Rows rage on Auschwitz anniversary

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The Independent Online
Many anniversaries are full of pain. Others provoke heated argument. But few anniversaries are loaded with so much pain and controversy at the same time.

Tomorrow's fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on 27 January 1945, is painful - in different ways -for Poles, Germans and Jews. It is painful for Jews because of the unique historic suffering. It is painful for Germans because of their guilt. And it is painful for Poles because of their unacknowledged mixture of suffering and guilt. Polish suffering is not fully acknowledged by the outside world - and Poland's own passive guilt is not acknowledged by many Poles.

In Germany at least, the situation is clear-cut. The monstrosity of the crimes is undeniable. There has been an outpouring of cover-stories, reminiscences and television programmes in recent days and weeks. In the words of Der Spiegel magazine, "Nothing symbolises more strongly the guilt of the Germans for this crime of the millennium. Auschwitz is, for eternity, the symbol of what man can do to man."

The denial of the Holocaust is a punishable crime in Germany today. Failing to acknowledge its importance is politically unthinkable too: Steffen Heitmann, the conservatives' intended candidate to be German president last year, was forced to resign his candidacy because he sought to relativise the crimes of Auschwitz, in a newspaper interview.

But an ambiguity has crept in, too, because of the recent controversies that have erupted. The apparent clumsiness of the Polish authorities in failing to acknowledge the uniqueness of Jewish suffering has had indirect repercussions in Germany.

President Roman Herzog will attend the memorial ceremonies in Auschwitz. But Jewish representatives in Germany, who are due to accompany him, have not hidden their dismay and irritation at the provocative chaos of the Polish arrangements.

Many German articles, in turn, have highlighted the anti-Semitism that remains endemic in Poland today - for example, with reports on cont emporary Oswiecim, to give the town of Auschwitz its Polish name. By emphasising the Polish anti-Semitism, some German coverage appears close to suggesting that guilt can be portioned out - between Germans, on the one hand, and anti-Semitic Poles on the other. The controversy over the Auschwitz ceremonies - with rows over who has been invited and who is to speak whenand where - has thus taken on an added sensitivity.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung yesterday carried a front-page analysis which sought to tiptoe through this minefield of guilt. The newspaper pointed to Poland's suffering at the hands of the German invaders and noted that the first Auschwitz camp was opened forPoles. At the same time, the paper criticised the Polish failure to acknowledge Auschwitz as the place of planned "complete genocide" for the Jews.

German bishops this week spoke of the "failure and guilt" of many Christians in failing to resist the evil of Nazism. The bishops talked of the "heavy burden" of guilt that the first big organised attacks on Jews - Kristallnacht, in November 1938 - did not trigger protests.