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German Press Review: Learning from History

NewslinkJuly 20, 2004

Tuesday marks the sixtieth anniversary of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler and many German papers have been remembering the occasion in their editorial columns.


The Sächsische Zeitung in Dresden reminded its readers that without the courage shown by the men and women of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler, German history of the last century would have appeared even more wretched. "Yet one shouldn't place Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his conspirators on a hero's pedestal," it said and added there were others in the resistance as well, even though their names have been forgotten -- Social Democrats, Communists, trade unionists and Christians. They too were murdered. The paper noted "all the speeches and ceremonies can't hide the simple fact that the vast majority of Germans fully backed a criminal regime, which had brought catastrophe on the whole of Europe, right up until the closing weeks of the war." The eastern German daily admonished its readers to keep alive the memory of July 20 for another reason: right-wing extremists are once again trying to win votes at the ballot box, it said.

The Westdeutsche Zeitung said Germany cannot use July 20 "to wash itself free of guilt." The paper commented on how "frustrating it is realize how difficult it is to write a history of guilt, especially now that the generation of culprits and victims is scarcely able to participate in such an undertaking any more." This includes the history of the crimes of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army, it said. Necessary corrections to a travelling picture exhibition devoted to this topic have made those crimes no less heinous. "But the most shameful chapter in post-Hitler German history is that it took a Hollywood director and his film "Schindler's List" to draw attention to the possibility of using civil disobedience to prevent the extermination of the Jews."

The Stuttgarter Zeitung commented that with the passage of time more and more people believe it could have been possible for all of Germany to have resisted Hitler, not just individual groups. "Easily said, such a view misjudges the situation," the paper criticized. Resistance to Hitler necessitated a large measure of courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself. "And even the few officers who were prepared to go that far, had to overcome the dictates of tradition that compelled absolute obedience to authority. The pressure that tradition exerted is hardly imaginable sixty years later."

In other news, German papers examined the debate over whether the country should call a referendum on the European Union constitution. As the comments show, this too is an issue steeped in history.

Looking back to the beginnings of the current German state after World War II, the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung said that the founding fathers of the West German government had "good reasons for choosing a representative democracy for the fledging federal republic." They believed that the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic had collapsed largely because it contained too few democratic decision makers. Plebiscites, where the population could be influenced by demagogues, were often misused as political weapons against democratic institutions. The paper said this is the reason referendums were regarded as risky in 1949 when the country's current Constitution was being drafted. "In the meantime, more than half a century has passed and democracy is just as stable in Germany, as it is in Great Britain, Sweden, France or in other EU countries. Those countries call their citizens to the ballot box, when key decisions are to be taken. German politicians could have the same measure of confidence in their electorate," the paper concluded.

The Südwest Presse was of the opinion that the issue of referendums in Germany cannot be decided simply by focusing on the new European Constitution. "Either we augment our representative democracy to include plebiscites, or we stick to the present system that has served us well. Ad hoc solutions shouldn't be permitted," the paper maintained.