Hitler Long Gone But Legacy Still Haunts Germany

Friday, April 29, 2005 11:10 a.m. ET
By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - You won't find Hitler Street in Germany these days; squares dedicated to the Nazi leader were also renamed as soon as the Third Reich fell and Adolf as a first name is now all but extinct.

But 60 years after the Fuehrer killed himself on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler still casts a long shadow. As weary of their past as many young Germans are, there is still a lingering fascination over history's greatest villain.

Hitler's face is regularly pasted on Germany's big-selling weekly news magazines, boosting sales with critical or scholarly articles. The racy mass-market Bild daily gives its 12 million readers a steady diet of tales of Hitler and his crimes.

"There is a concentrated focus on that 12-year era of German history that will never let up," said Heinrich August Winkler, a leading German historian at Berlin's Humboldt University.

"It was Germany's disaster," he told Reuters. "It will leave a permanent impression on German history. It's so unique that it will never become normalized. The responsibility for the Nazis and the Holocaust have become part of Germany's identity."

Few Germans will mark Saturday's anniversary of Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker. For most it is just a footnote in a season of 60th anniversaries marking the lead up to the end of World War II in Europe on May 8.

Yet Hitler's birthday on April 20 -- a national celebration during the Third Reich -- is a date even Germans born long after the war have acquired sensitivity about.

Some years ago, a Germany-England soccer match in Berlin scheduled for that date was canceled and last week a new state premier in Baden-Wuerttemberg abruptly delayed his swearing-in ceremony by one day to avoid the Hitler connection.


"The Germans and their political leaders live with the ubiquitous memory of Hitler's barbarism," wrote Der Spiegel columnist Juergen Leinemann under the headline "A nation in search of itself" in an anniversary issue of the magazine.

The vast majority of Germans were born after 1945 but have spent their lives growing up with Hitler's legacy. The horrors of the Nazi past are studied in depth at all levels of school.

Public broadcaster ZDF has regularly scored high ratings with a series of television documentaries about Hitler and his helpers in recent years. But the historian who produced the films rejects any notion Germans are obsessed by Hitler.

"They're not obsessed but interested," ZDF's award-winning director for historical films, Guido Knopp, told Reuters.

"The 20th century would have taken a completely different course without Hitler. He was history's last assassin. Knowledge about Hitler is the best antidote there is.

"Hitler is the best anti-Hitler therapy available."

Their guilt-inducing past may fatigue many Germans. Yet millions packed cinemas last year when the first German-made film about Hitler's final days in his Berlin bunker, "Der Untergang" (Downfall), was released.

The film took some $40 million at the box office in Germany and is set to become the highest ever grossing German-language film in Britain too, its distributors said.

But Lutz Erbring, a media professor at Berlin's Free University, said the focus on Hitler came chiefly from abroad.

He observed Germans were aghast when British newspapers tried to connect Hitler with German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth in 1941, when membership was compulsory for all 14-year-olds.

"The English press is obsessed by Hitler," Erbring said.

"It gets ridiculous at times."

Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited.