Sunday, 29 April 2007

Ghosts of the Past

The Filbinger affair, and Germany’s search for ’normality’.

In 1978, Hans Filbinger was forced to resign as premier of Germany's South-Western region, Baden-Württemberg, when the Nazi bureaucracy's meticulous filing cabinets proved beyond all doubt that as a prosecutor in World War II he had asked for a teenage army deserters to be put to death.

But guilt, apparently, lies in the eye of the beholder. Filbinger never admitted that his actions during the Nazi regime had been wrong. Instead, he opined: “What was just then, can't be unjust now”.

Until he died on April 1st of this year, Filbinger remained an honorary president of the Christian Democratic Party – to which Chancellor Angela Merkel also belongs. At party conferences, he continued to be given a place of honor. Nevertheless, most of the country's establishment had distanced itself from him. The Filbinger affair remained in the national conscience as a watershed event, which stood for an uneasy yet earnest confrontation with Germany's Nazi past.

But last week, at Filbinger's funeral, his successor Günter Öttinger, ignoring plain historical fact, claimed: “Hans Filbinger never was a National Socialist. On the contrary, he was an opponent of the Nazi regime.” In case any doubt remained about the revisionist intentions of the speech, Öttinger hammered the message home even more brutally: “Filbinger did not hand down any judgements which caused anyone to lose their life.”

This was not just a momentary rhetorical lapse. Nor does Öttinger merely have a peculiar conception of what an opponent of Nazism is – it would have to be very peculiar for a member of the SA and the NSDAP, a judge who in one instance continued to apply Nazi law even after German capitulation, to qualify. No: Öttinger's office freely admitted that the speech was carefully crafted, and had been discussed in detail.

This leaves only two possibilities. Either the speech was a deliberate political ploy to appeal to the party's far-right. Or Öttinger, who belongs to the first generation of German leaders to be born after World War II, no longer sees the need for truth or tact in dealing with the past. In the first case, the renewed Filbinger affair, which has been monopolising German front pages for the past week, would be a shocking instance of ill-judged populism, but of limited importance. In the second case, it would stand for a wider trend in German society, with potentially far-reaching implications.

Unfortunately, the latter interpretation is the more plausible one.

An earlier generation of obstinate revisionists was primarily concerned with white-washing the post-war German elite – many of whom, in their youth, had been all too willing to participate in the Nazi frenzy, just like Filbinger. But by now, those implicated in Nazi crimes have either died, or retired from public life. For the likes of Öttinger, then, the trivialization of the historical guilt of Filbinger and others is no end in itself. Rather, it is a necessary means to a more ambitious goal: to allow Germany once again to be unthinkingly nationalist.

This would not pose much of a problem if Germans actually were capable of expressing straightforward patriotism without much reflection. But in reality, a sense of "normal nationalism", though much talked about and even more ardently desired in recent years, remains elusive. In reality, Germany's new-found nationalism, for many, is predicated on drawing a categorical “Schlusstrich”, or concluding line, under the country's self-critical preoccupation with its past.

The problem is that for a nation in search of normality – which other country, by the way, desires first of all to be normal? – normality will forever be elusive. As long as Germans keep telling each other in all-too-audible stage whispers not to talk about the past, nationalism and historical honesty will continue to prove incompatible.

The desire to block all things relating to Germany's not-so-normal past out of view also makes impossible a real battle against the resurgent far-right. Neo-Nazis are gaining an ever firmer grip on community life in certain areas of the country; at the last state elections, which were held in the Northeastern region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 18 % of voters aged 18 to 24 voted for the Neo-Nazi party NPD; and according to recently released records, xenophobic as well as anti-Semitic crimes have reached new record heights last year.

It's true that the way to fight these developments does not consist in over-dramatizing them as though a Fourth Reich was just around the corner – it is not. But democrats must worry and react when the extreme right-wing is gathering such momentum. The need to pretend that everything is normal can hardly be helpful in this respect. On the contrary, it encourages wilful ignorance, as expressed by Germany's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble – a political ally of Öttinger – when he insisted that the racist murder of a black German engineer was no big deal: “After all, crimes are committed every day against Germans with blond hair and blue eyes”.

It thus seems that, despite decades of similar controversies, every generation of German elites has to learn anew to reconcile their patriotism with seriousness about the past and vigilance in the present.

Up until now, those politicians who loved their country yet managed to express sincere regret about the Nazi past have usually carried the day. Unforgotten, for example, are the breathtaking pictures of former Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the monument for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in December 1970. At first, a majority of Germans loathed him for it – but over time, especially after Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize, most came to agree that the gesture had been appropriate.

It is difficult to imagine Angela Merkel accomplishing such a historic gesture. Her style is too discreet and rational for symbolism of this kind. But she did what the last Christian Democratic Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, most probably would have failed to do – publicly reprimand Öttinger.

Merkel's frank words did not exactly help to solidify her standing within her own party which, by and large, had cheered Öttinger's remarks from the sidelines. Indeed, some senior politicians declared that Merkel's protest, not Öttinger's original remarks, were the real scandal. But her intervention did force him to publish an apology of sorts, if only after days of obstinate wavering.

Let's hope that most Germans, undeniably keen for their country to express patriotism more prominently, will turn to Brandt's courage or Merkel's sober honesty, not Filbinger's and Öttinger's distorting idyll of 'normality', for a source of inspiration. If – and it is a considerable if – the renewed debate about Filbinger has helped Germany make that choice, some good might, after all, have come from it.

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