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War Stories

Berlin Diarist

It's May 8, the sixtieth anniversary of V-E Day, and I'm standing in Berlin amid 1,000 neo-Nazis, gathered behind a small army of riot police to protest the end of World War II. Of course, any overt expression of Nazism is banned over here (the most common neo-Nazi accoutrement today is medical tape covering various tattoos and t-shirt slogans), and the sponsor of the rally--the extremist Nationalistische Partei Deutschlands (NPD)--disavows any direct connection to the Third Reich. But practically everyone sports a shaved head, and even those who don't, such as a group of buttoned-down, middle-aged Germans I spoke to at length, are working off the Joseph Goebbels playbook. "We have the natural right to our land and to express our Volk's culture," asserts one matronly woman in a long skirt and support hose who refused to give me her name for fear of the "Bolshevik-run state that suppresses our right to speak."

About a mile away, I run into one of many anti-Nazi protests, this one a gathering of communists near Bertolt Brecht's Volkstheater. There are many more people here than at the NPD rally, though they seem split by ideological differences fit for a Monty Python sketch: Banners fly for both the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany and the Marxist-Leninist-Communist Party. I ask one member of the Socialist Workers' Party whether he was worried about the NPD, which last fall won almost 10 percent in the Saxony state elections. "Yes," he says. "The failures of the former working-class parties like the [Social Democrats] and the [Party for Democratic Socialism] have created a vacuum." It's tempting to think that, even if the commies are extreme, they're better than their Nazi opponents--until you remember that the Weimar Republic fell not so much because of the power of the Nazis but because of the weakness of the political center.

These days, one can be forgiven for drawing parallels to the Germany of the early 1930s--the far right's ascendance, the high unemployment (hovering above 10 percent, reaching 25 percent in some areas), the anti-capitalist rhetoric spouted not just by the extremists but even the Social Democrat leadership. Meanwhile, in recent years, the culture has seen a resurgent interest in Nazi-era novels, documentaries, histories, and films--something unthinkable even a decade ago. "A blockade of silence which paralyzed German families," writes journalist Jurgen Leinemann in a V-E Day edition of Der Spiegel, "appears to have been breached." And, unlike previous discussions, today the Germans are asking to what extent they, too, were victims--not just victims of Hitler, but victims of the Allies as well. It's a sentiment the far right is happy to exploit. "The German people were also victims in World War II," says another NPD rally attendee, who likewise refused to give his name. "The Allies did not follow the laws of war." Dozens of posters around the rally grounds show a German city in flames, underneath which reads wir feiern nicht--we don't celebrate. A few months ago, the Saxony NPD delegation declared the Allies' 1945 attack on Dresden a "holocaust of bombs."

But it's not just the NPD talking about World War II, and that's a good thing. The more people debate the war'simpact on Germany, the less claim the far right has to the mantle of German victimhood. And, while such talk can be dangerous in anyone's hands, it is reassuring to see intellectuals and the press quickly moving the discussion from the scope of suffering to its context. A full-page article in Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for example, examined U.S. strategic bombing over Japan, noting that the area destroyed in just three Japanese cities--Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya--exceeded the total urban area destroyed in all of Germany. The message is that war is hell, and the suffering of the Germans, while real, was not unique. What remains, it implies, is the singularity of the Holocaust.

Such moral contextualization can also be seen in the recent German film Downfall. A masterful portrayal of the last days in Hitler's bunker, it has been criticized for its three sympathetic characters: Hitler's secretary, a boy press-ganged into defending Berlin, and an S.S. doctor who stands aghast at the army's murder of German citizens. It seems to me, however, that the characters are not positive elements but negative ones. Yes, there are sympathetic characters in the film, just as there were good and bad Germans during the war. But what does it mean when, out of the dozens of people in the bunker that May, only a handful had any claim to decency? What does it mean when a few German civilians acted rightly, while the vast majority stood silent? It is not enough, the film says, to see good among evil.Their relationship must be scrutinized--and, in the case of Nazi Germany, the good failed.

But things have changed, and the Germans learned. As Albert Camus recognized, the "plague bacillus" of extremist hatred is always present; the mark of a healthy society is how readily it responds when the disease surfaces--and the response in Germany has been remarkable. Hundreds turned out against the NPD after the Saxony elections.Thousands more turned out today. Two days from now, the Holocaust memorial--a field of 2,711 concrete blocks--will open, the first such memorial in Germany and yet another sign that Germany is coming to grips with its past without trying to ignore it.

Tonight, before I sat down to write, I left my hotel and crossed Pariser Platz--home of the Brandenburg Gate--for a cup of coffee. The sun had just set, and the square was empty. On the other side of the gate, built to celebrate Germany's military exploits, a massive white tent throbbed to the beat of a reggae concert. Cheers went up as the song ended.Perhaps a concert is not the best way to mark the end of a brutal war, but there was much to celebrate. The NPD, which had intended to march, decided to stay put because it was so heavily outnumbered. The significant violence that many expected never materialized. Germany today is a messy place. But the center still holds.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.