Since coming to live in Germany I have become accustomed to a familiar pattern in conversations about the Second World War, a pattern that is both depressing and encouraging at the same time. When talking to a 70- year-old, I can expect that any reference to the evils of Nazism will be hedged about with ifs, buts and on-the-other-hands. "The pressures were enormous; it would have been impossible to resist." "Other countries committed crimes, too, of course." "Ordinary people, you must understand, had no idea what was going on." There are heartening exceptions. But they serve only to prove the dismal rule.
The average 30-year-old German, by contrast - who feels less directly threatened by history - takes it for granted that the Hitler era was a cancer. The fact that millions of Germans supported the Fhrer is regarded as a cause for incomprehension or condemnation, or both.
The most recent attempt to set the (real) suffering of ordinary Germans against officially sponsored genocide is a sickening version of even-handedness. So, too, is the failure to disentangle cause and effect. But it has received short shrift. It has, in effect, been a noisy blip.
One need only look back 25 years to be reminded that there was a time when things looked different. When John Le Carr wrote his poisonously accurate portrait of Bonn, A Small Town in Germany, the idea that the Federal Republic could still be swept off its feet by resentful nationalism still seemed compellingly plausible. Germans were ready to see themselves as victims who had suffered at the hands of the Allies. In the eyes of the West, the sarcastic populist Karfeld tells the indignant crowds, "Democracy is to visit your conscience on the Germans! Democracy is to know that whatever you do, you will never, never be as bad as the Germans!"
Such bitterness has not entirely vanished, even today. But those Poor- Little-Us sentiments represent a lost cause, in terms of mass support.
Germany's turnaround in the years after 1945 was remarkable. Out of the ruins came forth prosperity. Full bellies and complacency replaced hunger and despair. It was an extraordinary transformation - based partly on self-belief. What you believe you can do, you can do. But the post- war growth of a civil society is, in many respects, even more remarkable than Germany's economic strength today.
Could anyone in May 1945 have believed that Germany might become a positive role model - for example, when the former occupied countries of Eastern Europe, 40 years later, sought advice on creating a stable democracy?
In 1945 the majority of Germans were not pining for democracy. Indeed, as the Sddeutsche Zeitung pointed out, the debate that has erupted over 8 May as "liberation" (the official, politically-correct version) or "defeat" is misconceived. "Liberation" is a word that unintentionally lets Germans off the hook. As the Sddeutsche noted: "Anybody who says that Germany in 1945 was liberated is asserting at the same time that the overwhelming majority of Germans were not perpetrators, but victims. That is a distortion which goes against all known historical facts."
Equally, however, even a disease-ridden organism can eventually become healthy. Germany's own worries about a possible relapse themselves help to inoculate the modern body politic. In France, when a right-wing nationalist party gains 15 per cent of the vote there is little more than an international blink. In Germany, by contrast, the far-right Republicans were barely a dot on the electoral landscape in October 1994, but still gain regular headlines.
After 1945 the new West German democracy remained full of dark secrets - in other words, was profoundly undemocratic. Parents did not talk to their children about the past. "Don't ask us too many questions, and we won't tell you too many lies." (In East Germany, an even simpler version of life was created, whereby all the sins of the past were laid at the feet of the West.)
The lack of openness exploded in 1968 with a dramatic confrontation between generations which sought to break down the decades of silence. This was more than just a student rebellion: it was a historic time of reckoning. The Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, too, emerged at this time - not out of a vacuum, but as a vicious by-product of the same unresolved tensions.
Then, in the Eighties, came the rise of the Greens, a radical, pacifist party that rejected violence of any kind. Now, in the Nineties, the Greens are more powerful than ever, almost part of the establishment. That, too, is part of the post-war journey through democracy. The Green leader, Joschka Fischer, is widely regarded as a more effective opposition leader than Rudolf Scharping, ponderous leader of the Social Democrats.
Support for the Greens is based not just on their environmental policies but also, crucially, on their emphasis on civic duty. In this respect, they are by no means isolated. Indeed, there has been a tentative flirtation in recent months between the Greens and the Christian Democrats.
The importance of the moral imperative can be traced directly back to the experience of 1933-45. Germany discovered in the following decades that the only way to move forward was to find an ethical compass. A civil society was born.
When three Turks were burnt alive in an arson attack in November 1992, the murders triggered huge demonstrations across Germany. The candle-lit marches were slyly compared by some to the torchlight parades of the Hitler era. In reality the stand-up-and-be-counted mood was much closer to the optimistic defiance of the crowds who toppled totalitarian regimes in eastern Europe in 1989.
Today's anniversary has a very different tone in Britain and Germany. For Britain, 8 May 1945 means above all tales of glory and heroism. That may be justified, but it is also psychologically easy. If Britain wanted to, it could feel equally proud of its role in helping to lay the foundations of German democracy after 1945. But that is a less popular pastime, for it means moving away from the cosiest memory of all, when it really was the Good Guys versus the Bad Guys and nothing more.
For Germany, in sharp contrast to Britain, the end of the Second World War means scratching at sores that never quite go away. There has been a veritable outpouring in advance of today's anniversary - on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines.
In the long term the transformation of Germany may contain a message of hope for others in Europe. Today Russians feel a burning sense of resentment at their current plight, and little responsibility or shame for their country's past crimes. Germany serves as a reminder that this need not be the end of the story. With luck, a responsible democracy can eventually be created, even in Russia, even out of a moral void.Reuse content