Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Neue Wache: Germany and Historical Revisionism

It is a good question whence comes the revisionist spirit expressed in UN General Assembly Resolution A/59/26 (“Remembrance and Reconciliation?”). It is not hard to imagine that representatives of many Arab countries found the wording of the resolution to their liking. Historical revisionism with respect to the Holocaust and the Second World War serves, after all, to de-legitimate the state of Israel. But I am afraid that it is Germany itself that has been at the forefront of historical revisionism for roughly the last 15 years. When I say “Germany itself”, I do not mean skinheads and the odd Holocaust denier here and there. The latter are marginal phenomena. (In fact, the extent of outright Holocaust denial is typically exaggerated. At least outside of the Middle East, the outright denier is a very rare affair. What there is, is quite a lot of more or less insidious quibbling over the exact numbers.) When I say “Germany itself”, I mean what I say: i.e. “official” Germany or, in other words, the German state.

When, on Sunday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, President Horst Köhler and other German political dignitaries lay wreaths to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany, they did so before a Kathe Kollwitz Pietà at the so-called “Neue Wache” Memorial in Berlin.

In the German Democratic Republic, the Neue Wache, which lies in the eastern part of the city, served as a memorial to “the Victims of Fascism and Militarism”: a formula that clearly referred to the Nazi regime and its crimes. After Reunification, in 1993, the Neue Wache was re-opened as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany”. The inscription had been changed. Instead of the “Victims of Fascism and Militarism”, it is now dedicated to the “Victims of War and Tyranny [Gewaltherrschaft]”. The substitution of “Tyranny” for “Fascism” served to establish an equivalence between the Nazi regime and the Communist regime of East Germany. The substitution of “War” for “Militarism” served to evade the question of responsibility: notably, of German responsibility for the Second World War and hence for the carnage it entailed. (The same question could, of course, also be posed in this context with respect to the First World War.)

Thus, although it is true that when Chancellor Schröder and President Köhler lay their wreaths before the Kollwitz Pietà they paid tribute to the victims of Nazi crimes, this is only part of the truth. They also – silently, without having to say any words that might provoke unease outside of Germany – paid tribute to many of the perpetrators of those crimes. Grandiose – indeed downright megalomaniacal – would-be "artistic" expressions of remorse for the Holocaust, such as Peter Eisenman’s just inaugurated “field of pillars” or Daniel Libeskind’s “Jewish Museum” (about which I have written extensively here and, in German, here), may obscure this fact. But they do not change it. They also, incidentally, obscure the tens of millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazi aggression and persecution in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, the USSR, France, etc., etc., etc.