The furor over the various 40th anniversaries of events leading to the end of World War II on May 8 was unfortunate. But it might still advance Germans' difficult settlement with their Nazi history. This is the view of Karl Dietrich Bracher, West Germany's foremost historian of the Hitler era. In an interview in his office at Bonn University, Professor Bracher:
Suggests that the renewed argument about the past could go beyond just opening old wounds to stimulate a ``catharsis.''
Doubts that today's democratic Germany really needs the hyped-up symbolism of the 40th anniversaries and President Reagan's visit to a German military cemetery.
Challenges the frequent judgment that West Germans for too long suppressed the memory of Adolf Hitler's crimes.
Bracher is in a good position to mediate his fellow Germans' struggles with the legacy of Hitler's genocide. He has been suspect to both right and left for his scholarly study of that burning question: How could a civilized, sophisticated nation like Germany so easily acquiesce in the rise of Hitler?
The first volume of his by-now classic trilogy -- ``The Dissolution of the Weimar Republic'' -- was published in 1955. The second and third -- ``The Nazi Seizure of Power'' and ``Germany between Democracy and Dictatorship'' -- came out in the 1960s; his summary analysis, ``The German Dictatorship,'' in 1969.
Initially conservatives mistrusted Bracher because of his unsparing portrayal of the mistakes of conservatives (as well as so many others) in the 1920s and '30s. After the student demonstrations of 1968 Bracher became anathema to the left for his stress on the political system of dictatorship -- and on the implied similarities between Joseph Stalin and Hitler.
On the possibility of ``catharsis'' -- a word much on the German tongue these days -- Bracher points to the reopening of blunt debate between interlocutors who sometimes shrank from frank exchanges in the past: Germans and Americans, German Jews and non-Jews, and different generations of Germans.
This is all to the good, he thinks. Arguments between these groups should not be swept under the rug. The memory of Hitler's crimes understandably remains strong, and Germans should be aware that this places special obligations even on today's Germans in the eyes of Americans and of Germany's neighbors.
Bracher notes with approval West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's key speech two weeks ago at the 40th anniversary of the British liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The speech had no ``bathos,'' he observes. Dr. Kohl spoke simply of the ``never-ending shame'' of Germans for atrocities committed in their name, and he explicitly refused to balance off the sufferings of the Germans at war's end against the victimization of the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and others murdered in the camps -- a theme frequently stressed by West German conservatives. Bracher thinks Kohl's speech would have sufficed without Mr. Reagan's subsequent visit and his wreath-laying at a German military cemetery.
On that controversial wreath-laying -- a gesture Kohl requested -- Bracher asks, ``Is it necessary 40 years later to have so much symbolism? . . . The Soviet Union needs such symbolism'' to legitimize its rule, but ``we don't.'' He doubts that today's Germans -- especially young Germans -- are so thin-skinned that they would have taken offense had Reagan not made the visit.
Bracher challenges the common analysis of the postwar period as one of repression of the terrible facts about the Hitler regime. Writers like G"unter Grass popularized this view in the early 1960s, rebelling with searing novels like ``The Tin Drum'' against what they deemed a conspiracy of silence about the recent past. The 1968 student movement condemned not only the United States in Vietnam, but also the complicity of their parents in permitting or even welcoming the rise of Hitler.
In the eyes of both the new writers and the activist students, the West German establishment refused to make a clean break with the Nazi past -- partly out of a lingering affinity with authoritarianism, partly because the Soviet threat and cold-war confrontation drove the Americans and former West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to embrace -- with no questions asked -- old Nazis who would work with them. It took the highly publicized trial in Israel in 1961 of the head of the Gestapo's Jewish Office, Adolf Eichmann, to force the Germans to face their ugly past -- and to begin their own trials of Auschwitz concentration camp overseers and guards in the mid-'60s. And it took the introduction in the late '60s of the term ``Holocaust'' to prod individual Germans to wrestle with the past on any significant scale.
Bracher regards this whole school of analysis as a considerable oversimplification. He ackowledges the ``inhibitions'' of 1950s' parents and teachers, especially those who had been among the 8 million members of the Nazi Party. But he argues that in the 1950s scholarly research into the Nazi period was already being done that would lay the groundwork for later textbooks.
By the 1960s the academic studies were working their way into the schools, Bracher says. Television, which was just coming into its own in the '60s, ran one film documentary after another about Hitler's gruesome industrial murder. Moreover, he counts ``The Tin Drum'' and other literature not as isolated acts of revolt against society's amnesia, but rather as representative expressions of a German urge to come to grips with the past.
One problem in the schools, however, was that history was not taught as concrete history. In the immediate postwar years the Occupation did not trust teachers left over from the old regime to teach history, especially that of the Hitler period.
By the time younger teachers came in and the new academic research became widely available in school texts in the late 1960s, the trend was away from concrete history to sociology and political science. This was partly a reaction against the traditional conservative history of national glorification; but as the 1968 student generation themselves entered the schools as teachers, the trend also manifested a leftist preference for ideology over history -- and for blaming ``fascism'' and capitalism rather than a specific historical evolution for the rise of Hitler.
To be sure, Bracher notes, the public debates about the Hitler legacy sharpened in the 1970s among young people with no personal experience in the Hitler period who found themselves branded with the Nazism of their elders -- especially when they traveled abroad.
Bracher believes Adenauer did carry out far too little ``Auseinandersetzung'' with the Hitler past in the initial postwar period. (``Auseinandersetzung,'' with a range of meaning from dialogue to clarification to argument, is one of those crucial but vague words used to describe the ongoing working out of the relationship of the present-day German conscience to Hitler's murders.)
But Bracher commends Mr. Adenauer for avoiding a showdown with old Nazis -- that is, for his ``astounding process of integration'' of supporters of the old regime into backing West Germany's tenuous new democracy.
``At first these people had a passive attitude of `do it without me.' The Federal Republic was not especially beloved. . . . The fact that in such a few years this changed to such a strong consensus -- that was the result of this process of integration. And the stability of the Federal Republic and especially the fact that for the first time in history German democracy experienced a history of success'' was a great achievement by Adenauer.
``The Weimar Republic had always been in crisis, and democracy was associated with crisis. Now democracy was associated with reconstruction,'' with calm and prosperity. Adenauer's contribution was to prevent the formation of a ``revisionist'' party of the disgruntled in defeated Germany and of the more than 10 million refugees from former German lands in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union on the pattern of Weimar after World War I.