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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 13:14 GMT
Forging a future after Auschwitz
By Clare Murphy
BBC News

It is only recently that Germany has learned to celebrate what it is without losing sight of what it was.

As a string of deeply symbolic 60th anniversaries approaches - from the liberation of Auschwitz to the end of World War II itself - the country is in an uncharacteristically self-confident mood.

Taboos have been falling away.

"It's never too late to be a Jew!" - is the motto of a couple at the centre of a new Jewish comedy set in Berlin, whose lives, in the words of one critic, "are about as kosher as a pork chop".

To portray Jews in a thoroughly everyday setting, where one can laugh with, or indeed at, them - this is a step that we have never taken in Germany
Film-maker Dani Levy
The film, Alles auf Zucker! (Everything lands on Zucker) follows a hard-up non-practising Jew, Jaeckie Zucker, as he attempts to convince his Orthodox brother that he is, in fact, kosher - and thus eligible for an inheritance from his mother.

Released in German cinemas this month, the film has been widely feted - hailed as an excellent comedy in its own right, but also as proof that the Germans are starting to trust themselves.

"To portray Jews in a thoroughly everyday setting, where one can laugh with, or indeed at, them - this is a step that we have never taken in Germany," said the film's maker, Dani Levy.

The eminent historian, Hans Ulrich Wehler, recently argued that Germany cannot, ultimately, take Auschwitz as the foundation of its national identity.

Pluralism and tolerance

A society cannot be built on the Holocaust, he said in an interview with Die Zeit.

"We must draw on other traditions - for instance our pride in what the successful second German republic has achieved."

And indeed, to express one's pride and affection for Germany - that modern, democratic republic - is no longer out of bounds.

Stauffenberg was the subject of much celebration last year

From Mieze, the 24-year-old frontwoman of the German band, Mia, singing "I am no longer a foreigner in my own land," to the country's president, Horst Koehler, declaring "I love our country", the hand-wringing about whether one could ever be proud to be German appears to have run its course.

A fashion and lifestyle magazine can coolly dub itself Deutsch - a synonym, according to the publisher, for cosmopolitanism, pluralism and tolerance.

And it was an increasingly self-assured Germany which felt able to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It is the same Germany which is seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations' Security Council.

Faces of the past

There appears also to have been a subtle change in the way Germany perceives its past.

Mein Kampf
Recent calls to lift the ban on Mein Kampf were firmly rejected
Amid the general depravity of the Nazi period, figures have been found who one can legitimately celebrate without moral qualms.

The courage of Germans such as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who led a failed assassination attempt against Hiler, and the students Hans and Sophie Scholl, executed for distributing anti-Nazi pamplets at Munich University, are proof to many that even during the country's darkest days, "another Germany" was possible.

And if Germans can resist as well as perpertrate, there is also a role for them as victims.

The issue of German suffering during the Third Reich - long the preserve of the extreme-right - has been confronted head on in recent years by left-wing literary doyen Guenther Grass.

Crabwalk, a novel which focused on the plight of the more than 8,000 German refugees who died when their boat was torpedoed by the Russians in 1945, became an instant bestseller when it was published in 2002.

A year later, the liberal German historian Joerg Friedrich published Places of Fire, a book of photographs featuring the burnt and mutilated corpses of the civilians who died during the Allied bombing of German cities. It was controversial, but it reached the bookshops.

Some observers have hit out at what they see as a rather unedifying scramble for victimhood status.

Nevertheless, it is now acknowledged that German suffering during the Third Reich must also be accorded its place in the history books.

Lingering mistrust

But even if other angles of those 12 years can now be explored, the Nazi atrocities are not being forgotten.

President Horst Kohler
President Koehler hit headlines when he said he "loved" his country

"In many senses there is a greater awareness of what Germany did now than there was after the war. The notion of collective responsibility - if not collective guilt - is very strong indeed," says Professor Etienne Francois of Berlin's Technical University.

"This sensitivity is a key component of modern Germany, and it feels entirely appropriate. The fear however that this could happen again means that there is - to a certain extent - a lingering mistrust of people, and what they can do."

The shadow of Nazi-era eugenics in Germany, for instance, has created some of the West's most restrictive fertility legislation, giving rise to rules which - with their emphasis on honouring life - can in some cases put the lives of both mother and baby at risk.

German law currently does not allow couples to undergo preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which can detect genetic diseases in an embryo before it is transferred to a woman. In addition, embryos created cannot be frozen for use at a later stage - all must be transferred, regardless of their quality.

This means that Germany has one of the highest rate of multiple births in Europe.

Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, meanwhile remains firmly verboten. Calls by the German Jewish author Rafael Seligmann last year for the restriction to be lifted were greeted by both ridicule and fury.

Similarly, Germans were pointedly barred from picking Hitler or any of his henchmen in a televised nationwide poll on the greatest Germans, Unsere Besten - a series which in every other sense was seen as emblematic of Germany's growing self-confidence.

History, as those who study it freely admit, has as much to do with the present as the past, and Germany's relationship with what happened during those years will continue to change.

"There is no definitive relationship with Auschwitz," says Professor Wehler. "Every generation must work it out anew, for itself."


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