Facing Up to the Nazis

Withstanding Hitler in Germany: 1933–1945

by Michael Balfour
Routledge, 310 pp., $49.95

Die Hassell-Tagebücher 1938–1944: Aufzeichnungen vom anderen Deutschland

by Ulrich von Hassell, revised and expanded from the manuscript by Klaus Peter Reiss, edited by Freiherr Hiller von Gaertringen
Siedler, 689 pp., DM68

Briefe an Freya, 1930–1945

by Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Beate Ruhm von Oppen
C.H. Beck, 600 pp., DM68

Robert Ley: Hitler’s Labor Front Leader

by Ronald Smelser
Berg, 330 pp., $35.00

Göring: A Biography

by David Irving
Forthcoming from William Morrow this spring

The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity

by Charles S. Maier
Harvard University Press, 227 pp., $22.50

On October 12 the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, addressed the 37th Congress of German Historians at Bamberg. Boldly seizing upon one of the central issues of the so-called Historikerstreit that has divided the profession for the past two years (see The New York Review, January 15, 1987), he rejected the idea that National Socialist crimes could be palliated by comparisons with atrocities committed by the Soviet Union and other regimes and cultures. He declared that Auschwitz remained unique and the responsibility for it undiminished by time, and suggested that openness to history was a prerequisite and a pillar of West German democracy. He admonished his audience to be aware of the needs of young people:

They want to know and have to know who they are, where they come from, and who the others are with whom they are to share and shape this world.

To them it is vitally important to know how the moral and political disaster came about in the days of their grandparents. Did their nation leave the civilized community of nations only temporarily and has it now returned to its natural position, albeit encumbered by that terrible aberration?

…For their own lives they need an answer to the question of where we [their parents and grandparents] were, what we did, what responsibility we assumed, and what responsibility we very much failed to live up to.

A frivolous member of the president’s audience might have been reminded by these remarks of a passage in Günter Grass’s novel of 1963, Dog Years, in which there mysteriously comes upon a postwar market a kind of miracle glasses that enable young people, when they use them, to see what their elders were up to during the Nazi regime. Grass writes that the glasses show

…varied images of their parents’ past, often, though it takes a little patience, in chronological sequence. Episodes which are kept from the younger generation for one reason or another are made palpably clear…. All indications are that, surprisingly enough, no staggering quantities of erotic secrets are aired—little beyond the customary escapades. The scenes that recur over and over again in the twin spheres of the father-recognition glasses are acts of violence performed tolerated instigated eleven twelve thirteen years ago: murders, often by the hundreds. Aiding and abetting. Smoking cigarettes and looking on while. Certified decorated applauded murderers. Murder motives become leitmotives. With murderers at one table, in the same boat, bed, and officers’ club. Toasts, emergency directives. Record entries. Blowing on rubber stamps. Sometimes mere signatures and wastebaskets. Many roads lead to. Silence as well as words can. Every father has at least one to hide.

The glasses soon disappear, confiscated by the parents or by local government authorities.

Just about a month after the Bamberg meeting of historians, Philipp Jenninger, the president of the West German Bundestag, undertook to perform the function of the miracle glasses. In a special memorial service in the …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.