Germany's Nazi Past Is Back
It won't go away. It's uncomfortable, clammy, damp, noxious. Two events this past week testified to the lingering hold that memories of Nazism have in modern Germany. The further distant it seems, the more it resurfaces.
The first is the discovery that Adolf Eichmann's superior is apparently buried in a Jewish cemetery in the former East Berlin. East Germany, which prided itself as an "anti-fascist" redoubt facing down the revanchist West Germany, never sought to face up to the Nazi past. Instead, it tried to claim that it had nothing in common with the Nazis. So perhaps it should not be surprising that it never really tried to explore what happened to Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller, who participated in the Wannsee Conference which formally authorized the destruction of European Jewry in January 1942. Now Professor Johannes Tuchel, who heads the German Resistance Center in Berlin, says that Muller's corpse was thrown into a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery in 1945.
The second is another discovery. It's that hundreds of priceless paintings seized by the Nazis, often as "degenerate art,"--Hitler staged an entire exhibition of it in 1939 in Munich, only to discover to his consternation that the public actually flocked to see it out of interest rather than contempt--have been residing for decades in the apartment of the son of a Nazi era art dealer. Art was central to the self-conception of of Hitler. Much of Nazism, as Frederic Spotts has suggested in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, was a form of stagecraft with Hitler as the impresario of an entire country--the emphasis on Wagner, the torchlight parades, the tours of Weimar, the city of Goethe and Schiller, for German troops, the planned art museum in Linz. The Fuhrer spent much time fussing with his pet architect Albert Speer over their plans for Linz even as the net of doom came ever closer. The failed Viennese painter was convinced that he could purify the German race and conceived of himself as a political artist. Thomas Mann even called him "Brother Hitler."
But the Nazis were also running a criminal enterprise. Looting was a core principle of Nazism. So they stole from the Jews anything they could, down to the gold in their teeth. After the war much of it went missing. Now it appears that the elderly Cornelius Gurlitt had about 1,400 pieces stashed that he had inherited, if that is the appropriate word, from his father. The German government seems to have kept the find secret for over a year until Focus magazine broke the story. So far, the German government is hanging tough in the face of calls to restore the art to the Jewish families or descendants who originally possessed it. Why did it keep mum about the discovery? Protests are mounting inside Germany:
'Transparency and a swift procedure are important here,' Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told German regional newspaper the Passauer Neue Presse.
'We are talking about the stolen inheritance of Jewish collectors, who could now experience delayed justice in (getting) belongings of their families ... returned to their rightful owners,' Graumann said.
Presumably, international pressure will be intense enough to force the German government to back down. Or will it? Germany, the paymaster of Europe, as it is known, is feeling somewhat emboldened these days. Piqued at American spying and proud of its economic prowess, Berlin could remain defiant. For now, it's simply engaging in foot-dragging, which has all along been the German response, by and large, to revelations about Nazi era crimes, at least when it comes to making restitution for them. But the two revelations of the past week are unlikely to be the last ones from a tenebrous era that continues to shadow Germany.
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