Germans confront painful past

Steve Crawshaw in Bonn finds a country divided over how to mark its `liberation' 50 years ago `Dresden, with its countless dead, has long been misused by those who never lea rn'
"FIFTY years after the end of the war, are we repressing or forgetting our guilt?" asked Die Zeit on its front page this week. As Germany limbers up for a year of Second World War anniversaries, an agonised discussion has begun, about the nature of responsibility - how to remember, and what not to forget.

There are three main anniversaries, around which the arguments revolve: the liberation of Auschwitz, on 27 January; the destruction of Dresden, on 14 February; and the end of the European war, on 8 May.

Officially, the end of the war marks Germany's "liberation". The former president, Richard von Weizsacker, made a famous speech emphasising that point, on the 40th anniversary of Hitler's defeat, in 1985.

But, for some, the question remains open. Alfred Dregger, honorary chairman of the ruling Christian Democrats, unleashed controversy this month by stating bluntly: "The defeat of Germany, the expulsion of east Germans [from territories that are now part of Poland], and the Sovietisation of central Germany [the creation of Communist East Germany] were not an act of liberation."

The opinions of the 74-year-old Mr Dregger, who is no longer in the political front line, do not reflect the view of today's establishment. Post-war generations tend to see things more critically than Mr Dregger: opinion polls suggest more than three quarters of those born after the end of the war see 1945 as "liberation". On the occasion of the D-Day anniversary last year, the mass-circulation Bild noted: "The invasion liberated western Europe from the Nazi yoke, and brought freedom and democracy to Germany."

None the less, Mr Dregger's comments could hardly have come at a worse time. Roman Herzog, the German President, is due to speak next month on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the British bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands died. The bombing raids served little military purpose, but were apparently intended to cause maximum loss of civilian life. The Duke of Kent will attend the commemorations, whose tone is intended to be conciliatory.

In his first six months in office, Mr Herzog has already made well-received speeches in Warsaw and Tel Aviv, which have clearly confronted Germany's historic crimes. At his New Year reception for the diplomatic corps, too, the former judge referred to this year's anniversaries of the end of the war, and argued: "We Germans ... will continue to draw conclusions for the future, from the lessons of the past." Thus, Mr Herzog's speech in Dresden will not seek to be divisive. As he himself said: "I do not intend to pour oil on the fire." But even this apparently innocuous phrase is perceived by some as dangerous.

In an open letter in the Berlin daily, taz, the writer Ralph Giordano asked the President: "What oil, and whose fire?" Mr Giordano, while not doubting Mr Herzog's good intentions, warned of allowing a kind of equivalence between Dresden and Auschwitz to be created - what he called "the unspeakable `We're quits' mentality". Mr Giordano notes: "At no time do the Dresden accusers mention the fact that, before that February night, German aggression had already turned Europe into a heap of ruins and ashes, in the previous six years."

Mr Giordano refers to the "hideous night" of Dresden, and notes the "drastic objetions" that can be made to the British tactics. But he emphasises that this must be seen in context. "Horror and mourning, because of the blast-furnace destruction of Dresden - yes! But not in conjunction with with those liars who deny the significance of Auschwitz."

Die Zeit agreed. "Dresden, with its countless dead, has long been misused by those who never learn. Of course, Auschwitz has also often been misused. But this does not lead us away from the German dilemma: normality is unthinkable, without the Holocaust.Even 50 years later, the historical truth remains concrete."

This year's clutch of anniversaries comes just when Germany is groping towards a painful redefinition and rediscovery of its own identity. German unity four years ago closed the chapter in which Bonn could pretend that it was not really a major international player at all. Now, Germany is seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The government wants to become more involved in UN military operations. But many Germans remain wary of the country again being involved in military activity.