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Germany reflects on its own agony

For decades, Germany's shame for the Holocaust made it virtually taboo to discuss its own war suffering.

The actress Nina Hoss in a scene in the movie 'A Woman in Berlin'.
The actress Nina Hoss in a scene in the movie 'A Woman in Berlin'.

BERLIN // For decades, Germany's national shame for the Holocaust made it virtually taboo to discuss its own suffering in the Second World War. But a recent series of books and feature films has focused on the bombing of German cities and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe in a controversial portrayal of Germans as helpless victims of a war they started. The latest example is a new film released last week about the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers at the end of the war.

A Woman in Berlin is based on the diary of a Berlin woman repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The graphic, unemotional account of serial rapes committed by Russian soldiers brutalised by war has won praise from critics and thrown a spotlight on the plight of German women in the aftermath of the war. Estimates for the number of women raped by Red Army soldiers range from 100,000 to two million.

The film follows the 2008 TV blockbuster Die Gustloff about the ship Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk in Jan 1945 by a Soviet submarine while carrying 9,000 German refugees and soldiers in one of the world's worst maritime disasters. That film got top TV viewer ratings, as did The Escape in 2007 about Germans fleeing the advancing Soviets and Dresden in 2006 about the devastation of the city in Feb 1945 in an Allied air raid.

The trend has triggered a heated debate among historians. Some said Germany has spent so long atoning for its crimes that it deserves to remember its own agony. Others warn that concentrating on the harm done to Germans could give younger generations a distorted view of their history. They see a risk that the crimes of the Nazis may be weighed up against Germany's own suffering and thereby trivialised.

"Everything the Germans had to go through during the war and after the war was mere discomfort compared with what the Nazis did to their victims," wrote Henryk M Broder, a German author, in Der Spiegel, a news magazine, this year. "In a world in which everyone wants to be a victim even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the perpetrators want to stand on the right side of history. "In the end even someone whose grandfather fell drunk from a watchtower will be able to claim he lost a relative in a concentration camp."

About 500,000 German civilians died in the Allied bombing campaign, and 12 million were evicted from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia after the Nazi defeat. Until recently, only neo-Nazis and ultraconservative groups of German expellees had dared condemn the Allied bombing campaign or the expulsions in which many thousands were killed. But the passage of time has given Germans a more detached view of the 12-year Nazi era, and it has become publicly acceptable to discuss the trauma of bombardment, mass rape and expulsion. The end of the Cold War helped free up the debate.

"In communist East Germany, there was no criticism of the Red Army and in the West virtually none of the Americans' actions in the war," said Manfred Messerschmidt, a military historian. "The end of the Cold War has had a big impact on the public debate about our history. With their strategic aerial bombing campaign the Americans and British deliberately wanted to crush the German population and public morale. That was in breach of international law.

"We shouldn't shy away from stating those facts," Mr Messerschmidt said. "It's a good thing that we are dealing with our history in this way because it takes the wind out of the sails of the far right. "We need an open and free discussion of this combined with the acknowledgement that we started the war and did terrible things. We have openly talked about German crimes, one can't accuse the media and the public of concealing the nation's guilt. We have processed our past, which is something many other countries haven't done."

Other historians said it is too soon for Germany to concentrate on its own suffering. "I have misgivings about this feeling that we've looked at the victims and can now focus on licking our own wounds," said Peter Jahn, a historian and a retired director of a German-Russian war museum in Berlin. "The debate often has that tone to it. I think it's too soon. We have commemorated Europe's Jews and put up memorials to the disabled people killed in euthanasia programmes, to the Roma people, the homosexuals, to the political victims.

"But we still don't publicly commemorate the plight of the millions of people murdered as 'Slavic subhumans'. The survivors never got compensation, they were never recognised as victims of war and there's no monument in their memory." Mr Jahn said the deaths of 27 million people in the Soviet Union as a result of Germany's invasion was well researched by historians but had not featured in Germany's public debate about the war.

"When are we going to see a German film about the starving inhabitants of Leningrad? Or the Soviet prisoners of war who starved or were beaten to death or shot?" At the end of their lives, the generations of Germans who lived through the war are speaking out about their experiences, and there is growing scientific research into their trauma. Philipp Kuwert, a psychiatrist at the University of Greifswald who last week launched a survey of wartime German rape victims, said Germany had been only recently able to study its "collective trauma".

"I think this disaster of the Second World War was so great that we're only now starting to look back on it in a differentiated way. We're only now able to examine the suffering and listen to what people here went through without being suspected of trivialising the Holocaust," said Dr Kuwert, who offers therapy to people suffering from war trauma. "If I had done this work 20 years ago I would probably have needed a bodyguard."

Dr Kuwert said he had found that elderly Germans who lived through the war could benefit from now talking about their experiences. He said the launch of his study on rape victims had been timed to coincide with the release of the film A Woman in Berlin and that 30 women had so far responded saying they were willing to participate. The anonymous author of the book A Woman in Berlin recorded her experiences between April and June 1945, when she was about 30. She is assumed to be Marta Hillers, a Berlin journalist who died in 2001. The book tells of how she forms a liaison with a Soviet officer to receive protection from the soldiers.

When it was first published in 1959, the book drew fierce criticism and was condemned as a "disgrace to German women". That prompted the author to forbid it from being republished during her lifetime. It was reprinted two years after her death and became a bestseller. Mr Jahn, the historian, said Germans had regarded themselves as war victims before, shortly after the war in the 1950s. "There was a lot of popular literature on the exertions and the bravery of the soldiers and the German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union," Mr Jahn said.

"In the 1950s, an ordinary school pupil didn't know what Auschwitz was, only by the end of the 1980s had the Holocaust become general knowledge. "It's a fact that we sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. That's the key. If we look back on our history in that way, remembering our own suffering doesn't need to be a taboo." dcrossland@thenational.ae