Germans, too, hail D-Day 'liberation': Steve Crawshaw in Bonn finds an readiness among people today to shoulder the burdens of history

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The Independent Online
Such a trifling distance, as the plane flies. The journey from Heathrow to Cologne is shorter than the time it takes many Londoners to get to Heathrow. And yet, such a wealth of misunderstandings persist.

Thus, before Monday's anniversary of the D-Day landings, the tone of the British discussion constantly implied that Germany was still the vanquished enemy which must secretly resent the defeat inflicted upon it, 50 years ago. Some MPs appear to live in the land of Fawlty Towers with Basil's 'don't- talk-about-the-war' prescription for coping with German guests.

There was bemusement in London when Chancellor Helmut Kohl let it be known that he would like an invitation to the Normandy ceremonies, please. Why on earth, came the startled British question, does he wish to be reminded of the war?

Mr Kohl's sense of tact and timing may be questioned. If no invitation was forthcoming, why press for one, thus creating an embarrassing issue? But the idea that Mr Kohl and his fellow-Germans must regard the Normandy landings as a 50-year-old humiliation - the less spoken of the better - is based on a misunderstanding, of Fawltyian proportions.

Again and again, Germans emphasise the importance of D- Day as liberation, on behalf of a better Germany. German television carried live reports from Normandy and extended news bulletins about the anniversary. One headline yesterday said: 'Battle against tyranny is honoured.' The mass-circulation daily Bild noted: 'The invasion liberated Western Europe from the Nazi yoke, and brought freedom and democracy to Germany.'

This view is widely held. Theo Sommer, publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, wrote: 'We do not have to be present for the celebrations. But we Germans, too, have reason to remember with gratitude the Allied landings. With our own strength, we were unable to break the tyranny . . . There could only be one form of liberation: defeat.'

Somehow, this view of Germany's history failed to cross the Channel. It got lost, amidst the cartoons of goosesteps and jackboots. And yet, for most Germans, Hitler's defeat is seen as the end of a nightmare.

In an opinion poll in the weekly Die Woche, carried out for the anniversary, two-thirds said they would not wish to live in Germany, if Hitler had won the war. A mere 13 per cent believed it was 'not good' that Germany lost the war. Two-thirds of those born before 1940 and three-quarters of those born after 1940 thought that the end of the Second World War meant liberation for their country. If the poll had been broken down further, to indicate those born after 1950 or 1960, the figure would probably have been higher still.

In the immediate post-war period, those who had lived through the war were unwilling to accept responsibility for the crimes of the recent past. Die Woche noted, 'In view of the Nazi crimes, the condemnation of the Nazi regime and its war of aggression should be self-evident. For many years, however, Germans saw things differently. In the 1950s, a great majority of West Germans believed that their country was not even responsible for the outbreak of war.'

As the poll shows, things have changed. Younger generations are unaffected by individual guilt. And partly because of the historical distance, today's Germans are more inclined to shoulder the burden of history and to ask tough questions about their country's past. The enormous and continuing impact of Schindler's List in Germany is not just about the enormity of the Nazi crimes, but also about two key questions: How could the nightmare have happened? And why did so few resist?

Given the blanket rejection of the Nazi legacy, there is confusion at the determination to see Germany as a leopard that has failed to change its spots. (It should be noted that today's murderous violence, by a few Sieg Heil-chanting skinheads, is regarded with loathing by the rest of society.)

There has been bemused comment on the mass-marketing of the D-Day landings - including picture-spreads of young families dressed up in historic uniforms. Mostly, however, the tone has been serious, with warm tributes to the achievements of Allied veterans, and the horrors that they went through. Basil Fawlty, and Basil's friends in Britain today, would have been amazed.