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Dr. Rainer Hering: Germany Today - Re-writing the Nazi Past?

Helmut Kohl and his government intend to point out the positive aspects of German history by building the "German Historical Museum" in Berlin and the "House of the History of the Federal Republic" in Bonn. Conservative historians predominate in the official commissions set up to establish these museums, but their views are not representative of historical scholarship and research on contemporary history. It seems that not only general social and economic developments, but also the "Third Reich" will not be shown in their full significance. Many important problems of Germany"s long-term and short-term past are in danger of being ignored.

In 1985, Chancellor Kohl together with the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, visited the Bitburg cemetery, where not only ordinary soldiers lie buried, but also numerous soldiers of Heinrich Himmler"s Waffen-SS. Reagan declared them victims, thus treating them as equivalent to these who had suffered in the concentration camps.

Between 1986 and 1988 an argument about Germany"s National Socialist history could be followed in leading newspapers - the so-called "Historikerstreit". It was not an academic debate, there were neither new sources nor new knowledge being offered. Instead, it was a political controversy about the place of the "Third Reich" in German history. Is the Holocaust unique or is it comparable to other historical events? Several historians called for a new national consciousness based on a more positive view of the German past.

Has this argument led to any result? Many historians denied this "attempt to escape from the Nazi past", as Richard J. Evans put it, but in fact the tendency to set off the crimes committed in the "Third Reich" against other atrocities and to emphasize the "positive" parts of German history is still strong and has much influence on the public.(7)

This short history of dealing with the Nazi past in post-war Germany gives you in simplified terms a background concerning the events in unified Germany at the beginning of the nineties. It shows the social acceptance of a new view of National Socialism that does not accept any difference between Nazis and their victims.

The intention of this re-thinking and re-writing of the history of the twelve years between 1933 and 1945 seems to be clear: The "ugly" parts of German history are excluded deliberately from public consciousness. Unified Germany is to develop a new national identity, free of guilt, so that its economic leadership in the (Western) world can find a political and military expression.

We have lately seen some of the consequences: The intellectual climate breeds a new kind of nationalism, which is fuelled by economical problems and growing unemployment. Neo-Nazi and other right-wing parties and organizations become stronger, and foreigners, especially those who seek political asylum, have been attaked, injured and even killed.

What can we do? What are historians to do in this situation? I believe, the main task is to keep the Nazi past firmly in the public mind, to show a differentiated picture of the "Third Reich". We have to point out emphatically the responsibility for our past - and German guilt - so that we can live in a peaceful present and future. We must clearly name the causes that led to the Nazi era, to the Second World War and the murder of millions of people. We must remember our Nazi past, we must not allow it to be re-written. Otherwise it might come back in a different shape. We surely ought to be able to learn that much from history.

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Zurück zum Text  7. Richard J. Evans: In Hitler"s Shadow. West German Historians and the attempt to escape from the Nazi past. New York 1989; Hans-Ulrich Wehler: Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit? Ein polemischer Essay zum Historikerstreit. München 1988; Rainer Hering: Das "Dritte Reich" in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit: Der "Historikerstreit". In: Ders.: Theologische Wissenschaft und "Drittes Reich". Studien zur Hamburger Wissenschafts- und Kirchengeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert (Geschichtswissenschaft, 20). Pfaffenweiler 1990, 183-190; Heinrich Senfft: Kein Abschied von Hitler. Ein Blick hinter die Fassaden des "Historikerstreits" (Kleine historische Bibliothek, 2). Köln 1990.


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