The many voices of World War II

Posted: May 12, 2005 12:00 AM

If you live long enough, you'll get to see history rewritten. Voices of a new generation, with no experience of the past, add new interpretations of their parents' and grandparents' early years.

This can be good, and sometimes it can be bad. This week, for example, the newspapers and newscasts were awash in stories about anniversaries and memorials commemorating the end of World War II. Perspectives were decidedly mixed. "A funny thing happened to Germany on the way to the 60th anniversary of War World War II," reports der Spiegel Online. "Somehow it lost its characteristic heaviness."

The Germans no longer revel in guilt by association with Hitler. Now they see themselves as victims, too, even though almost no one else does. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder even attended the 60th anniversary of Germany's surrender in Moscow, to celebrate. He took seven German veterans of World War II, which would have been an adventure in masochism in earlier years. He's the first German leader to join a victory commemoration with the Russians.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, Horst Koehler, the German president, mourned all German victims, presumably even the SS troops, "the millions of people who died in foreign prisons and the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who were sent to Soviet forced-labor camps." He didn't let the Russians forget that they raped German women and pillaged the ruins when they marched into Berlin. He reminded the Allies that German civilians were killed by Allied bombs. He didn't say anything about who bombed whom first.

The neo-Nazis who mounted a protest in Berlin on behalf of der fuehrer were dwarfed by counter-protesters, and deprived us of another sensational story about rising anti-Semitism in the fatherland. A friend of mine who joined the counter-protest says that between the police and the huge numbers in her group, the neos were scared out of their skins, heads and all. They went home unsuccessful, unseen and unhappy.

This was the week Germany officially opened the Berlin memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman. I saw it under construction over the past several years and was struck by the German willingness, eagerness even, to mark for history the enormity of their crimes against Jews and others. It took years of debate and resolution of antagonizing points of view to create the memorial, which covers five acres with 2,711 stones of uneven heights to suggest a graveyard without buried bodies, evoking ghostly and ghastly memories demanding peace and expiation of sins. It's fitting that it's near the Brandenburg Gate and within sight of the Reichstag. Not far away lies the unmarked bunker, underneath a parking lot, where Hitler spent his last days before ridding the world of himself. An information center addresses history, the memorial evokes mourning.

Many who opposed building this memorial, Jews included, have drawn on the argument of Theodor Adorno that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," that art cannot capture the reality of such evil and suffering and it's best left to reflection, not depiction. There's always the danger that art can be used as a diversion to decorate man's inhumanity and injustice. But because memory is short, history cries out for documentation to mix sorrow with rumination and reflection on behalf of "never again."

Men and women talk quietly as they walk among the stones, and children will be tempted to treat it as a playground, skipping and jumping until they become dizzy with their own exuberance. But life does go on and the memorial can deepen a visitor's reverence, reminding the living of those who were forever deprived of such unremarkable everyday experiences.

This month Germany marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Friedrich Schiller, the German poet whose rapturous, florid poetry has fallen out of fashion. George Steiner, a professor at Cambridge University, introduced a huge exhibition of the poet's life and work at the National Museum of Schiller in Marbach, Germany ( The professor laments how Schiller's poetry was misinterpreted and exploited by both fascists and Marxists. Schiller believed that "if humanity has lots its dignity, then it has been saved by art." These words sound particularly appropriate for those who confront the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, and recall the history it documents.

"Before the truth causes her triumphant light to penetrate into the depths of the heart," wrote Schiller, "poetry intercepts her rays, and the summits of humanity shine in a bright light, while a dark and humid night still hangs over the valleys." History, after all, speaks with many voices.