Europe Grapples with Nazi Past Sylvia Poggioli comments on how, after more than sixty years, Europe still has difficulty coming to terms with the Nazi past.
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Europe Grapples with Nazi Past

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Europe Grapples with Nazi Past

Europe Grapples with Nazi Past

Europe Grapples with Nazi Past

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Sylvia Poggioli comments on how, after more than sixty years, Europe still has difficulty coming to terms with the Nazi past.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The revelation this summer that German writer and Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass had served in the Waffen SS had a large resonance in the European media. In a letter from Europe, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that the long-delayed confession came at a time when Europe as a whole was just beginning to come to terms with its recent past.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Europeans reacted with a sense of betrayal. The French daily, Le Monde, said Grass had been the conscience not only of Germany but of the entire continent. As the Cold War shaped the reconstruction of post-war Europe and the need to focus on the communist threat interrupted the de-Nazification process, Grass railed against collective amnesia. It wasn't until communism collapsed that Europe began to face its ghosts and dismantle long-cherished myths of anti-Nazi resistance.

In Italy, prosecutors reopened files of Nazi massacres of civilians locked up for half a century in what was called a filing cabinet of shame. Numerous fascist collaborators have been identified. And a book published this year revealed that nearly all Italy's post-war writers and intellectuals of the Left had actually been card-carrying fascists.

In Spain, the last statue of the dictator Francisco Franco was only recently taken down. Mass graves of victims of his regime are being opened, and the government proclaimed this year - the 70th anniversary of Franco's coup d'etat - the Year of Memory.

The focal point of this reawakening is the Holocaust, when Europeans massacred other Europeans. In the Netherlands, a recent movie is challenging illusions of a nation of partisans and sheds light on widespread Dutch collaboration in deporting most of the country's Jews. It was only in 1995 that Queen Beatrice officially acknowledged the tragedy of Dutch Jews.

In that same year, French President Jacques Chirac became the first French leader to recognize publicly France's responsibility in deporting tens of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps. That was the first crack in the denial syndrome by which post-war France had long disassociated itself from Vichy, its pro-Nazi wartime government.

Europe's recovery of its historical memory has been accompanied by a flurry of new memorials and museums to the victims of Nazism throughout the continent. Europe seems to have taken as its own former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's words, The memory of the war and the genocide is part of our life; these memories are part of our identity.

But institutional Europe's acknowledgment of its collective responsibilities is not fully shared by public opinion. The continent is undergoing a social and cultural upheaval. The wave of non-European immigration has strengthened many right-wing and xenophobic parties, and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise.

The case of Gunter Grass's selective memory comes as the last generation of World War II begins to die off. The lesson it teaches is that Europe must strive to keep its reawakened memory constantly alive and transmitted to each new generation.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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