A second miracle in Germany: Gitta Sereny sees hope in the angry response to neo-Nazism

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The Independent Online
WE - meaning the British media - appear determined to convey the impression that in Germany, burning and looting, desecrating cemeteries and smearing swastikas is the order of the day. German-bashing, understandably in fashion for many years after the war, has come back with a vengeance.

I know a lot of Germans; I have lived there, worked there, know their language, their literature and music and their history. I loathed them during the war and despised the refusal of the Hitler generation to admit their guilt. But then it changed . . . more than in the rest of Europe. Hitler's children had grown up. They now wrote the books, made the films, ran the war crimes trials and edited the newspapers.

I grew to admire their work, virtually all of which, whatever the genre, focused on that epitome of evil that they called their 'recent past'. I grew to admire that first post-war generation, most of them children of Nazis, who pondered their roots, ruthlessly questioned their past, and took careful steps into a different future; and I grew to know and love their children, who were all the more innocent for their grand- and great-grandparents' guilt.

Let me tell you about one of them. I will call him Hans. I have known him since he was born, to parents who were teachers, a grandfather who was an MP, an uncle who was a cultural beacon of post-war German morality. His world in that economic-miracle Germany was an airy house in Munich, home-from- home to visitors from all over the world.

Sometimes the children's questions pulled us up short, such as an evening when the film-maker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg told us about the making of his documentary about Hitler's friend Winifred Wagner - Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law - and eight-year-old Hans suddenly asked: 'What is a Jew?' This was 35 years or so after the Nazis.

Of course, Hans had heard endless talk about the 'recent past', but it was only words. 'What is a Jew?' he had to ask, and even while we looked at each other in dismay - for the fact was that after Hitler there were virtually no Jews in Munich - we became quickly aware of another side; if he, who among his parents' visitors had unknowingly met numerous Jews, knew it only as a word, then Hitler had truly lost.

But this was 13 years ago, in a Germany at the peak of rehabilitation, of wealth and stability. The economic miracle permitted West Germany to indulge: on the positive side, there was development of every kind, economic and industrial as well as scientific, intellectual and moral; on the negative side, West Germans became dependent on being rich, with the accompanying need for ever more wealth to which politicians had to cater. This 'I want' syndrome is common to much of Western society. In Germany, however, the state was an artificial creation - the miracle could not endure.

'Remember, remember' were almost the last words Albert Speer said to me shortly before he died, 'small is beautiful' - a significant realisation, one might think, for Hitler's 'monumentalist' architect and minister of production. But I did remember that in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, and did not rejoice.

And I could soon see the changes, not least in those who had once been innocent children. For years Hans's ambition had been to work for the good of others. But 1990 was the year when he had to make that decision. And, suddenly, security had gone. Where before all doors had been open to young west Germans, now they began to close. As anxieties surfaced and increased, ambitions changed and so did the sense of moral and civic responsibility that life in post-war West Germany had engendered. 'Academia? Certainly not,' Hans said in 1991, when he stayed overnight in London. 'I'm not crazy. I'm going into business.'

But late that night, over a bottle of wine, I could still feel the essence of what had been my questioning young friend. We had watched a television documentary of east German skinheads being urged into action by a British neo-Nazi. 'Why does your media play this up?' Hans asked. 'If you'd ignore them, they'd stop: they feed on opposition. I'm sick of the lot of them.'

I knew what he meant: first the Nazis and the Communists with their entirely similar horrors; but then Algeria, Vietnam, Watergate, Cambodia, Irangate, Israel and the Arabs; Saddam Hussein and the Kurds, Ceausescu and the dying children. And in South Africa and South America, torturers not an iota better than the Nazis - killing blacks because they are black, and children because they are unwanted. And finally, neighbour killing neighbour, and religion battling religion, across that magically beautiful country that used to be Yugoslavia.

With all these apparently unending horrors, the mindless attacks of a few disaffected youths in Germany - in Britain, in France and in America - against people of different colours, cultures or different religions can, as we see to our shame in Britain, become almost legitimised in a perversion of 'freedom of speech and expression' and thus 'acceptable'.

In Germany, however - and this may be the second miracle of this new 'Reich' - it is not acceptable. The country has officially closed its borders to Nazi agitators and begun to outlaw the most offensive racist louts, on whom, strenuously emphasising the fact that they are Germans, we in Britain have expended so many words. Meanwhile, this was how other Germans felt and what they did:

On 3 October, 50,000 Germans demonstrated against racism in four cities; on 8 November, 350,000 candle-carrying Germans demonstrated in Berlin, 10,000 in other cities; on 11 November, 100,000 people walked through Cologne and 100,000 more in Hanover, Frankfurt and again Berlin; on 14 November, more than 150,000 demonstrated in Bonn; on 22 November, 2,000 in Berlin; on 23-24 November, 10,000 in various cities and in Molln, where two Turkish children and a grandmother had been killed; and on 25 November, 20,000 mourners attended a memorial service in Hamburg.

I spoke to Hans last night. 'I was wrong,' he said. 'We can't ignore them: we can't allow it to go on.' He had travelled to three cities last month to take part in anti-racist demonstrations and last week in his home town, Munich, the city that gave birth to the Nazis, he was one of the 350,000 who held a candle-lit vigil of protest.

(Photograph omitted)