Hitler loses his head and history overtakes Germany once again

AS SOON as the new German branch of the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum opened for business in Berlin last Saturday, a man identified as Frank L, emboldened by a day’s heavy drinking, tore the head off the Adolf Hitler waxwork, shouting “No More War”.

Many will have applauded, particularly those who have been vocal about what they regard as the inappropriateness of turning Hitler into a tourist attraction.

How to deal with the legacy of Hitler has understandably troubled Germany for many years.

A few years ago, the startlingly convincing portrayal of the last days of Hitler in the film Der Untergang (The Downfall), based on eyewitness accounts and on the book of that name by historian Joachim Fest, was one of the country’s first attempts to characterise Hitler in a film, and some critics challenged its treatment of the “monster” as a human being.

Told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s personal secretaries, the film indicated a more relaxed approach to Germany’s past and is one of an increasing number of German-made films about the Nazi era.

Millions of Germans chose to view it. The performance of the German speaking actor Bruno Ganz was astounding, but there was criticism that the portrayal of Hitler occasionally verged on the sympathetic. Producer Bernd Eichinger was unapologetic if a degree of empathy entered the picture.

He said in an interview with German television: “If you want to understand history, you have to understand the people that make it… If you throw the spotlight on the biggest possible physical and psychological collapse of an entire civilisation, namely our German nation, then it must be possible for us to tell this story ourselves. We have to.”

It was a brave and necessary thing to do, but as the beheading in Berlin last weekend demonstrated, some Germans are never going to be ready for any representation of Hitler. This is hardly surprising, given that Germans started the two world wars that brought devastation on the 20th century and were responsible for the Nazi regime that brought war and genocide to a new level.

Or were they? Seventy-five years ago Hitler assumed the office of Reichschancellor, but there is still controversy in Germany over describing his rise to power as “machtergreifung” (meaning a takeover or seizure of power), given that, as pointed out by leading German historian Heinrich Winkler, the original transfer of power took place within the framework of the Weimar constitution, and it was a transfer rather than a seizure of power. To continue to use the term machtergreifung is, for some, dishonest and a means of pretending that the German people played no part in the rise of Hitler.

Whatever about that, post-war Germans went to great lengths to atone for the sins of Hitler, and many young Germans in the 1960s and 1970s berated their parents for being tainted with the Nazi era.

Teachers brought young teenagers to visit concentration camps to hammer home the reality of what had happened and awareness of the Holocaust was incorporated into the school curriculum, while monuments were erected to Jewish victims and Germany came to have the highest level of immigration in Europe.

Günter Grass, the country’s iconic left-wing intellectual, suggested in 2003 that Germany was secure enough in its democracy to allow Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, to be republished.

Irish writer Hugo Hamilton, whose books have dug deep into questions of Irish and German identity, and who recounts his own struggle growing up with an Irish father and a German mother in post-war Europe in The Speckled People, has published a new book, Disguise.

It deals with the story of a three-year-old boy killed in the book’s opening pages during the bombing of Berlin in the Second World War. His mother is given an apparently orphaned refugee child as a replacement son, and she gives him the same name as the boy who died.

He grows up unaware of his true identity until an accidental slip by his uncle reveals the possibility that he is a Jewish survivor. In Hamilton’s own words, “he’s quite a tragic figure in a way because he could never position himself in any particular identity… He was part victim, part perpetrator”.

Hamilton’s experiences as a child made him painfully aware of the dilemma of post-war Germany, and he has observed: “It is easy to understand how the post-war anti-German feeling lingers to this day. I recall only too well how, as a child, I had to face mock Nuremberg trials because I was half-German, just as the German people have collectively been on trial ever since the end of the Hitler regime. Like many other Germans, my mother instructed us never to deny our guilt and never to complain about our predicament.”

One consequence of this was that their own suffering was ignored and eradicated from public memory, something challenged by WG Sebald in his book, On the Natural History of Destruction, in which he highlights the 40,000 civilians who died during one night in the firestorm of Hamburg. Günter Grass, who came to fame in 1959 with the publication of The Tin Drum, eventually admitted he had not done enough to acknowledge the question of German casualties.

But Grass, as we now know, kept aspects of his own past hidden. When it emerged in 2006 that he had been a teenage member of the Waffen-SS, the revelation of his Nazi past was made all the more painful because of the regard in which he was held as the embodiment of Germany’s conscience — indeed for many, its moral compass — since the Second World War.

IN HIS autobiography, Peeling the Onion, Grass acknowledged that he had wanted to keep his own past secret because of the shame: “But the burden remained and no one else could ease it… assertions of ignorance could not conceal being part of a system that planned, organised and carried out the annihilation of millions of people. Even when accused of active guilt, there remained the worn down remains of what is all too often called co-responsibility. Living with that for the remaining years is a certainty”.

But he had his defenders, too. They suggested the searing honesty of his autobiography underlined his continuing moral relevance.

When Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 — for “sketching the forgotten face of history” — he acknowledged that Germans would always find it difficult, if not impossible, to break free from their troubled history: “Every time the end of the post-war period is announced in Germany, history overtakes us once again.”

That sense of permanent entrapment seemed to have been banished this time two years ago when Germans quite deservedly basked in the glory of having hosted the soccer World Cup. They showed how they could be warm and patriotic without being threatening as they threw their arms open to two million visitors who were offered the best of everything Germany has to offer — which amounts to a hell of a lot.

But last weekend in Berlin, the drunken Frank L, in his own small way, demonstrated the accuracy and continuing relevance of Grass’s words.

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