Year XLI, 1999, Number 3, Page 200
GERMANY AND THE “PAST THAT WILL NOT GO AWAY”
The never-ending debate on the relationship between the Germans and their history, a debate that has never been absent from the country’s political and cultural scene since the end of the Second World War, has recently intensified once again following the decision by the Bundestag to erect, in Berlin, a vast installation to commemorate the Holocaust.
It is worth going back over the main phases in this long debate, which has still to reach its conclusion. In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, it centred — above all thanks to the contribution of Karl Jaspers — on the question of the collective responsibility of the German people. The late 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in the debate focusing on the so-called Historikerstreit, which was sparked off by the historian Ernst Nolte who published a book in which he “explained” Nazism as a reaction to Bolshevism. A “revisionist” trend, inspired by his views, grew up among historians and, at the time, was accused of trivialising Nazism by seeking to identify its causes, thus denying its very character, i.e., its monstrous singularity that prevents it from being attributed an explanation that would place it on an equal footing with other dictatorships. As far as the “anti-revisionist” historians were concerned, the only way of viewing Nazism was through recourse to the idea of radical evil. According to these views, German history lay beyond the bounds of the interpretational categories developed by historiography and the social sciences, and can be interpreted only according to the moral canons of condemnation, repentance and atonement.
The most recent phase of the debate was triggered by a speech given by the writer Martin Walser at Frankfurt’s Paulskirche on October 11th, 1998. His position rested on the key idea of “normality”, in other words, of the right of the German people to live like other peoples, free from the obsessive harking back to the terrible specificity of its past: a right to forget which appears indisputable in an age in which the last generation old enough to have meaningful recollections of life under the Nazi regime is on the point of exiting definitively from the political stage. In Martin Walser’s view, the continuous public renewal of the memory of a “past that will not go away” on the one hand assumes the significance of mere ritual (and thus is not felt deeply by Germans), and on the other is used as an instrument in the pursuit of precise power interests. The time has come, according to Walser, to leave facing up to Nazism as a matter for the individual conscience.
Walser’s concern seems, at first glance, justifiable. And yet his arguments are bound to transmit a sense of deep unease which stems from the fact that not only the will to remember, but also the will to forget can be, and indeed are, exploitable. Those who (and they include Chancellor Schroder) would like Germans to be able to forget, or at least be at peace with, their past are the same ones who would like to see Germany once again engaged (free from complexes and hypocrisy) in the pursuit of its own national interests, even when these are irreconcilable with the furtherance of the process of European unification.
The fact that we are witnessing, in what is the most highly populated and economically strong European state, located geographically at the very heart of the continent, a re-emergence of a complex-free, national political approach, cannot fail to generate anxieties. And in fact, such anxieties are now becoming evident and compromising relations between the governments of the Union. On the other hand, the claim for “normality” is entirely legitimate. The overwhelming majority of Germans living today cannot be regarded as having the co-responsibility — even through omission — for the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. It is therefore senseless to load the sons with guilt for crimes committed by the fathers. Just as it is senseless to envisage, for this population, a future dominated by obsession with the never-ending demand for atonement.
The time has come to identify the route which might allow the German people not to cancel out their history but, free from guilt complexes, to absorb it — to regard it in the context of a temporal continuum whose past and future dimensions allow it not to be atoned for, so much as overcome.
The first step in this direction must be a rigorously critical appraisal of the idea of nation. The people of today have not yet managed to divorce themselves from the notion that a state’s legitimising principle is the existence of eternal and indivisible entities, i.e nations, which, transcending the identity of individuals, are founded on the idea of a sort of collective individual with its own character, memory and will. When this collective individual sins, the responsibility for the sin falls on its members who, as far as they feel bound by a tie that unites not only individuals, but generations, assume as their own the guilt for the crimes of their nation, even when these were committed before were born. But, essential as it is, critical appraisal of the idea of the nation is not enough. Certainly, the nation is a myth, and must be exposed as such. Nations are not collective individuals; they have been presented thus solely as a means of legitimising a form of state. But myths do contain an element of reality in so far as they motivate the behaviour of men. And it is impossible not to reckon with the reality that is the nation, a reality that is still deeply rooted in beliefs and attitudes and which has produced, in the recent and distant past, catastrophes of terrifying dimensions. Furthermore, its destiny is welded to the reality of the national state, of which it represents the justification. Undoubtedly, the reality that is the nation-state, in Europe at least, is in a state of crisis. But it is equally beyond doubt that, in the absence of alternatives, it continues to constitute the main framework of reference shaping the expectations and political behaviour both of the citizens and the European states. Thus, for as long as it remains within the bounds of pure theory, criticism of the idea of nation will continue to serve little purpose. It needs to acquire substance within a political design whose aim is to change the framework of reference for the expectations and political behaviour of the people of Europe, in other words, to overcome the nation-state.
In the current stage of maturation reached by the historical process, the federal unification of Europe is the objective that coincides with that of the overcoming of the nation-state. The coherent pursuit of this objective would allow the Germans, and with the Germans, the Europeans (and in the much longer term, all the peoples of the world), not only actively to overcome the idea of nation, but also to establish a new relationship with the past, and in particular, with the tragic experience of Nazism. Viewed in the context of the unification of Europe, and at some later time, of the unification ofthe entire human race, Nazism emerges as a decisive episode in the long process that is the historical crisis of the nation-state: as a crazy attempt (crazy because of its impossibility) to re-establish the global supremacy of the German nation-state at a time when the growth of interdependence in human relations meant that the national dimension had already been superseded, leaving the states that conserved it condemned to a subordinate role in the new global equilibrium that was taking shape.
The exceptional nature of Nazi barbarity is neither modified, nor trivialised, by explaining it in the light of the exceptional circumstances in which it came to the fore, in other words, the crisis affecting the European balance of power and the end, after four centuries, of the dominion of Europe’s nation-states. It is precisely to the highly extraordinary nature of the historical change that was taking that the pathological behaviour of all the European governments, and their peoples, in the inter-war period can be attributed: a period in which the exceptional ferocity of the Nazis was, as shown by the Treaty of Versailles and the events of the twenty years following its signature, met with exceptional blindness and irresponsibility on the part of those who emerged victorious from the Great War.
It is only through this realisation that the Germans can free themselves from the burden of their history, from the tragic dilemma between the quest to achieve normality through oblivion — or through historical explanations that are, in fact, nothing more than attempts to justify a past for which there can be no justification — and the continuous and sterile atonement for the sins committed by others, which precludes any vision for the future, suffocates hope and renders action impossible.
But connecting Nazism with the process that is the crisis of the nation-state, a process of historical formation whose beginnings can be traced back not only to Germany, but to the whole of Europe, means acknowledging that the German people cannot be left alone to re-create their historical awareness; that their problem is the problem of all Europeans. And whether the Europeans will prove able to solve it will depend on the degree to which they are able to shoulder this burden appreciating that responsibility for Nazism lies not only with the Germans, and that in the tragic phase between Hitler’s rise to power and the end of the Second World War, the people of Germany were cast as much in the role of victims as of persecutors.
Certainly, it is not a question of returning to the idea of collective guilt, this time at European level, because such an interpretation of Nazism can be internalised only if it accompanies a political design for the federal unification of Europe: and this implies the overcoming of the idea of nation, and thus the negation of any responsibility on the part of the Europeans of today for crimes committed by others in the past. What is needed is an awareness that the nightmare of Nazism cannot be shaken off by demonising a single people. Mankind cannot free itself from radical evil, and no people can consider itself constitutionally virtuous. The evil element that led the Nazis to power still exists in Europe, not only in the former Yugoslavia, but also in the peaceful and democratic countries of Western Europe. Today, such elements are prevented by the prevailing circumstances from becoming a political force. But were circumstances to change — in particular, were the process of European unification to fail — their would-be leaders would worm their way rapidly to the surface and, in all likelihood, the attitude of guilty tolerance that allowed Hitler to commit his misdeeds, would once more become widespread among common citizens.
Nowadays, with the choice between the preservation of the nation-state and the foundation of the European federation increasingly assuming the character of a concrete and imminent political choice, it is more important than ever to keep alive in the collective conscience the memory of the crimes committed by the Nazis. It would be highly irresponsible to forget that the centuries-old process that is the crisis of the nation-state does not prevent the views which spawned them from continuing to exist and from representing potentially fertile ground for the cultivation of violence and the abuse of power. Conserving, with vigilance and care, the memory of what has been is thus the fundamental prerequisite for the choice of freedom over barbarity.