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Last Updated: Monday, 19 July, 2004, 05:22 GMT 06:22 UK
Emerging from the Nazi shadow?
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Less than a decade ago, a book by an American historian which declared that the Holocaust was possible because Germans had a congenital urge to kill Jews shot to the top of the bestseller list in Germany.

Stauffenberg
Stauffenberg led a failed coup attempt against Hitler

Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was awarded the country's prestigious Democracy Prize in 1997. The honour had last been bestowed upon east German activists who helped precipitate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Despite being lambasted by many historians of the Third Reich as simplistic and subjective, the "non-book" - as one dubbed it - was grabbed from the shelves by a generation of Germans who embraced the notion of collective guilt on a scale never suggested before.

But it appears Germany has left at least some of that 20th Century burden of guilt behind in the last millennium.

This year, the 60th anniversary of an attempted coup against Hitler by a group of military officers has provided the occasion for a rather sunnier perspective on the past, offering up courageous figures whom the country can celebrate rather than castigate.

"Germans can't go on forever feeling nothing but guilt - it's not possible," says prominent German journalist Henryk Broder.

"We had the protestations of utter innocence immediately after the war, then the all-consuming guilt. It's time for something different - it's perfectly natural to want to start highlighting the positive."

Renaissance

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who on 20 July 1944 placed a bomb under Hitler's table which killed four but left the Fuehrer alive, has not always been a post-war darling.

After the capitulation, the allegedly amateurish way in which his attempt on Hitler's life was carried out came in for attack. Later his motives came in for scrutiny - Stauffenberg, some left-wing historians asserted, had distinctly authoritarian tendencies.

Now the aristocratic colonel is widely accepted to have acted heroically and has become the subject of a string of films and documentaries to mark the 60th anniversary of the attempt on Hitler's life.

On the day itself, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will lay a wreath at the spot where Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were executed.

Their story was first dramatised on the television as "Stauffenberg" in February.

Stauffenberg's life
1907: Born in Jettingen
1926: Joins army
1939/40: Fights in Poland & France
Turns hostile to policy towards Jews and Slavs
1943: Decides Hitler must go
1944: Plants bomb at Nazi HQ
Coup fails and he is executed

With echoes of the Goldhagen divide, the critics objected to what they saw as its simplistic good versus evil premise while the audience lapped it up; the film topped prime-time ratings with a 23% audience share.

Stauffenberg is not the only resistance figure to receive fresh cinematic treatment.

Work has also just started on a film about the last days of Sophie Scholl, the 21-year-old student who was executed along with her brother Hans for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich university.

Indeed film is the medium where Germany is increasingly practicing a new relationship with its past, according to the critics.

Even before their release, two new films in which Adolf Hitler is placed centre-screen have been held up as evidence that Germany is moving out of the Fuehrer's shadow.

"The fact that we now trust ourselves to play Hitler - when in film he has always been on the sidelines - is definitely a big step," says film critic Carlos Gerstenhauer.

"It's a generational thing - the distance is there now to enable us to do this."

Living the legacy

But for all the discussion of a new epoch, Germany's fear of its Nazi past continues to have an impact upon its present at a number of levels.

Mein Kampf
Mein Kampf is not available in German bookshops

The shadow of Nazi-era eugenics in Germany has created some of the West's most restrictive fertility legislation, a top German scientist recently noted - legislation which in some cases can put the lives of both mother and baby at risk.

While Germany's EU neighbours are increasingly offering restive electorates referendums on controversial issues like the European constitution, plebiscites - because of the way they were used by Hitler - are banned in the country.

As is his manifesto - Mein Kampf, which is freely available in bookshops outside the country. A call earlier this year by German Jewish author Rafael Seligmann to lift the restriction met both ridicule and fury.

"At the heart of all this lies the fact that we still cannot trust each other," says Mr Seligmann. "And we worry so much that the world may point their fingers at us and say look - those Germans are up to the same old thing again."

The German interior minister is currently drafting legislation to restrict the rights of neo-Nazis to congregate - in anticipation of possible demonstrations when the Holocaust Memorial opens next May in Berlin.

While existing legislation enables the authorities to ban demonstrations which threaten public safety, under these proposals, the political orientation of a gathering would be sufficient grounds to stop it.

The plans have promoted some unease; some have questioned whether such bans are the best way to deal with fringe groups, the occasional voice has even drawn parallels with laws from the first half of the last century designed to quell opposition.

"The right to demonstrate is of course an important one in a democracy," says Henryk Broder. "But you can't have neo-Nazis marching through the Brandenburg gate.

"What would it look like?"

THE 20 JULY PLOT
  • Stauffenberg placed a briefcase bomb under the oak table and left
  • One of the table's two heavy supports shielded Hitler from the blast
  • Large windows and wooden walls allowed pressure to escape
  • All present would have died if they had met in a bunker as usual
  • 1. Adolf Hitler
    2. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel
    3. Gen Alfred von Jodl
    4. Gen Walter Warlimont
    5. Franz von Sonnleithner
    6. Maj Herbert Buchs
    7. Stenographer Heinz Buchholz
    8. Lt Gen Hermann Fegelein
    9.Col Nikolaus von Below
    10. Rear Adm Hans-Erich Voss
    11. Otto Gunsche, Hitler's adjutant
    12. Gen Walter Scherff (injured)
    13. Gen Ernst John von Freyend
    14. Capt Heinz Assman (injured)
    15. Stenographer Heinrich Berger (killed)
    16. Rear Adm Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer (injured)
    17. Gen Walther Buhle
    18. Lt Col Heinrich Borgmann (injured)
    19. Gen Rudolf Schmundt (killed)
    20. Lt Col Heinz Waizenegger
    21. Gen Karl Bodenschatz (injured)
    22. Col Heinz Brandt (killed)
    23. Gen Gunther Korten (killed)
    24. Col Claus von Stauffenberg
    25. Gen Adolf Heusinger (injured)




    SEE ALSO:
    'Nazi shadow' over IVF research
    28 Jun 04 |  Health
    Hitler barred from German greats race
    01 May 03 |  Entertainment
    Grass breaks German taboos
    08 Feb 02 |  Europe
    Hitler shelved by Online bookshop
    20 Aug 99 |  Business
    Hitler's final witness
    04 Feb 02 |  Europe
    Country profile: Germany
    02 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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