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 to Amos Elon’s book. It is in many ways an excellent book, full of sharp perceptions, using to the full a thorough education in German literature, based on painstaking research and reporting carried out all over both Germanies. The fact that Mr. Elon is a young Israeli journalist gives him a refreshing freedom and skepticism when treating Cold War affairs, and the most effective of keys to official doors in West Germany. But his nationality is also, I think, the book’s limitation. He is asking, as a Jew, whether the Germans are sorry for what they have done and whether they might do it again.

Of course, for most of the world, Gentile or Jew, this is the question they want answered. The trouble is that it is not the question which the Germans ask themselves. In the West, the debate is about authoritarianism in politics and the acceptance of conflict as a respectable institution in modern society, which means that there is at least as much interest in the lessons of the Weimar Republic, Prussia, and the Empire as in the Third Reich. In the East, where the problem is the familiar tension between post-Stalinist revisionism and the claims of a particularly rigid Party, the Third Reich is—with popular consent—simply relegated off the table: this is a legacy which concerns “imperialist, revisionist” West Germany, but not the “first peace-loving German state.”

A book which restricts itself to this single line of inquiry, the “Bewältigung der Vergangenheit,” cannot be a full account of modern Germany and its affairs. Mr. Elon did not mean to write one. He called this book a “journey through a haunted land,” and it is ghosts that preoccupy him. There is no analysis of party politics in West Germany, of the structure of the economy, of the Bundeswehr or the Franco-German treaty, of the relationship with the United States or the Soviet Union. Instead, there is a series of brilliant, impressionistic raids into selected areas, all of them more or less haunted territory.


In his opening chapters, Mr. Elon goes sharply to the buried failure whose consequences, I think, now begin to break the surface. Why was there no revolution in 1945? What did the idealists, gaunt in dyed uniforms, want for Germany then? He quotes Hans-Werner Richter, who told him that “people expected to live in ruins for at least a generation, but looked forward to a spiritual rejuvenation within a period of less than ten years.” Exactly the reverse took place. This and the unspontaneous nature of the Bonn Republic help to produce the sort of slight mental vertigo, the feeling that weights and measures are not what they are in other countries, which afflicts the visitor in West Germany. There is the huge gap between published opinion and public opinion—a public more reactionary about the death penalty and the Nazi trials than its government and press, more tolerant about the loss of the lands beyond the Oder and neighborly relations with East Germany. There is the blank space, the erasure, in public memory between 1933 and 1945. Above all—and this Mr. Elon conveys very well—there is the sense of the “emasculation of Germany.” German-ness is not obtrusive, as Frenchness is in France, in modern West Germany (in the East it is still more marked). “A national self-assurance, not necessarily political, has been destroyed. One misses a national self-assurance that evolves out of the continuity of history….”

WHEN I FIRST came to West Germany several years ago, in the usual state of funk, it seemed to me as nowhere as an airport waiting room. Everything, clothes, cigarettes, food, conversation was flavorless and international. Mr. Elon is not quite sure what to make of all these neutral hues. He observes politely that “if a lack of national conceit contributes something toward peace, if the rejection of an inflated ‘self-image’ is a pre-requisite for greater European unity…then the West Germans are several years ahead of their neighbors.” At times, he is equally polite about the state itself, a “working democracy” which benefits from the decentralized, federal structure and which he regards as stable if only because the electorate is so frightened of change and the parties divided by so little. At other times, these very passivities seem to alarm him.

Two sections of Journey Through a Haunted Land have already become celebrated in Germany, principally because they were serialized in der Spiegel and attracted protest letters whose fury and muddle-headedness were exceptional even for that front-line magazine. One was Elon’s description of East Germany, the other his chapter on the West German universities.

Mr. Elon’s reflections on East Germany deserved all the attention they got. Although he leads off a bit shakily, piling on too morbidly the shabbiness of East Berlin and underestimating the sly, self-satirical morale which many East Germans have built up for themselves, he is soon making discoveries. About himself: “as a Jew you are imbued with a dark, inexplicable…feeling that the fortune bestowed on the West Germans is somehow indecent. Somehow you want to see Germans in hair shirts, barefoot and covered with ashes. East Germany in its way changes this attitude…You think: for God’s sake, enough! It is enough!” About the philosophical background: in West Germany, nineteenth-century romanticism, in the East, eighteenth-century rationalism. About language (to which Mr. Elon is wonderfully alert): the Klassenfeind who has replaced at school the Nazi Rassenfeind, the volksfeindliche Elemente (folk-enemy elements) who as they did thirty years ago can still be caught listening to the Feindsender (enemy-radio). Enemies, enemies, struggle, subversion, decadent art—all the paranoid siege slogans recurring in almost the same jargon.

Mr. Elon is fascinated by one of the weirdest aspects of all: the presentation of the East German past, or perhaps one should say the Germany of the working class, as if it had been just another occupied land on a par with Poland or France. There is even an East German national pavilion in the museum at Auschwitz. Although East German schools “acquaint young people with the crimes of the Nazi regime—bluntly, unadorned by legends and omissions,” as the West Germans do not, it was not their fathers who did these things. It was Junkers, industrialists, “powerful financial circles.” Even the older generation seldom confesses “even indirect guilt or responsibility.” The West Germans are held to perpetuate the fascist legacy, so they may as well pay reparations to the Jews and other victims. The East Germans have founded a new “peace-loving state”: that is all the reparation they need offer. This explains the incredible lack of inhibition with which that German state now abuses Israel and aids and arms its enemies.


Before this sort of political education, Mr. Elon can only really stand and gape. It is hard to blame him. Impudent to history as it is, that technique may nonetheless embody the sound psychological view that inculcated guilt backfires. It may be a far more effective immunization against a revival of the past than the chaotic variety of approaches used in West Germany. Here again, Mr. Elon has been busy reading and comparing textbooks on modern history. They range, as he found, from the full and unshrinking descriptions of Nazi terror in a book in use at Hamburg to the five words in a Bonn textbook devoted to the fate of European Jewry: “intensified measures against the Jews.” Visiting schools, he noticed the long struggle of contemporary history teachers against prejudices brought from home—a struggle which usually ended in limited victory for the teacher, it should be said, among boys and girls in the top forms of the school.

Mr. Elon’s section on the West German universities, the other selection offered to the German public by Spiegel, follows naturally on his interest in schools, youth, and general restoration. The targets here are blatant. Mr. Elon, who has studied at a German university, misses none of them. The groveling collapse of most academics in 1933, the modern drain of talent to the United States, the despotism of the “Ordinarius” professor, the Nazi academics who still teach, the duelling corporations—Mr. Elon hits them all, and winds up with a discussion of German glosses on the Epistle to the Romans (“Let every soul be subject to higher powers…”) as an original way of summing up everything he has to say about the roots of German authoritarianism.

A GOOD DEAL has changed since Elon wrote. The “economic miracle” has been replaced by a combined budget crisis and industrial downturn, provoking wild cries of doom. More important, the Erhard government has been replaced by the Grand Coalition, and the whole argument about authority and security has moved into a new form. On the one hand, the coalition and its gigantic parliamentary majority satisfy the public prejudice against social conflict or tension. On the other, the student revolt which has broken out in West Berlin appears to mean the founding of a new opposition, as totally hostile to the Bonn system from the Left as the National Democrats are from the Right. The real battle for and against authoritarianism now appears to have been joined. In Mr. Elon’s time, it was still dormant. One wishes very much that this sharp-eared and resourceful journalist were still in Germany.

This Issue

September 14, 1967