Journey Through a Haunted Land: The New Germany

by Amos Elon
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 259 pp., $6.50

We look on German democracy as an effort of Sisyphus. Here, it is assumed, strain the “good Germans” with cracking muscles to roll their burden uphill to the liberal millennium. Here are we, strolling down from the summit where our boulders have always rested since borne there on providential glaciers, offering advice. And there is the boulder, passive but subject to natural laws of force. Let it roll, and German politics rumble back to their socket below—the Third Reich.

It is time that all of us who deal with German affairs, journalists, diplomats, or visiting academics, stopped asking whether “the Nazis are coming back.” Even the measure applied to both German states—“how far away from Nazism have they got?”—is misleading. The Third Reich is not a straight black nadir line. The further a German government moves toward clerical conservatism, for instance, or toward the restoration of the supremacy of a Prussian bureaucracy, the further it would have moved from the theory and practice of National Socialism. Even if we accept A. J. P. Taylor’s ruthless judgment that Hitler’s state was the most suitable government the Germans have ever had, that would only be true for a given historical moment which has passed.

Yet it is now clear that twenty-two years after the end of the war, the emotional horror at what took place under the Third Reich is not declining but actually rising, and steeply. This is an affair which principally affects intellectuals, and is mainly limited to America and Britain, but it is startling. It is an affair of generations. Those who were children in 1945, or not even born, have absorbed the history of what was done at Auschwitz and Treblinka in a way which their elders, on the whole, did not. For those who fought, or even suffered, the Third Reich was a reality which was to be destroyed, and its site energetically sown with salt. There were guilty men to be tried, and new Germanies to be founded. For the young, there is no chance to fight hand-to-hand with monsters that have left the earth. There is instead an insidious nightmare, a sort of anti-Gospel of what—in very detailed terms—human beings are capable of, a thought that lodges in the back of the mind and rots there.

One meets this delayed and intensified horror in young poets, especially in Britain. One saw it again—though these were older men and women—in the Atlantic Monthly reports of a journey to West Germany by a party of American intellectuals, who had to fight against fear and revulsion which had nothing to do with what they actually saw and heard (I do not believe that they would have felt like that if they had visited Germany in 1946). One found it again in the hysterical reporting of Andrzej Brycht, a young Polish writer who visited Munich last year and claimed that his first German word felt like “a dead toad bursting in the mouth.”

ALL THIS is highly relevant…

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