What is there to celebrate?

German penitence for the Third Reich is, at one level, an act of self-deception, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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NEXT weekend's VE Day anniversary has already been soured by dispute and embarrassment. Should President Clinton be coming to London as well as Moscow (if we want him)? Or, in a more recondite case, should the British government have invited the head of state of the cumbrously named Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?

But at least these arguments are about how the event should be marked rather than what it is. For one country the debate is different. For Germany, the question is not so much how to celebrate as what to celebrate: the country is in the paradoxical position of joyfully commemorating the greatest defeat in its history. It shows again how very hard it still is for the Germans to come to terms with their history.

Some Germans are resentful, or at least suspicious, about the whole celebration. More than 200 German conservatives, including members of the Bundestag, have issued a statement echoing the Historikerstreit, the historians' dispute of a few years ago on the nature of the origins of Nazi crimes. They call the final surrender of Germany in May 1945 the time when the nation was "saved and destroyed at the same time".

There is a danger, they warn, "that people will forget that this day was not only the end of the Nazi reign of terror, but also the beginning of expulsions by terror, oppression in the east, and partition of our country. A view of history which ignores or represses this reality or which compares it with other realities, cannot be a basis on which a self- confident nation comes to grips with itself."

With hindsight, it is true that the brutal expulsion of 12 million Germans from east and central Europe at the end of the war was an indefensible crime, even if some might say that to raise the matter at this moment is thick-skinned. Alas for those victims: different crimes ("other realities") had just been committed in the name of Germany that dwarfed anything in recorded history. Those conservative protesters have now been criticised in turn by the German Catholic bishops, who last week issued their own statement, recalling German aggression and genocide, and the failure of Germans, Catholics included, to resist Hitler's tyranny. But equally, when German conservatives talk of ignoring or repressing reality, they may have more of a point than they realise.

It is often said that the Federal Republic - West Germany as it was for 40 years after 1949 - was the only one of the successor states to the Third Reich to face up honestly to its legacy. Both East Germany and Austria pretended that National Socialism had nothing to do with them. By contrast, it was suggested, West Germany had been scrupulously honest, even to the point of morbid introspection and self-laceration. But it is only part of the truth; as Beethoven once said, the reverse is also true.

The creation of a democratic German republic was an astonishing achievement. Not only did Germany rise literally from the ashes of scores of devastated cities to rebuild the most prosperous economy in Europe; it rose also from the moral ashes of an atrocious regime, to become for the first time a stable constitutional democracy. To do that meant looking back on 1933- 45 without flinching.

Or almost without. There was no querying or extenuation of the deeds of Nazism ("Holocaust denial" is illegal in Germany). In the post-war decades, no German schoolchild was taught anything other than that Hitler was a wicked tyrant who had committed unspeakable crimes. So much so that the brighter children must have wondered something else: how had this monster become the leader of their (or their parents') country?

The truth is that, with all its apparent honesty and its uncompromising condemnation, the post-war line on the Third Reich involved an evasion of its own. It implied that Hitler had been a ghastly accident, something which had happened to the Germans almost without their noticing, or almost against their will. The Catholic bishops echo this when they call 1945 a liberation "from a criminal regime whose dictatorship was also aimed against its own people". Perhaps so. But this ignores the fact of Hitler's huge popularity among those "own people". It ignores also the possibility that, in A J P Taylor's brutal words, "it was no more of a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea, though the process is, I daresay, unpleasant for the fresh water". It pretends not only that Hitler's rise was an accident, but that his fall was inevitable.

This has led to an acute sensitivity. Just how sensitive is illustrated by the German reception of two popular entertainments, a film and a book. Schindler's List has been a smash hit in Germany, seen by hundreds of thousands. But, although Robert Harris's novel Fatherland was a bestseller in British and American editions and in numerous translations, it was turned down byGerman publishers (a German edition was eventually published in Switzerland).

Publishers don't look gift horses in the mouth. The difference is that Schindler's List deals with something which, however dreadful, Germans can bear. They know what happened in conquered Poland, and they can, after all, identify with the (albeit ambiguous) figure of Oskar Schindler rather than with the mass-murderer Amon Goeth. But Harris's ingenious thriller touches a rawer nerve: what might Germany have been like if Hitler had won and the victors had written the history?

Some German writers have emphasised Hitler's popularity in the 1930s. Joachim Fest, for example, the former editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and biographer of Hitler, has said, almost as if it were deliberately provocative to do so, that if Hitler had died after the Munich Agreement in 1938 he would have been the most popular leader Germany ever knew.

This misses the point. Hitler was intensely popular after the Nuremberg Laws, after the Kristallnacht pogrom, even after the Final Solution had begun in earnest. What reason is there to think that he would not have been even more popular if he had done all that and won the war and lived to a ripe old age? That is Harris's fantasy. And that, even as fantasy, is too painful for Germany to contemplate.

In Schindler's List, the behaviour of those in German uniform is so terrible and fantastic that none of us believes we could have been one of them. It colludes with the idea of the Final Solution as the work of a tiny minority of psychopaths; the "normal" army, the Wehrmacht, retained its honour intact.

This has been one of the comforting myths of post-war Germany, along with another which exaggerates the importance of the exiguous German resistance (an exhibition to that purpose has been showing in Washington, at the behest of the German embassy there, and apparently in discreet response to the huge success of the Holocaust Museum in the city). The myth has taken a hammering recently.

In his scholarly, harrowing book Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning describes a Wehrmacht battalion of middle-aged conscripts from Hamburg - the ordinary men of the title - who were sent to Poland. There they were set the task of killing Jewish women and children at close quarters, a task they duly performed, maybe without enthusiasm but also without demur.

One of these old soldiers told an interviewer that he didn't hesitate to do as he was told because he thought "the Jews were not going to escape their fate anyway". He added that "only later did it first occur to me that it had not been right", words which might be the motto of his whole generation.

A recent exhibition in Hamburg also examined the role of the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, telling the same story. Great numbers of ordinary men were complicit in truly extraordinary deeds. There can scarcely have been a man among the millions of Germans who served in the east, from senior staff officer to infantry private, who was unaware of what was happening to the Jews. One visitor to the exhibition wrote in the comment book, "Father, where were you?". It is the motto of another generation.

Germany has been, then, in a strange psychological condition - and it still is. It has had to treat as a "liberation" - the word still officially used for the VE celebrations - a defeat against which millions of Germans fought with great ferocity and bravery up until that very first week in May.

The German politicians and commentators who helped rebuild their country were strongly pro-Western and often Anglophile. The television journalist Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, for example, who has just died at 68, spent several years with the BBC in the early 1950s before beginning his career in Cologne. Their attitude to their conquerors showed genuine affection. Surviving liberals of that generation such as Rudolf Augstein, former editor of Der Spiegel, still regularly express their gratitude to the British and Americans for liberating Germany.

And yet if Germany was liberated in 1945, it was in the sense not of a prisoner being freed from captivity but of a junkie being freed from his addiction. To talk otherwise of liberation is certainly to ignore or repress reality, though not perhaps in the sense those conservative protesters intend.

Their intervention raises more questions than it answers. East Prussia and Silesia would still be German today and those 12 million would still live there if Hitler hadn't plunged Europe into war, with the enthusiastic support of so many Germans. To put it another way, the expulsions, the division and the oppressions that they lament would not have happened if Hitler had won and his New Order still reigned in Europe. But can even German conservatives follow through their own logic rigorously enough to wish that that had been so?

He did not win. He lost, and then performed a final service to Germany by dying and disappearing into smoke. It was an act of ritual magic, or ritual sacrifice, assuming the sins of a nation. And it was that act as much as Allied arms which made possible the "liberation" that Germany now celebrates.

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