Germany Seen Through The Past, Darkly


Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History

By Marc Fisher

Simon & Schuster 350pp $25

During his four years as Germany bureau chief for The Washington Post, Marc Fisher was accused by the local authorities of a consistent anti-German animus. His "minders" at the Federal Press Office, fearful of the impact his stories would have on Washington policymakers during the critical phases of German unification, bent his ear at every turn in an attempt to soften his reporting.

Fisher's offense was to harp on the past too much as he wrote about contemporary events. References to such "burdens" as the Nazi period, the Holocaust, the decades of Soviet-style communism in the east, and the general failure of Germans to confront their history recur in the 800 stories he wrote from between late 1989 and 1993, and in his new book, After the Wall. And with much justification: Recent attacks on Turks, whether by confirmed neo-Nazis or drunken louts, bring back ugly memories of prewar persecution of Jews.

Naturally, Fisher resisted the spin-meisters' efforts to inject sanitized official vocabulary into his writing. He called the forced return of Romanian Gypsy refugees to their homeland "deportation" instead of the suggested "re-admission" or "retransfer." He also dug up facts that embarrassed the government, such as donations of "several million dollars" offered to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington--conditioned on the addition of exhibits emphasizing democratic developments in postwar Germany.

It is After the Wall's thesis that unless Germans honestly face up to their past--both Nazi and communist--they will not be able to create a new national identity and reunification will remain incomplete. But Fisher's approach has its own problems: Because of its emphasis on the past--and Fisher's brief stay in Germany--the book fails to provide a complete picture of the present.

In his introduction, Fisher tells us that he is Jewish, and his image of Germany had been formed largely by parents and teachers who stressed the Nazis and the Holocaust. Despite several trips to Europe, he had never set foot in Germany before the Post assignment, and his family, particularly his father, urged him to refuse the posting.

Despite that intellectual baggage and his pummeling by the Federal Press Office, Fisher reaches some remarkably sympathetic conclusions. Germany needs time to recreate a truly unified country, he says. And, until the nation's new identity is clear, "America's task as an ally is to hold back on the temptation to ask the Germans to act their size" by playing a larger role on the world stage--in international military missions, for example.

Still, Fisher can't shake his preoccupation with the past--a "yoke" that he argues "no one has the right to, later, ever." And this hang-up does not help the reader understand recent developments. For example, despite the scares about resurgent neo-Nazism that Fisher details, not one fascist was elected to Germany's Bundestag last year. In contrast, 15% of French voters this year supported the presidential bid of Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ultranationalist prone to anti-Semitic remarks.

The strength of Fisher's book is its reporting. He sought out those whom reporters sometimes patronizingly call "real people"--those without title or position. These interviewees talk perceptively about the drama unfolding around them. Long before Bonn officials concede how far apart the peoples of the two Germanies had grown, a schoolgirl from near Bonn tells Fisher simply: "We're two extremely different types of people." In Rangsdorf, a family of East German "Ossis" peer out from behind curtains, fearing that Fisher is a "Wessi" owner come to reclaim the house. Later, they confide their anger: "Where have they been for thirty years? We saved this house."

Illuminating and moving as some of these anecdotes are, they are not the whole story. Fisher arrived in Germany a tad too late for this man-on-the-street method to be a complete success: He was still studying German in the Rhineland on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Wall came down, so he never saw the bankruptcy and oppressiveness of the old East German regime. What's more, he probably left too soon: His 1993 departure was before this year's tumult of 50-year anniversaries forced the Germans to recall Hitler and the war extensively--and before the eastern German economy started growing at near double-digit rates. His interviews, then, are slices of life locked in a brief time span, the raw material of history--not considered analysis.

After the Wall is also weak on economics, which are essential to an understanding of current divisions. Contrary to Fisher's assertions, Bonn didn't subsidize East Germany's industrial dinosaurs, the Kombinate, for long. Through the Treuhandanstalt privatization agency, it broke them up, sold them off, or closed them down. Instead, what west German taxpayers paid staggering amounts to support was, and is, the income of east Germans through pensions, the dole, and make-work schemes.

The result: Overnight, the erstwhile super-efficient heroes of the Soviet bloc became a nation of welfare bums. One cannot understand east and west German attitudes today without taking stock of that blow to national self-es-teem. And until the Germans work out their own internal divisions, they won't be able, as Fisher suggests, "to move ahead with honest memory to embrace the burden of their past as their own."

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