- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

The dedication of a site for a Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, capital of reunited Germany as well as capital of the Third Reich, offers an opportunity for sober reflection. The event is scheduled to take place Jan. 27, and the memorial has been a hot political issue for any number of reasons, ranging from architectural to geographic to political. Controversy will also attend the dedication of the site itself, close to Berlin's most famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate and the newly restored Reichstag. The Berlin Wall stood here.

The memorial's groundbreaking ceremony will be attended by all sorts of dignitaries: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will be there, German President Johannes Rau, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, American Ambassador John Kornblum and other dignitaries. Strangely missing, however, will be Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who has decided that he cannot possibly find room in his busy schedule to attend; Mr. Diepgen has opposed the project for years.

Insensitive as one might find Mr. Diepgen's attitude, more generally it exemplifies a shift in mindset showing up among Germany's Social Democratic baby-boom leadership. This shift perhaps had to come sooner or later as generations change and distance from World War II grows. It shows up on a number of issues as well as in the way Germany relates to other countries, not necessarily behaving as the 800-pound gorilla of Europe, but surely displaying more assertiveness.

Now, it is true that even as other Europeans are starting to deal with questions of guilt and complicity in World War II and experience a resurgence of various shades of nationalism, Germans have worked hard, particularly in the past quarter-century, to face their country's past and to the extent possible compensate its victims. Germany has, for instance, paid reparations to the state of Israel with which it enjoys good relations today. It is also looking for ways to compensate Europeans who were drafted into slave labor by the Nazis. Most of the hard work of penance has been undertaken by preceding generations of German politicians. For all his current troubles, Helmut Kohl was strongly in favor of a Berlin Holocaust memorial.

In the political and military arenas, postwar Germany worked hard to overcome the past, as a good European partner and NATO ally. It played second fiddle to France's lead in the European Union for decades and furnished the bases for most of the American troops stationed in Europe during the Cold War. The long shadow of World War II dampened any thoughts of German independence or assertiveness.

These attitudes are now changing with the arrival of Mr. Diepgen's generation at political preeminence, a generation at two removes from those who lived through World War II as adults. On the plus side, Germany has taken on new responsibilities, contributing troops to NATO in the Balkans after much domestic agonizing. Other Europeans may find a downside in the fact that the Schroeder government proposed renegotiating German contributions to the EU because they were felt to be disproportionate.

Quite understandably, the baby-boom leadership takes no responsibility for the crimes of their fathers and grandfathers. Not so understandably, they have a tendency to display moral smugness and lack of historical sensitivity and perspective.

Last March, Mr. Diepgen paid a visit to Washington, and among my vivid memories of the press breakfast was the mayor's fairly intense irritation with the subject of the Holocaust memorial whenever it was brought up. With the design by American architect Peter Eisenman featuring 2,000 tall black stone pillars meant to symbolize a Jewish cemetery, located on Berlin's prime real estate, the memorial will indeed be hard to miss on the ground or from the air. It was clearly Mr. Diepgen's view that while Berlin might consider some kind of memorial, it needed this memorial like a hole in the head. And he wasn't afraid to say so. That is something new.

Similarly, the city Mr. Diepgen runs has been at odds with the United States over the site of a new U.S. Embassy, which has to be moved from the former capital of Bonn. Approval for a location close to the Brandenburg Gate has run into trouble because the needed U.S. 30-foot security zone will, in the view of city officials, disrupt the traffic pattern. The U.S. government takes a fairly dim view of these arguments, especially given that the existence of Berlin as a free and united city is due entirely to American troops, who protected West Berlin (and West Germany) for half a century.

As for the memorial itself, it certainly seems timely whatever the merits or demerits of the particular design. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen genocide happen in Rwanda, and we have seen ethnic cleansing, a lesser but related evil, take place in the Balkans in the Caucasus and now in Chechnya as well. Somewhere along the way, the words "never again" seem to have lost their meaning.

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