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War Crimes

In response to:

From Hirohito to Heimat from the October 26, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I notice that I am being mentioned in passing in the review of In Hitler’s Shadow by Richard Evans [NYR, October 16]. I seem to be quoted with something I never said, and I do not know the origin of that quotation. I find it remarkable that certain forms of wilful misrepresentation are uncritically quoted not only in books but also in the reviews thereof. In the real world, I am not worried about the lack of meaningful German national identity, I am concerned, as many people in the West are, about this country’s ability to come to grips with its historical legacy and its difficult position in the centre of European politics. Mr. Evans and your author might find it useful to check their sources.

Professor Dr. Michael Stürmer
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Forschungsinstitut für Internationale
Politik und Sicherheit
Ebenhausen, West Germany

Ian Buruma replies:

My quarrel with Rabbi Weiss is as much about style as content. If what I saw him doing in Auschwitz on the television news was not screaming, but his normal manner of speaking, he is an unfortunate spokesman for even the worthiest of causes. If it is worthy to prevent the former death camp from being turned into a Roman Catholic monument, it is just as important to guard the legacy of Auschwitz from any association with political extremism. And I doubt very strongly that a known supporter of Gush Emunim is the right person for the job.

Professor Evans has a problem with my interpretation of his book. Perpetuity is indeed a very long time. Professor Evans prefers, no doubt rightly, to confine his thoughts to the long term: “With all due reservation,” he writes about the political map of Europe drawn in 1945, “it must ultimately be judged by its long-term effects.”

Indeed so. And what in his opinion were those effects?

Forty years of uninterrupted peace add up to an unanswerable defense of the arrangements reached in 1945. Armed conflict in Europe over the previous century had been generated mainly by nationalist passions and ethnic rivalries. The transfer of populations and the division of Europe into two blocs, each with a different social system and each dominated by an outside superpower, has, by one of history’s savage ironies, brought this century of conflict to an end.

This, he argues, perfectly defensibly, has kept Europe, East and West, safe from a major war. And the cost? “Some may argue that the price paid by those who now live under Soviet hegemony has been particularly high. Yet inhabitants of many countries of Eastern Europe knew little personal freedom or respect for human rights even when they were wholly self-governing, and there is little evidence that they would have become more liberal after 1945.” To paraphrase another man concerned with peace for all time, Czechoslovakia is indeed a long way from home.

If it is all as hunky dory as Professor Evans says it is, why, then, should the Soviets not continue to dominate Eastern Europe, and why is it not legitimate to read Evans’s book as an argument for precisely that case? If this is not what he means, then what does he mean? Is he suggesting that Soviet domination can last without occupation, or at least the threat of occupation?

But let us forget about perpetuity, or even the long term, for recent events have shown that in the very short term Eastern Europeans and many in the Soviet Union are less happy with the present arrangement than Professor Evans. And while this unhappiness is indeed unleashing some ethnic and nationalist tensions, the revolt against tyranny in most parts of Eastern Europe is marked by precisely the respect for human rights, personal freedoms, and liberal politics, which Mr. Evans claims did not exist forty years ago. Unless he wishes to argue that this is entirely the result of enlightened Soviet tutelage, he must admit that the possibility of liberalism cannot have been wholly absent even in 1945.

Professor Dr. Michael Stürmer appears to have a similar problem with standing by what he himself has said. Evans quotes Stürmer’s worries about “the Germans’ obsession with their guilt,” and their lack of national identity, on page 103 of his book. But thereby hangs an interesting footnote, according to which Stürmer expressed these worries at the Römerberg Colloquia, held in Frankfurt in 1986. Apparently Stürmer heavily amended the published verson of his contribution, according to Evans “to remove many of the more controversial statements,” and then refused to have it reprinted. Consequently Evans relied on a tape-recorded account of the colloquium.

If this sounds too tenuous, let us return to the text, as they say. In the real world, writes Stürmer, he is not worried about a meaningful German national identity. What world is he talking about then, when he writes that history must respond to a need for “spiritual significance” (innerweltliche Sinnstiftung)? Is the “inner world” insignificant to the real world? No, quite the contrary, it would seem, “For it is a question of the inner continuity of the German Republic…”

Now, perhaps this is not the same thing as a meaningful German national identity. It is true that Stürmer prefers the word “orientation,” as in the following sentence (from “Weder verdrängen noch bewältigen,” in Schweizer Monatshefte, September 1986): “Hitler’s rise resulted from the crisis and catastrophe of a secularized and collapsing civilization, marked by a longing for orientation and an understandable search for security.” As for the “meaningful” part (from Das Ruhelose Reich: Deutschland, 1866–1918): “Because the industrial society refused to provide an answer to the question of meaning, people turned to the martial state as the focus of their hopes for unity and a [common] goal.”

What, then, is the difference between orientation and identity? Both are highly elusive concepts. But thank goodness Stürmer himself comes to the rescue. “Both,” he writes (quoted by Charles Maier in The Unmasterable Past), “determine the new search for an old history. Loss of orientation and the search for identity are brothers. But anyone who believes that this has no effect on politics and the future ignores the fact that in a land without history whoever supplies memory, shapes concepts, and interprets the past will win the future.”

Exactly. And that is why I argued in my piece that history should be, like democracy, a neverending debate based on rational arguments, and not a search for national identity, orientation, or spiritual meaning.

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