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Culture

The Chancellor's Bad Timing

A discussion on the topics of "nation" and "patriotism" between the German Chancellor and a controversial author has unveiled wounds in German society still sore nearly half a century after World War Two.

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Author Martin Walser didn't make many friends when he called Auschwitz a "moral cudgel"

The timing could have been better.

Every May 8th in Germany is commemorated as the Day of Liberation from National Socialism. Fifty-seven years ago on that day, the German army capitulated to the allied forces and World War Two came to an end.

So when it was announced that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was participating in a forum with German author Martin Walser on the anniversary entitled "Nation, Patriotism, Democratic Culture in Germany 2002" on the anniversary, it hit a raw nerve with many, unleashing a flurry of public protests and accusations of insensitivity and even latent antisemitism.

Controversial Statements

The topic is sensitive enough as it is but the outrage really centered around the choice of Martin Walser as forum participant. The author gained notoriety with his acceptance speech upon being awarded the Peace Prize of German Booksellers in 1998.

Holocaust Gedenktag

Junge Israelis gehen auf einem Archivbild vom 22. April 1998 unter dem Torbogen des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz-Birkenau, auf dem 'Arbeit macht frei' steht, hindurch. Der 27. Januar 1945, der Jahrestag der Befreiung des Vernichtungslagers Auschwitz, wurde 1996 von Bundespraesident Roman Herzog offiziell zum deutschen Gedenktag fuer die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus erklaert. (AP Photo/Jockel Finck)

At the awards ceremony, Walser talked of Auschwitz (photo) having become a "moral cudgel" that was used against Germany and which had led to the "instrumentalization of our shame for contemporary purposes". The remarks raised the ire of many, especially those in the Jewish community.

Spate of Protests

The Central Council of Jews said it was "irritated and wounded" that Chancellor Schröder would choose this day to hold discussions with Walser. Its vice-president, Michel Friedman, called the Chancellor's credibility into question and accused him of playing to right-wing voters in this election year.

Other groups, including the "Berlin Coalition Against Antisemitism and Antizionism" and the "Berlin Antifascism Association" have called for demonstrations.

Protestors accuse the German Chancellor of wanting to turn the May 8th from the day of "Liberation from National Socialism" into a day of "Liberation from German Responsibility".

Flying to the Defense

High-ranking figures from Schröder's Social Democratic Party were quick to defend the Chancellor.

General Secretary Franz Münterfering said Friday's discussions were important in that they helped draw a difference between the concepts of patriotism and nationalism. He added that inviting Walser to the forum did not mean Schröder, or the party, shared all the author's opinions.

Culture Minister Julian Nida-Rümelin told reporters the decision to invite Walser to the forum was a courageous one. "We cannot make the subject of nation a taboo theme and leave all discussion of it to the right-wing extremists," he said.

Role in the World

Although western, democratic values have firmly entrenched themselves in the country, and Germany has now begun sending troops abroad as peacekeepers or even into combat situations, its population is still far from united about how the country should see itself or its role in the world.

Even almost half a century after Hitler's Germany collapsed, many people here still have major reservations about Germany ever considering itself a "normal" nation or applying concepts like patriotism and pride to itself

After Auschwitz, the thinking goes, there can be no national pride.

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