich liebe unser Land no longer sound as heretical, however, as they once did - nor do they mean: "Why not forget about the past?"
There are many reminders of Germany's new Unbefangenheit - a word that hovers untranslatably somewhere between "unencumberedness", "relaxedness", and "unbotheredness". In past years, German liberals used Unbefangenheit almost as a term of abuse; Germans were not supposed to be relaxed. Now, that has changed. Hitler is seen as part of German history, but not its sole defining trait. Günter Grass, the grand old man of the liberal left, writes an authorial apology in his novella Crabwalk, for being so obsessed with Hitler's crimes that other topics were excluded - including the expulsion in 1945 of 15 million German civilians from their homes; two million died by shooting, starvation or freezing to death. "Never," Grass tells his narrator, "should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming... with the result that they abandoned the topic to the right wing." This failure, he says, was staggering.
For some commentators, this readiness to broaden the German discourse is itself worrying. A bestselling book published in 2002, The Blaze, describes the Allied firebombing of German cities - a campaign in which more than half a million died - in painstaking detail. British columnists reacted indignantly, asking: "With four million unemployed in Germany, is this the fertile ground in which a new National Socialism might take root?" To which the simple answer is: unlikely. The author, Jörg Friedrich, a liberal historian who has written extensively about the Holocaust, and wrote The Cold Amnesty, a powerful account of the extent to which the post-war West German establishment was still poisoned by the Nazi era, had merely reached the same conclusion as Grass: that the self-evident and well documented German crimes are not a reason why the subject of the suffering of German civilians must remain off limits for all time, or the exclusive preserve of the nationalist right.
The new self-confidence with regard to Hitlerian history is everywhere. The Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared, on being invited to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day landings: "The Second World War is finally over." Der Spiegel noted that there was little concern about Schröder's presence in most of Europe; only Britain reacted differently. (This is part of a familiar pattern. When Der Spiegel's London correspondent, Matthias Matussek, published a report earlier this year that dared to suggest all is not well in Blair's Britain, he was the target of UK red-top fury, including from papers that have themselves published lacerating stories on the same subject. Britons may criticise; Germans may not.)
One of the most successful films in Germany in the past year has been Sönke Wortmann's Miracle of Berne, an optimistic film about Germany's arrival in footballing heaven - victory in the World Cup of 1954. Until a few years ago, Hitler's long shadow meant that a feelgood film about Germany would still have seemed unthinkable; a clear sign of occupying the far-right "brown corner", as it is described. "Ten years ago, I wouldn't have made the film," Wortmann told me. "Things are changing in a positive way. Germans are not so verkrampft, so uptight." German television felt emboldened to imitate the BBC's Great Britons series with its own, called Unsere Besten (Our Best). (The top 10, chosen by millions, included the two giants of postwar democracy, the conservative Konrad Adenauer and the socialist Willy Brandt; the executed heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, Hans and Sophie Scholl; Albert Einstein, driven into emigration; and - especially popular in east Germany - Karl Marx.)
Perhaps most startling of all, if one is looking for signs of the extraordinary new Unbefangenheit, is the creation of a new, ever-so-ironic lifestyle magazine, a kind of wallpaper* for Germany. The magazine's once unthinkable, provocative title: Deutsch. Sixty years after Hitler, the word is being reclaimed from the far right, as if it were just another label, like the self-confident français or italiano.
It is in this climate of Unbefangenheit that the new wave of Hitler films can be seen. For a new generation, the themes of the Third Reich still need to be explored. That exploration is, however, no longer as explosive as it once was. Florian Illies' 2001 bestseller, Instructions on Being Innocent, mocks "those eyes that Germans make, when the worry-wrinkles stretch almost over the retina because of anxiousness that someone might forget how undeniably dreadful were the things that happened in the Third Reich".
The new relaxedness does not necessarily represent a turning away from the past. Rather, it is an absorption of the past into the mainstream of modern German life. It has been in the 21st century, not at any time in the past 60 years, that Daniel Libeskind's extraordinary, jagged Jewish Museum opened in Berlin. As Libeskind himself told me, "Earlier, it wouldn't have been built." It is now, too, that a huge Holocaust memorial is being built, a field of standing stones close to the Brandenburg Gate. Nor is it just a question of building memorials. Twenty years ago, President Richard von Weizsäcker's statement that the Nazi defeat was "liberation" was considered controversial; now it seems self-evident.
There are still plenty of Germans (especially the elderly) who believe that enough is enough, and that it is time to stop talking about the Holocaust. Such attempts to close the discussion down still take place. They usually backfire, however, by reigniting the old debates.
The new Hitler films form part of the new Germany that confronts the past while no longer feeling so stressed about the confrontation. Those who deliberately try to leave the past behind often succeed in achieving the opposite. Conversely, those who are determined to examine all aspects of Hitler's legacy help Germany to be more at ease with itself at last.
John Stuart Mill wrote: "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness... Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." The same might be said of the German search for normality. Aiming at something else, Germany may find normality by the way. Films such as The Downfall and Speer and He, by engaging with Hitler not just as myth but as a mortal human being, may help Germany escape being in thrall to the dictator's crimes for all time. Even now, the words "normal" and "Germany" do not sit easily together in the same sentence. In the years to come, however, that could yet change.
Steve Crawshaw, London director of Human Rights Watch, is the author of Easier Fatherland: Germany and the Twenty-First Century' (Continuum)
LEARNING FROM THE PAST: THE VIEW FROM BERLIN
Bettina Rosa Lutz, 25, PR executive
I don't have any real emotional feelings about Hitler. I do think he will remain an important discussion topic for the next 10 or 20 years, simply because there are still living witnesses to what happened under Nazism. I view it all very objectively, though. I'd be really interested in watching both of these films.
Rainer Vogel, 63, builder
Personally, I don't feel any shame about Hitler, at least on a day to day level. I think that goes for all my generation. We all know that what happened was terrible, that Hitler was a terrible man, but it is the past. However, I do think that when confronted with these new films, just as when one visits a concentration camp, some kind of repressed feelings of shame will come to the fore. But my tendency, like most Germans, is to concentrate on looking forward, not back.
Marcus Rosenthal, 32, political lobbyist
I'd like to see the films. It'll be interesting to get inside the mind of a man who had such a terrible effect on the world. My only worry is if the films are championed by the far right. My generation finds it easier to concentrate on feeling ashamed about our Nazi past rather than face up to our current challenges, such as cutting unemployment and pushing through social reforms.
Ben Barth, 27, security officer
The continued discussion about Hitler and why the Germans have such a terrible past annoys me. It's over 60 years ago now. I look at it as a bad episode from which lessons have been drawn. In many ways, I think our past has made modern Germany a more thoughtful, considerate country. In the Middle East, for example, I'm glad to be German, because there it's the Germans who are viewed as the peace-keepers, the aid-givers, not the aggressors. I wouldn't have a problem seeing a film with Hitler as the central character, just as long as it's a truthful portrayal.
Martin Heller, 43, lawyer
I think the postwar generations have never been able to shy away from Hitler, but it's the British and Americans who are more obsessed with him than we are. I hope these films haven't turned Hitler into some unreal, mad genius. I have several clients who were expelled from Germany by the Nazis and that touches me emotionally, but Hitler as a person doesn't. Evil people will always exist. I think it's more important to understand the structures that allowed such evil to flourish in the first place.
Sabina Lutz, 20, student
It's our history and we should learn from it. However, I sometimes feelwe don't learn enough about Nazism. The British people I met on my gap year seemed to know so much more about it than I did.
Christoph Hoffmann, 51, consultant
Why should we get on our knees all the time about Hitler? Yes, Hitler was a terrible man; yes, we're sorry for what happened. But I really do believe it's better for Germany to look forwards, not backwards.
Bianca Leitner, 37, taxi driver
I was brought up under the Communist regime in East Germany. Adolf Hitler and Nazism were taught as the product of "evil Capitalism". The mantra was "Hitler isn't your problem". Living under Communism meant a kind of immediate forgiveness. But when unification came, East Germans had to come to terms with the fact that Hitler was their problem and a part of their past. Perhaps we're a little behind the old West Germans in accepting this part of our history, but I'd be happy to see these films.
Karl-Hermann Meyer zum Büschenfelde, 73, retired professor of immunology
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Adolf Hitler was a catastrophe for Germany and for the world. And keeping the memory and the understanding of that alive is crucial. My only worry with these films would be that they somehow trivialise the discussion about the past and perhaps even glamorise it.
Interviews by Ruth ElkinsReuse content