Jews tell Germany to beware amnesia

Imre Karacs
Tuesday 10 November 1998 01:02
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SIXTY YEARS after Kristallnacht, the new, forward-looking Germany, personified by the Chancellor, received a sharp rebuke yesterday from leading Jewish figures.

On the 60th anniversary of the night of pogroms in which synagogues were burnt and Jewish shop windows smashed, Ignatz Bubis, the leader of the Jewish community in Germany, warned that a growing number of the country's elite were again flirting with anti-Semitism.

"Intellectual nationalism is on the increase," Mr Bubis said at the Berlin ceremony commemorating Kristallnacht, "and is not wholly free of an undercurrent of anti-Semitism."

Mr Bubis, a concentration camp survivor, accused the German media of selective memory. "One cannot only look to the glorious sides of history and suppress the unpleasant ones," he said. "Those who are not prepared to address this aspect of history and try to look away or to forget, must accept that history can be repeated."

Sitting in the front row of the synagogue where the Jewish leader delivered his thundering address was Gerhard Schroder, the new Chancellor who will be moving the government back to Berlin early next year. Mr Schroder, 54, the first German leader to have no recollection of the war, has shown reluctance to carry the historical baggage with the humility of his predecessors. Whilst his Christian Democrat predecessor, Helmut Kohl, wishes to be remembered as the "Chancellor of Peace", there seems little room for the past in Mr Schroder's brave new world.

The new Chancellor said as much in a statement issued on the eve of the anniversary: "Sixty years on, we look forward, without forgetting the past." The balance between all this forward-looking and not forgetting is what Mr Bubis and fellow Jews now see endangered, especially as some intellectuals seem determined to reclaim the past.

Mr Bubis' ire was provoked by a speech delivered last month by one of Germany's greatest authors, Martin Walser. Accepting a prestigious prize at the Frankfurt book fair, Mr Walser complained that constant references to Germany's Nazi past were being used to "instrumentalise our shame for contemporary purposes". This, he implied, was to perpetuate national guilt, inflicting it on new generations.

The ovation that greeted this speech was perceived by Mr Bubis as evidence of the growing respectability of extreme right-wing views in German society. The Israeli ambassador weighed in on Mr Bubis' side at another commemoration in Munich yesterday. "Anyone who tries to forget the past is living with a corpse in the basement," Avi Primor said.

Germany's President, Ro- man Herzog, speaking after Mr Bubis, accepted that the danger of amnesia existed, with one recent poll showing one German teenager out of seven has never heard of Auschwitz.

"Our children don't have an idea any more what a dictatorship, degradation and mass annihilation really means, how all these horrors don't just befall a people all at once, and how necessary, therefore, it is to pay attention to the small signs at the beginning," he said. "I'm not sure if we've found the right way to prepare the successive generations for this fundamental necessity."

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