Dresden vs. Auschwitz

In today's Germany, guilt over the Holocaust is no longer taken for granted, says the author of a new book on the culture of German memory.

In February 2005, Dr. Gilad Margalit visited Dresden. The winter of 2005 was cold, but at the events marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of the city it was hot. Very hot. About 5,000 neo-Nazis descended on Dresden from all over Germany and from throughout Europe for the big demonstration on February 13, a Sunday.

It was a colorful, violent demonstration that sought to carve out territory in the streets and especially in the national consciousness. The massive physical presence of the demonstrators only heightened the growing recognition in Germany in recent years that the time has come to make it plain that the victims of World War II did not have a monopoly on suffering.

The questions of who suffered more and who is more to blame are not new questions in Germany, but they have been increasingly troubling the Germans. Responsibility and guilt feelings are no longer self-evident.

"It was a huge demonstration," Margalit recalls. "All the streams of this scene were there, from the wildest radicals - tattooed, skinhead thugs - to local members of parliament, well-dressed, pleasant-smelling people. They marched to commemorate the bombing raids on the city, which have come to symbolize the suffering of the entire German people. True, [the demonstrators] were a relatively small number out of a population of 74 million, but it took place in the light of day and with police protection. And they don't want to hear about the Holocaust."

Margalit, an expert in German history and a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa in the Department of General History, has been studying the culture of German memory and Germans' attitude toward guilt and suffering in World War II. The study will soon be published in book form by the university (in Hebrew).

The book begins with a slightly surrealistic episode. In October 2000, a few Israeli reserve officers who are studying World War I were invited to take part in a memorial ceremony at a German cemetery in Nazareth, where 416 Germans who were killed fighting in Palestine alongside the Turks are buried. The ceremony has been held every year since 1952 on the third Sunday of November, Memorial Day for German soldiers and civilians who died in the two world wars.

The term "soldiers" refers to those who served in all the security organizations of the Nazi state, including the SS; "civilians" are victims of the Nazi regime, including Jews, but also Germans who were killed or wounded in belligerent actions by the Allies. For more than 50 years German flags have been lowered to half-mast on this day, and in military cemeteries in Germany and elsewhere, like the one in Nazareth, memorial ceremonies have been held. They are attended by veterans of the Wehrmacht and the SS, whose numbers are constantly dwindling.

Yet for all these years we said there was a different Germany.

Margalit: "A dual view of Germany prevails in Israel. Some people say 'They are all Nazis,' others speak of a 'different Germany,' as in Germany's official policy. I want to present a balanced picture: not everyone is a Nazi and there is no different Germany. There are two streams here. One, which is quite large, wants to draw a line under the past. Some proponents of this thinking espouse Nazi ideology, particularly in the former East Germany, because of the economic situation there. The others constitute a broad, diverse public which feels guilt, but the majority is not coping with the past sincerely and courageously; rather, they are looking for all kinds of strategies that will make their life easier.

"There is nothing new here: we have been encountering it for sixty years, and not only in the autobiography of Gunter Grass, 'Peeling the Onion,' a classic case of a person with guilt feelings about what he did who tries to go easy on himself by telling only part of the truth. He says where he served, south-east of Berlin, but doesn't say what he did there. He describes the fear of the Russian Katyusha rockets that made him wet his pants but doesn't say that the sectors he was in were awash in blood. His unit perpetrated terrible crimes. Polish forced laborers and Russian prisoners were murdered."

Grass' confession held little news for Margalit. He had known for some time that this symbol of the "new Germany," who was now expiating his guilt, had been a captive of Nazi ideology. As far back as 1967, on a visit to Israel, Grass told a lecture audience a story about a German soldier, a survivor of the Ardennes Campaign, and a young Jewish concentration camp survivor, and compared the suffering of the Germans with that of the Jews.

"The very act of comparison reflects an inability to address the uniqueness of the Jewish fate," Margalit says. "In 1990, he told two Jewish writers from Austria, Robert Schindel and Jakov Lind, the truth, that he had been in the SS, and Lind told me. There are people who take a more courageous stance and do not wait until the day of their death. If he had told the truth in time, he would not have been invited to Israel and probably would not have received the Nobel Prize."

How did his remarks in 1967 go down in Israel?

"I searched the archives but found no criticism of what he said. The comparison of the Wehrmacht soldier with the Jewish survivor did not bother anyone. I think there was a desire to be excited by the different Germany, a desired to believe that there had been a change."

Did we adopt the German approach?

"The intellectuals in Israel admired Grass and the young German writers; there was a desire to believe that there was something new here, and no wish to start digging up the past. Maybe people were afraid that if we did start digging, the new hope would also prove disappointing. In the interviews he gave in Israel, Grass said that all the Nazis were idealists, but no one made anything of it. People said, 'We already have Grass, or the splendid face of Willy Brandt, who knelt by the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - don't take them away.' That was appropriate to the educated left, which does not hold a grudge and does not cast the father's sins on the sons, and the disappointment was on the same scale as the desire."

The Holocaust was not a central issue in Margalit's home, and he did not internalize its values as a youth in Haifa. His father was a sabra, while his mother immigrated from Poland in 1936.

Margalit began studying biology when he was not accepted into medical school but soon realized it was not for him. He switched to the study of ancient history, first at Tel Aviv University and then at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His M.A. dissertation was on the currency system in ancient Rome. For his Ph.D. he changed direction again to focus on the Roma (Gypsies) in West Germany. In 1998 he published a book in Hebrew based on his doctoral thesis. In 2002, "Germany and Its Gypsies: A Post-Auschwitz Ordeal" (University of Wisconsin Press) was released.

His forthcoming book, "Guilt, Suffering and Memory: The Memory and Commemoration of German Fallen Soldiers and Victims of World War II," addresses the emergence of the consciousness of guilt in Germany and how it has been dealt with from the end of the war in May 1945 to the present. "The discourse to the effect that the Germans are the victims and the Jews are persecuting them predates the war. It belongs to the extreme nationalist movements in the 19 century from which Nazism sprang."

This anti-Semitism drew on Christian sources on the Jews' responsibility for persecuting Jesus. After World War I, the belief was prevalent in these circles that Germany had been humiliated and that the rise of Nazism was the country's redemption. "In 1941, Josef Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, stated that the Jews were to blame for their fate because they had linked up with Bolshevism on one side and with Western capital on the other," Margalit says. "The public heard this motif in Goebbels' propaganda for six years, and it is only natural, given a war situation and a country like this, for the public to join the cause and take the official position at its word."

But as defeat loomed, the Germans began talking about collective guilt. The Nazis, for their part, used their speeches to expand the circle of those who shared the secret of the atrocities so that blame would fall on everyone. Some clergymen declared that the defeat at Stalingrad was divine punishment for the Germans' attitude toward the Jews, the Russians and the Poles. An acute feeling of guilt gradually filtered down to the consciousness of circles and personalities of influence, a moral guilt that rested not only on the shoulders of the criminals but on every German who knew and was silent and did nothing.

Toward the end of the war, the Allies bombed dozens of German cities. Dresden suffered the greatest losses. Between February 13 and 15, 1945, the city was pounded and all but destroyed. About 35,000 people died in the air raids. One result was to change the direction of the German discourse of guilt. Many Germans exchanged their feelings of guilt for the Nazis' crimes into a feeling of suffering and victimization. "The narrative of suffering is deeply rooted in the Nazi conception, and even people who were not Nazis shared part of this narrative," Margalit says. "The bombings were described as a great wrong inflicted on the Germans by the Allies, who were waging all-out war, a war utterly unlike that of the Germans."

Is it not possible that the Allies really did bomb a civilian population without restraint?

"I don't think we have to validate that policy, but up to the very end Hitler sacrificed his people and left scorched earth behind. Fifty-five million people lost their lives because of that regime, so it's clear that the war had to be stopped as quickly as possible and by every means possible."

After the war, millions of ethnic Germans were expelled westward from Eastern Europe, and in 1949 Germany was divided into two states, according to the division between the global blocs. Each of the German states, Margalit says, created for itself a different narrative of suffering and memory. "West Germany exploited the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe and spoke of the cruel suffering caused to the deportees as a result of Soviet expansionism. One can trace how this discourse developed among the public, in the newspapers, in all kinds of bodies that began to compare the expulsion of the Germans from the east with the expulsion of the Jews to Auschwitz. The expulsion of Germans was the result of international agreements - Yalta and Potsdam - but in West Germany it was portrayed as the work of the Russians, and the Soviets were said to be no different from the Nazis."

Concurrently, a narrative of suffering experienced by the German people as a result of the Allied bombings grew in Communist East Germany. This voice came from the Church and was adopted by public opinion. The bombing of Germany by the Western powers, of which West Germany was now a part, was compared to the annihilation of the Jews in its ferocity: Dresden vs. Auschwitz. The rulers of the United States and Britain were depicted as gangsters.

"The discourse of guilt and responsibility stopped with the advent of the Cold War," Margalit says. "According to East Germany, the guilty parties were the imperialists and their cohorts who remained in West Germany. The reality of the Cold War generated an anti-fascist culture - the fascists were in the West - and a need to exonerate the nation and end the engagement with guilt. The Communists used this approach after realizing that the public was not really buying into their ideology and after identifying a residue of bitterness and resentment toward the Western Allies. They decided to exploit that resentment for propaganda purposes and mobilize it on behalf of a pro-Soviet policy," Margalit continued.

"This discourse is characterized by the Germans' disconnect from the Nazi regime and their transformation into a nation of innocent victims, who blame the Western Allies for bombing them. The threat of nuclear war further stirred passions. Those who bombed you once, the Soviets said, will do it again without hesitation. This narrative, which was kept on a back burner until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, legitimized hatred of the West in East Germany, along with the adoption of an insular approach to ward off its influence, the cleansing of the people's conscience of guilt and remorse, and a failure to take responsibility."

Still, in the 1960s the second generation of Germans tried to atone for the nation's sins and expressed remorse.

"In the mid-1960s, the Jewish narrative penetrated Germany through the Jews who remained in Germany after the war, in both parts of the country. 'The Diary of Anne Frank' was translated into many languages and resonated powerfully. In addition, there were trials of Nazi war criminals in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965, in the presence of reporters from two important national newspapers. The judge was heard crying on the radio, and suddenly the experiences of the Holocaust assumed large dimensions. The public grasped that this was different from every other experience, and it became part of the memory of those who were exposed to the coverage. This is very problematic psychologically, because it is a borrowed memory of the victim and it competes and threatens Germany's internal memory," Margalit said.

"The most extreme response at that time was to convert to Judaism," Margalit continued. "Some people did that. There were also Germans who gave their children Jewish names, such as Sarah, Rachel and Israel. The members of the 1968 generation [the immediate post-war generation, which created the student protest movement] began to visit Israel and volunteer in kibbutzim, ostensibly in order to identify with the victims. In practice, this had less to do with guilt feelings and more with the rebellion against their parents' generation, which was all around the world at the time," Margalit related.

"One day I went to a research institute," Margalit said, "and the caretaker, who had not yet been to Israel, asked me to tell him a little about the country. I sat with him and answered his many questions. Afterward I met the historian who was my host, and he told me that the man's father had been involved in mass murder and had exposed the boy to all the horrors, and that since then he had felt haunted. I understood later that this had been a therapeutic encounter between the suffering German who had latched on to a Jew, as the representative of a collective, and that he had Christian aspirations of salvation. I have experienced this often in meetings with Germans - they relate to me not as an individual but as a symbolic representative of the Jewish people. It is oppressive."

So in the end it turns out that three or four people in the Third Reich were guilty and all the rest were victims.

"Yes. In the eyes of the Germans, the guilty ones are Hitler and the hard core of the Nazi Party, and even there they like to emphasize that not everyone who was a Nazi was really a Nazi. That message emanated from the Church. They viewed themselves as the defenders of the German people, and said that not everyone who was a party member was really a party member, and that not even everyone in the SS adhered to its ideology - some were simply unable to withstand the pressure, while others rushed to join the party in order to sabotage it from within. The deeper inside you were, the more it showed that you tried to get closer to the head in order to lop it off. So these people were actually acting to further positive goals," Margalit explained the rationale.

In 1960, East Germany restored a national memorial in Berlin which above all symbolized German militancy, and dedicated it to the victims of fascism and militarism. The neoclassical structure on Unter den Linden, the city's main boulevard, was built in the nineteenth century and served as a memorial to Germany's role in the Napoleonic Wars (known in Germany as the Wars of Liberation). Under the Nazis it became the official main memorial to those who fell in World War I. Hitler attended ceremonies and laid his wreath there.

In 1969, as part of events marking the twentieth anniversary of East Germany's establishment, two urns containing the ashes of victims were brought to the site. One held the ashes of an unknown concentration camp prisoner, the other those of a German soldier who was killed on the eastern front. "This was a reconciliation in the grave between the victims and their murderers," Margalit says. "The Communists did what the West did not dare do. In the cemetery in Dresden, for example, where the victims of the Allied bombings are buried, the Communists installed 14 stone slabs to commemorate seven concentration camps and seven bombed German cities. The stone for Dresden is opposite the stone for Auschwitz. This is the place where the memorial ceremonies continue to be held, every year." West Germany erected memorial sites in a similar vein during this period. The difference lies in the terminology: Memorial Day was called the People's Mourning Day and dedicated to the victims of the war and the dictatorship, and includes everyone who suffered - Jews and Germans, civilians and soldiers.

It was only after the end of the Cold War and German reunification that the true German narrative, not the one imposed by contradictory postwar ideologies, could be aired. In 1993, the Unter den Linden site was rededicated as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny.

"My study reveals for the first time the resemblance between the East German and West German narratives of suffering," Margalit notes. "Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl was the one who decided, in the name of the new Germany, that a common memorial site was needed which would symbolize the suffering of the entire German nation, and he chose the former Nazi and Communist site. A sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz [of a mother mourning her dead son] was installed there, but the Jews complained that they were not represented, so they brought the Jews into the German memory as well. Everyone there is a victim, without any talk about guilt or about Jews specifically, because for political reasons that is no longer popular," Margalit said. Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, spoke about guilt in relation to the Jews, but did so only in 1946. "The moment he became chancellor, it ended," Margalit says. "The idea after the war was to embrace the Nazis and not leave them outside the camp."

Then why did they all flee to South America?

"The majority did not flee. It's possible that if Eichmann hadn't fled he would not have been caught and would not have been executed. Sixty percent of Germans are now saying, 'Enough with the past, we don't want to hear any more. We suffered, too.'"

So is Germany different today?

"I do not think that German society has done a deep spiritual reckoning. The weight of the narratives I have described is very great in German society, and I have the feeling that the Israeli public is not aware of this process. This discourse has reintensified in the past six or seven years. Dresden has again become a deep and meaningful symbol in the souls of the Germans, and this has greatly weakened the element of shame."

Why hasn't this filtered down in Israel?

"It's a process and it takes time until it crystallizes into a coherent message. With the advent of reunification, there was a feeling in Germany that the war had finally ended and that it was now legitimate to tell our story and not the one the Jews want us to tell, and that legitimized feelings of nationalism. There was no longer a need to worry about reconciling the Poles and the Russians, and certainly not the Jews - we paid them reparations - so now we only have to consider the German narrative.

"In 1995, Bernhard Schlink's novel 'The Reader' was published in Germany and had a tremendous impact. [The English translation topped The New York Times bestseller list and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.] It is a very problematic book. Its leading theme is against preoccupation with the past, against the generation of 1968, and it presents the Nazi criminal as a victim. The book was a salient representative of a new generation that signifies a particular mood. There are people in Germany who are now feeling remorse for the way they treated their poor parents. On the left there are those who are continuing to expound the message of guilt and responsibility of the enlightened 1960s, but they are a minority." W