The Big Question: Has Germany at last come to terms with the legacy of Adolf Hitler?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

Because the Swiss-Jewish director Dani Levy's film Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, which opened yesterday in Berlin, is the first attempt by a group of German film-makers to produce a comedy about Hitler. No German has dared to make a comedy film about the Nazi leader before.

Are there any precedents?

There are no German precedents for a comedy about Hitler. Most films that have attempted to satirise the Nazi leader in the past have been made by Americans. Dani Levy admits that his comedy is loosely based on Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic The Great Dictator. Ernst Lubitsch made another comedy about Hitler called To Be Or Not To Be. Mel Brooks has also produced a musical film comedy, The Producers, about the Nazis.

All these films have been shown in Germany and most of them have been well received - probably because they were made by foreigners and not Germans. It is doubtful whether a non-Jewish German could have got away with making a comedy film about Hitler even today.

How have previous German films dealt with the Third Reich?

Since the 1960s, German film and television audiences have been fed a deadly serious and frequently turgid diet of films and documentaries about the Nazi era. Most of the films have been produced by historians who specialise on the subject. A breakthrough occurred in the 1980s with a notable American TV series on the Holocaust, which was shown nationwide on German television and attracted huge audiences. The series was popular largely because it humanised a subject that was hitherto considered a source of national shame. Steven Spielberg's 1990s epic Schindler's List was another milestone and prompted German schoolteachers to take their classes to see the film, which explicitly deals with the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp.

Two years ago, the German film director Bernd Eichinger produced Downfall, which depicted Hitler during his last days in his underground Führerbunker beneath the ruins of Berlin. The film was heavily criticised in Germany for giving Hitler a "human face", but it nevertheless attracted huge audiences.Downfall was given a far more enthusiastic reception abroad.

Was there a taboo in portraying Hitler?

There was never an outright taboo in western Germany, although comedies about the Nazi leader have never been made in Germany until now. Hitler was, and still is, a source of national shame. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, today's generation of younger Germans may not feel individual guilt for the crimes of the Nazi era, but most feel a special responsibility for their country's war crimes.

The shattering experience of the Second World War and the Nazi era has convinced a vast majority of Germans that war is fundamentally wrong and to be avoided at all costs. Such sentiments go a long way to explain why the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder received wholesale support for his decision to oppose ardently the American invasion of Iraq. Schröder's opposition to the Iraq war helped him snatch victory from opposition conservatives during Germany's 2002 general election.

Do attitudes differ in the former GDR?

When it comes to attitudes towards the Nazi era, if anything, the former East Germans are more vehemently opposed to war and the Nazi era than their fellow citizens in the west. Collectively, East Germans feel they have been made to pay twice for the defeat of the Third Reich.

First, they were occupied by the Soviet Red Army - a force far more hostile than the western allied powers - which stripped the country of much of its industry. Second, their country was controlled by a Moscow-backed totalitarian regime and fenced off by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall for 28 years, from 1961 until 1989. Citizens who attempted to escape to the west were shot by Kalashnikov-toting East German border guards.

Such deprivations were worse than anything experienced by the citizens of capitalist West Germany. They enjoyed massive injections of western cash to help them rebuild their economy and develop democracy. In contrast to East Germans, the West Germans enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of most of western Europe during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

What about the recent rise in German neo-Nazi activity?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, eastern Germany has witnessed a resurgence of the neo-Nazi far right. The neo-Nazi National Democratic Partyholds seats in two regional parliaments in the former East Germany, and there have been countless incidents in which foreigners and asylum seekers have been beaten up or even killed by far-right skinhead gangs.

The leaders of Germany's Jewish community complained only this year of an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism and warned about an upsurge in neo-Nazi attacks on their opponents. After several activists for Germany's Social Democratic Party were savagely beaten by far-right skinheads in the run-up to a state election last year, one Jewish community leader said the atmosphere was comparable to that experienced during the rise of Hitler's Nazis during the 1930s.

Commentators attribute the rise of the far right in the east to the frustration felt by many former East Germans about the region's massive unemployment. They also argue that the East Germans are reacting against the taboo imposed on them by successive communist governments.

How is the Third Reich viewed now?

A German-made comedy film about Hitler, which comes hard on the heels of an explicit, close-up portrayal of the Nazi leader during his final days in the Berlin bunker, show that today's Germans are prepared to confront the Hitler issue in a more relaxed manner. Even 10 years ago, Hitler was considered a subject that should be treated with exceptional gravitas. It was a theme for historians rather than German film-makers.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume the Germans have finally come to terms with their past. With the exception of the Eighties film Das Boot, which deals with Germany's World War II U-Boat offensive, there have been few German directors who have madefilms about the Second World War. There is no German equivalent to London's Imperial War Museum.

Das Boot and a 1990s film about the German army's catastrophic defeat at the battle of Stalingrad did nothing to glorify the German army or nation. They both went out of their way to depict the misery of fighting battles under a dictatorship.

Do Germans still feel guilty about the Third Reich?

Yes...

* The massive criticism that has accompanied films that depict Hitler shows that the Nazi era is still a hugely sensitive subject

* The Germans are highly defensive when they are jokingly compared to Nazis - particularly by Britain's tabloid press

* The German government still makes regular reparation payments to former Nazi slave labourers and Holocaust victims

No...

* Most Germans born after 1945 do not feel personally guilty for the crimes of the Nazi era but they do feel a special responsibility

* A German-made film comedy about Adolf Hitler shows the Nazi era is seen as part of history rather than a looming presence

* The rise of neo-Nazi political parties suggests that a small minority of Germans have never felt guilty about the Third Reich

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