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Opinion: Germany's Difficult Path

This year's 60th anniversary commemorations of the end of World War II are highlighting just how dramatically Germany's relationship with its difficult postwar legacy has changed, says DW-WORLD's Marc Young.

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Chancellor Gerhard Schröder honoring the victims of Auschwitz

Attaching importance to round anniversaries may be an arbitrary human conceit, but they do allow us to take stock of important events and their impact on our lives.

Few things have so drastically altered the course of modern history as World War II and its aftermath. The passage of time was bound to shape how Germans and the rest of the world dealt with the legacy of the 20th century's worst conflict, but 60 years on, we stand on the verge of a watershed.

The latest WWII commemorations will likely be the last with the few remaining firsthand witnesses of that era. And it's the acknowledgment that the responsibility to remember the war is being forever handed from one generation to the next that has increased the poignancy of the nearly daily events marking the liberation of death camps and last battles leading up to the Allied defeat of Hitler's Third Reich.

Naturally, this year has been a time for considerable reflection by many Germans how best to keep alive the lessons learned from the darkest chapter of their nation's history. The crimes Nazi Germany visited upon the world were undoubtedly some of the most horrible ever committed by humanity. But few countries have so thoroughly and so commendably confronted the demons of the past as postwar Germany has.

Though by no means always an easy process, modern Germany has made the painful WWII legacy part of its national identity. For example, officials this month will inaugurate a massive memorial to the millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust at the very heart of Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate.

Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin

An aerial view of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe in central Berlin. The memorial consisting of 2,751 concrete slabs will be inaugurated May 10, 2005.

Unflinching acceptance

This unflinching willingness to accept responsibility for the past is part of the reason why Germany's role in Europe is so different than that of Japan's in Asia. Today France and Germany are joined by deep friendship while China and Japan are currently confronted by bubbling animosity toward each other over resurfacing issues stemming from the war.

The contrast couldn't be any starker: As angry Chinese protestors were demolishing Japanese shops and pelting Tokyo's embassy in recent weeks, French President Jacques Chirac enlisted German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to help him rally support for the upcoming French referendum on the EU constitution.

Schröder und Chirac

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, left, is greeted by French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Anyone that has doubts about the European project needs to stop and think about that for a minute. Sixty years after the war, Paris is betting a German can convince average Frenchmen what is good for France. Even ten years ago that would have been unthinkable. Back then, German officials were largely ignored during the 50th WWII anniversary celebrations.

But this year things are different. Chancellor Schröder's presence at a ceremony in Moscow marking the end of the war is generally viewed as a sign of irreversible reconciliation in Europe.

A decade's difference

Much has changed in ten years -- including both how the world views Germany and how Germany views itself. In 1995, a newly reunified Germany was still a shy economic giant, unsure of its place in the world. A decade later, the country is firmly anchored at the center of an enlarged EU and Berlin has become more confident about playing a bigger role on the global stage.

KFOR- Soldaten präsentieren sich Peter Struck im Kosovo

Soldiers of Germany's KFOR troops carry riot protection shields during an exercise in Prizren, Kosovo.

Though controversial in Germany at the time, few actions have shown the changing nature of the country's WWII legacy better than Berlin's decision to help intervene militarily in Kosovo to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in 1999.

At the time, it nearly caused Schröder's center-left coalition of Social Democrats and pacifist Greens to collapse. But both the chancellor and his Greens foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, realized that if Germany were to ever sanction military force, there could be no better reason than to halt the sort of crimes against humanity that the Nazis once committed in the Balkans.

There can be few greater signs of Germany coming to terms with its history than of a democratic government in Berlin willing to put the nation's soldiers in harm's way to keep others from repeating German mistakes.

Continuing down the path

Despite how far Germany has come in 60 years, there is still some way to go, however. Last autumn's regional elections in the eastern state of Saxony did considerable damage to Germany's image after the neo-Nazi NPD party won nearly 10 percent of the vote. The newly-elected NPD representatives then went on to disgrace themselves and the rest of Germany in January by walking out of Saxony's parliament during a moment of silence meant to honor the victims of the Nazis.

Jahrestag Zerstörung von Dresden NPD

Supporters of the far right-wing National Democratic Party NPD walk infront of the Frauenkirche Church of Our Lady and carry flags of their party during their rally through Dresden, eastern Germany, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005. 60 years ago, on February 13th and 14th, 1945, allied forces air raids on Dresden destroyed the town and left the city in ruins.

As long as Germany's economy remains plagued by weak growth and high unemployment, there will always be the danger of right-wing extremists will playing on peoples' fears for their own gains. But if Germany forever wants to rid itself of political bottom-feeders like the NPD, the country will also have to redefine what it means to be German.

The more conservative parts of Germany society still generally consider being "German" as something defined by ethnicity rather than the more abstract cultural concept of citizenship that America, Britain and France have developed. This is a pity. Modern Germany is a multicultural nation firmly based on the principles of equality, solidarity and tolerance, which could easily apply to first-generation Turkish immigrants as well as Bavarians and Berliners.

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