Schindler helps new generation to understand: Out of Germany

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The Independent Online
HAMBURG - In most of Western Europe, it is just another film, of interest mainly because it may gain its director the Oscars which have so long eluded him. In Germany, by contrast, Schindler's List is a traumatic event which will probably be talked about for years.

For Germans, Steven Spielberg's original intentions have become almost secondary to the way that the film is perceived: as an extraordinarily painful confrontation with their own country's past. 'One asks oneself: why didn't other people do something?' said a 30-year-old stewardess in the crowds outside Streit's Cinema in central Hamburg. It is a question that has been voiced again and again in Germany in recent weeks. I have never seen an audience so devastated by a cinema performance. As the film ended, nobody moved. When they finally did, there were still tears in their eyes.

The film has been received with almost unanimous praise. At Streit's, and at cinemas across Germany, tickets for Spielberg's film have sold out days in advance. Oskar Schindler - womaniser, Nazi party member, drinking companion of the SS, and astonishing hero - saved 1,100 of 'his' Jews, the Schindlerjuden. Now, Germany asks itself why Schindler himself was so little recognised in his own country during his lifetime.

In discussing the film, two dangerously overlapping themes must be disentangled. Certainly, foreigners should avoid pointing fingers at Germany, whose achievements in building such a strong democracy can scarcely be overstated. It is perhaps too often forgotten that the defeat of Nazi Germany is seen by today's Germans as an enormously positive moment in their recent history. But the fact that it is wrong for others to point fingers does not mean that it is wrong for the Germans to examine their own past.

This is not the first time that a film has jolted public consciousness here. In 1979, the US mini-series Holocaust was panned by critics throughout Western Europe, for its soap-opera values. In Germany, however, the series was a traumatic breakthrough, precisely because it showed human beings, not historical statistics. Twenty million watched, and were confronted with their own and their parents' past, in a way that school history lessons had failed to do. Even now, the series is seen as a milestone.

Now, the focus has changed somewhat. Der Spiegel noted: 'More than 10,000 trees in Yad Vashem, the national Jewish memorial in Jerusalem for the victims of the Holocaust, bear witness to the 'just among peoples'. . . Only 250 trees bear signs with German names.' Stern magazine summed up the message of the film: 'One single man put . . . civil courage before German obedience.'

An unpleasant piece in Die Welt attacked Spielberg's historical accuracy arguing, among other things, that the clearing of the ghetto 'could not have been so bloody', because that would have been against the rules. But the predominant tone of the discussion has been very different.

In this respect, the crucial difference is one of generations. The 65-year-old author of the Welt article explained his indifference to the Schindler story: 'I was 16 at the end of the war. Like almost all Germans who only heard of Auschwitz in 1945, I found it an impertinence to be retrospectively smeared with blood.'

In the packed Hamburg cinema, there was scarcely a member of the audience old enough to have lived through the Nazi era. Their grandparents are still not keen to ask the question: 'How and why did we allow this to happen?' By contrast, younger generations are eager to understand, precisely in order to ensure that it cannot be repeated. The neo-Nazis remain a tiny minority, loathed by the great majority of Germans. In the words of a poster for the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, showing a picture of a neo-Nazi rally: 'Dreadful - that they have learnt nothing from history.'

The feelings of collective guilt have grown over the years, even as the individual guilt fades away with the passing of generations.