World Recalls War : Forgiveness Still Eludes W. Germany

Times Staff Writer

When Dutch Justice Minister Andreas Van Agt proposed in 1972 that two Nazi war criminals who had been imprisoned for 25 years be released, he triggered a public furor.

Before the outrage died, the Parliament of the Netherlands had decided not just to leave the two men in jail, but also to vote funds for a special clinic to treat victims of concentration-camp syndrome.

No Dutch government since has dared talk about such a release.

In Norway, when North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries conduct troop maneuvers, West German infantry units stay home.


‘Psychological Problem’

Norwegian Defense Ministry spokesman Erik Senstad noted that West German forces have their main responsibilities in Central Europe, but he acknowledged that there are other reasons, too, for the absence of the Germans. “It has been a psychological problem,” he explained.

Last year, as veterans gathered in France to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the West German embassy in Paris cabled Bonn advising a low West German profile.

“The presence of many hundreds of Germans might bring problems and also endanger French-German relations,” stated an internal, West German government document.


Forty years after World War II and a full generation after the integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the community of Western democracies, the German image virtually everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere remains tarred by the war.

“Reparations have been paid (by West Germany) to secure a homeland for the Jews and as help for the survivors of the Holocaust,” noted Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a recent speech. “But today we know, as we did then, (that) suffering and death, pain and tears, cannot be compensated.”

Although not always on the surface, the emotions that fuel anti-German feeling frequently flare, showing that they have crossed generations with unusual intensity.

The full measure of this intensity is something that President Reagan--and those who suggested that he visit a German war cemetery during his trip to West Germany--have learned the hard way.

To at least some degree, anti-German feeling remains so strong in Western Europe because there has been no subsequent invasion or oppression to dull memories of the Nazi occupation and its brutality.

Polish Sentiments

On the other hand, in Poland, a country that suffered terribly at German hands but now has a new oppressor, anti-German feeling is remarkably mild. Today, it is the Russians who draw Polish contempt and suspicion.

When Communist authorities in Warsaw recently erected a memorial blaming the Nazis for the massacre of 10,000 to 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest of the western Soviet Union during the early years of the war, another, unofficial, version was scrawled nearby blaming the Soviets.


Nowhere do anti-German emotions run closer to the surface than in the Netherlands. Here, an especially cruel occupation and the loss of the Dutch Jewish community, which was better integrated than those in most European countries, help keep bitter war memories alive.

During the final winter of the war, thousands of Dutch citizens starved to death after the Nazis stopped food shipments to the country in reprisal for a strike by railroad engineers.

‘Still a Residue’

“Officially, everything is fine, and businessmen have always maintained good contacts, but there is still a residue,” said Maartan Brands, an Amsterdam University historian and a specialist on Dutch-German relations.

“If a German driving a big, fast car gets into an accident with a small Dutch car, he had better handle himself very carefully with any bystanders.”

Bauco van der Wal, executive director of the Anne Frank Center here, summed up the feelings: “The wound has healed, but the scar remains. Like any scar, it itches from time to time.”

Official ties between France and West Germany are extremely close, characterized over the last decade by warm personal relations between their leaders. Officials from both countries view a Franco-German partnership as the core of a European technological and political rejuvenation.

Moving Ceremony


When Chancellor Kohl was rebuffed in his efforts to secure an invitation to the D-Day festivities, French President Francois Mitterrand arranged a moving ceremony at the World War I battlefield at Verdun, where the two men grasped hands in a symbol of reconciliation.

But in France, too, the past lingers.

In a recent discussion with American journalists, a French diplomat said he sympathizes with U.S. demands that Europe spend more for its own defense. “But if we strengthen the defense of Europe,” he explained, “we would have to increase the size of the (West) German army. That, for us, is a delicate matter.”

Suspicion that West German democracy might one day collapse again into tyranny is a fear that probably preoccupies the Germans themselves more than others. Still, suspicion remains among West Germany’s democratic partners.

Memories Kept Alive

In France, Western Europe’s largest Jewish community, numbering 600,000, keeps alive memories of the Holocaust.

“We see no signs of a renaissance of Hitlerism today, but who knows about tomorrow?” said Leon Masliah, 51, director of a French federation of synagogues.

A 1984 poll conducted by Sofres, a public opinion research organization in France, indicated that one in every three Frenchmen nurtures a similar worry.

Controversies in the 1970s over the dismissal of some government civil servants and teachers in West Germany for their extreme rightist or leftist views and the treatment of political terrorists in West German jails triggered street protests in the Netherlands and accusations that a “new German police state” was being created.

Dutch historian Brands recalls going through heavy police protection on his way to lunch with the German ambassador.

British Exception

Of the Western European countries that fought Nazi Germany, only in Britain does there appear to be little lingering resentment. It was also the only such country not occupied by the Nazis.

In Britain, admiration for what the West Germans have accomplished prevails.

“The Federal Republic is a country too easily embarrassed,” said Hugh Dykes, a Conservative member of Parliament. “It should stop apologizing for the past and take more pride in what it has accomplished.”

Many Britons also feel a sense of kinship (very real in the case of the Royal Family) that, despite the war, makes them feel closer to the Germans than to their traditional adversaries, the French.

Free Exchange

Frequent gatherings of mid-level German and British officials and the large number of English-speaking Germans facilitate a free exchange of ideas.

“Communication between political elites is easier between Bonn and London than between Paris and London,” said Roger Morgan, head of the European Center for Policy Studies Institute in London.

But even in Britain, there are limits.

When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, out of deference to her West German allies, announced that there would be no official celebrations in Britain to mark the May 8 capitulation of the Third Reich, she was forced to back down in the face of angry protest from veterans’ organizations.

In the Channel Islands, the only part of Britain occupied during the war, residents sharply rejected the idea of inviting a group of West Germans to their commemorative ceremonies as a gesture of friendship and reconciliation.

Preoccupied With Image

This lingering bitterness and suspicion is especially hard for the West Germans to bear because, unlike most other Europeans, they are preoccupied with what foreigners think of them.

Foreign press comments about developments in West Germany are prominently reported in the national media. A Sunday morning television program in which five foreign journalists dispense opinions about issues in and around the Federal Republic is one of the nation’s longest-running, most widely watched programs.

Only in recent years has a West German correspondent been added to the show’s lineup.

That the West Germans alone still carry the burden of responsibility for Nazism is one of history’s injustices.

Others Escape Tarnish

Austria, where Hitler was born and where Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann grew up, suffers no such image problem even though it was an integral part of the Third Reich during the war.

East Germany has simply twisted history and declared itself, as a Communist state, to be among the victims of Nazism. To support its claim it has, for example, turned the Buchenwald concentration camp into a museum documenting the torture and death of socialists and Communists while virtually ignoring the fact that Jews also died there.

But sometimes, the West Germans themselves help sustain the feeling against them.

Leading German politicians occasionally express a desire to repossess eastern territories lost during the war--an expression which always raises international concern. Frequent reunions of old comrades from the Waffen SS, the combat branch of Hitler’s elite force, also stir doubts as well as international protest.

Increasing Concern

With the passage of time, policy-makers and social scientists are increasingly concerned that the combination of foreign bitterness and German sensitivity to it is unhealthy and potentially dangerous.

Alois Mertes, state secretary in the West German Foreign Ministry, recalls a 13-year-old boy, who, after watching a documentary film on Eichmann, turned to his mother and asked, “Why did I have to be born German?”

Mertes warns: “If this guilt is pressed on a new generation, it will backfire. Guilt feelings will lead to anti-West sentiments and anti-Semitism.”

To some degree, this transference of guilt is already happening.

In Britain, a fascination for World War II films makes even young children equate a thick German accent with evil. And West Germans in their teens or early 20s say that verbal insults are among the hazards of vacationing outside the country.

Positive Opinions

Then, too, positive opinions about Germans among young Western Europeans are sometimes discouraged by their elders.

When a young Paris hair stylist began telling an elderly customer of his liking for Germans, he was sharply challenged.

“How do you know what the Germans are really like?” the customer asked. “You’re too young to remember how ugly they can be. Didn’t they teach you anything in school?”

In the past, West Germans have tended to react more with passive embarrassment than aggression to the feelings expressed against them. But there are indications that this may be changing.

The wave of protest about Reagan’s visit to a German war cemetery was greeted with as much upset as disbelief by the West German man on the street.

“Forty years have gone by, and suddenly it is as if nothing that has happened since then counts for anything,” said Alfred Dresen, a resident of Bonn. “Is forgiveness beyond you all?”

Times staff writer Ben Sherwood, in Paris, also contributed to this story.