Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Popular film jokes about the Holocaust, Germans laugh

Is it time to forgive if not forget?
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - February 4, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — Midway through the hit film “Fack Ju Gohte,” schoolkids groan when a comic stand-in teacher proposes a class trip. “Please, not another concentration camp!”

Cue rimshot.

Still too soon? Germany doesn't think so — even though many people are reluctant to voice such sentiments in public.

The irreverent schoolyard comedy is on the way to becoming one of the top grossing German films of all time.

The concentration camp gag never fails to get a spit-take or two in packed cinema halls.

That's because the joke hits home. After decades of self-flagellation, more and more Germans are starting to believe it's time to forgive, if not forget, what post-war Germany has long maintained “must never be forgotten.”

Last weekend, even President Joachim Gauck joined the foreign and defense ministers in calling for Germany to move beyond the legacy of its wartime past.

Berlin resident Dzems Bruvelis is one of those ready to move on.

“Those events were terrible,” he says. “But I was not part of it, and I venture to say my parents were not even part of it. History, after a certain point, should become history. Everyone around us is trying to keep it alive.”

Such views put Germans at odds with the rest of the world.

When another German film — “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers”) — was released in New York this month as “Generations of War,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott excoriated the popular epic as an attempt to “normalize German history.”

But experts say it's not fair simply to say that Germany wants to deny its past.

Germans have gone through three phases of dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust, says Yascha Mounk, a German-Jewish doctoral candidate at Harvard who has written a new bookabout Germany's changing attitudes toward Jews.

In the 1950s and '60s, the country failed to face up to Nazi crimes. Then there was a “heroic moment” in the 1970s and ‘80s, when people seriously engaged with the past. Since the 1990s, however, there's been a growth of what Germans call the “finish-line movement” that seeks to close the long period of introspection.

“Some people want to draw a concluding line beneath the past and say, 'It's been so long, it's time for us to be a normal country again,'” Mounk says. “That mood is very widespread.”

The debate is by no means finished.

Watched by many, “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” prompted serious discussion because of its clumsy effort to show Nazis as human beings.

In another characteristic episode, a talkshow host named Lea Rosh prompted a protracted national debate ensued by proposing the building of a huge memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust at the site of the destroyed headquarters of the Gestapo.

At question wasn’t whether Germany should remember the Holocaust at all, but rather if locating the memorial on a site so closely associated with Adolph Hitler would seem to place the blame on him alone and absolve other Germans.

“If you compare Germany to a country like Japan or Austria, there has been a very serious engagement with the past — it's one of the most impressive and honorable things about Germany's post-war history,” Mounk says.

“What I don't think is that means there are absolutely no issues anymore.”

Mounk opposes the "finish-line movement." But the historian and many others nevertheless suggest the continual singling out of the Germans as somehow culturally disposed toward genocide — or at least vulnerable to the impulse — has serious practical implications.

Many who would like to draw a line under the Holocaust believe the euro zone was designed first and foremost to prevent a reunified Germany from growing too strong. Experts say that belief has enabled the far right in Germany to benefit from otherwise healthy euroskepticism while muddying the debate over the euro.

Opponents of the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany Party had only to accuse them of harboring neo-Nazis in their ranks to scuttle their chances in an election last year.

And when Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier dared criticize Israeli settlements in the West Bank earlier this month, at least one columnist accused him of “historical amnesia” for daring to “tell Jews where to live.”

“Every time some stupid protester in Greece holds up a poster of Merkel with a Hitler mustache, the German media focuses on whether we have a moral responsibility,” Mounk says. “It leads to bad foreign policy.”

Others argue that extending guilt to yet another generation of Germans would alienate a society that sees its identity as under attack and underscore the idea that Germany remains a monoculture, something many Germans are trying to battle.

The creator and star of the comedy “Fack Ju, Gohte,” after all, is of Turkish origin.