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Neo-Nazis Seek To Exploit German Feelings of WWII Victimization

by Michael Scott Moore

The Nazi Shadow Lingers

(IPS) BERLIN -- On a calm spring day in Berlin recently, a horse with a dead-looking soldier on its back clopped across the cobblestones of a leafy neighborhood. The soldier wore a gas mask and slumped forward on the horse's mane, or wobbled dangerously in the saddle.

Berliners are used to unusual things, but this was bizarre. People scowled from cars and cafes. Kids ran excitedly behind the horse ("He's not a puppet! He's real!"), and the occasional homeless man walked up to give his opinion.

The rider belonged to an "art-action" group called the Heavenly Four, which wanted to celebrate the defeat of Nazism with a dramatization of a satirical song by Bertolt Brecht. In "The Legend of the Dead Soldier," an infantryman killed in World War I is dug up by a medical commission and sent back to the front.

"He's the soldier that Germans always dig up to send into another war," said Michael Wildmoser, a tall young urban engineer from Bavaria who helped organize the event. "We want to warn against war in general."

Wildmoser and his friends belong to a lively wing of a debate in Germany over how to remember World War II that reaches far beyond the anniversary of V-E Day. The "Heavenly Four" name refers to the Allies who liberated Germans from Nazism on May 8, 1945, and "liberation" is the word used by any German who wants to admit the nation's crimes and banish the ghost of Hitler.

The point of the Heavenly Four's event, in fact, was to counter a march in Berlin by the neo-Nazi NPD, which loathes the word "liberation." The NPD tried to mount a parade in Berlin on May 8 to protest Allied "crimes" at the end of World War II. Berliners turned out in the thousands to squelch the parade; the NPD is even more alien to them than a dead soldier on horseback. Still, the party's conscious (and increasingly successful) idea is to make Germans feel like victims again, the way they'd felt after World War I.

This lunatic position would be easy to dismiss if the subject of wartime defeat weren't so taboo in Germany. But the NPD speaks up, where other Germans don't, about the firebombing of cities like Hamburg and Berlin and Dresden between 1943 and 1945.

"I think we speak for a silent majority," says the party's chairman, Udo Voigt. "The current government wants to celebrate 'liberation' [from Nazism] on May 8, but many Germans don't feel themselves liberated by the Allies ... So we say: 'We're not celebrating. Enough with the Cult of Guilt. There is no collective guilt.'"

The problem with Voigt is that he speaks for a quiet, subterranean strain of German feeling. Not only civilians but whole segments of German civilization were incinerated in the firebombings; ancient cities like Dresden and Cologne were literally hollowed out. "The destruction of the city itself, with all its past as well as its present," wrote the British poet Stephen Spender after visiting Cologne in 1948, "is like a reproach to the people who go on living there. The sermons in the stones of Germany preach nihilism."

Whether the Allies could have broken the Nazi machine by demolishing supply lines and oil refineries, instead of city centers, was a controversy even in Churchill's time. Some excellent German writers, like the late W. G. Sebald, have started to mention it. The problem is to outline Germany's loss without pretending to be victimized.

Sebald points out that German literature, and to some extent German memory, draws a blank on the almost nuclear devastation left after the war. "The images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness," writes Sebald in his final book, "On the Natural History of Destruction." .".. I was not surprized when a teacher in Detmold told me ... that as a boy in the immediate postwar years he quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg secondhand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography."

The resurgence of parties like the NPD -- which won 12 legislative seats in the eastern state of Saxony last fall, and keeps making offensive noises about a "German Holocaust" at the end of World War II -- can be explained, in part, by this shameful silence. The extreme German right stands for national pride in a nation that has very little (still, after two generations).

Most Germans will tell you they mistrust patriotism; they grew up with the idea that Americans rescued them from Hitler, and any contrary opinion still has a ring of disobedience, bitterness, ingratitude.

"The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped," writes Sebald, "that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived. Scarcely anyone can now doubt that Air Marshall Gring would have wiped out London if his technical resources had allowed him to do so."

And that's exactly the problem. Hitler had tried to erase a people; he would have gone on to erase London and Moscow and New York. And yet the towering moral shame still shadowing German pride is not enough to erase a collective, unspeakable grief.

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Albion Monitor May 18, 2005 (

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