BERLIN, May 13 (JTA) — A controversy erupted in Germany over Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder´s decision to discuss Germany´s national identity with a writer who once said it was time to stop using the Holocaust to criticize Germany. Before the public discussion was held on May 8 — the 57th anniversary of Nazi Germany´s surrender to the Allies — the Central Council of Jews in Germany said it was "irritated and bewildered" by Schroeder´s decision to conduct the discussion with writer Martin Walser. Jewish leaders remained unhappy after the event was held. "The composition, program and conduct of the discussion confirmed our doubts and fears," Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper the day after. Jewish officials also were irked by the choice of moderator — journalist Christoph Dieckmann, who wrote last year in Die Zeit newspaper that "Israel´s arrogant belief in its chosenness is a curse." The presence of Walser and Dieckmann was a combination "that I find extremely provocative, worrying and counterproductive," Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council, said in a radio interview on the day of the event. Members of the Berlin Association Against Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism, which called on Schroeder´s Social Democratic Party to cancel the event, said before the event that if the chancellor planned to declare Germany "a normal nation," then May 8 would mark "liberation from German responsibility" instead of liberation from the Nazis. On the evening of the event, some 200 protesters gathered near the headquarters of the Social Democrats, carrying banners with messages such as "No Forgiveness, No Forgetting." "I am here because I am against offering a podium for Walser to say the kinds of things he said," said student Alexander Mueller, 20. "I can´t understand how the chancellor of the Democratic Republic of Germany could have a dialogue with a man like Walser, who wants to make things normal that can´t be normal," said Victoria Dolburd, head of Germany´s Jewish Student Association. "There´s a difference between feeling guilty and being aware of what happened." Dieckmann´s article last year repeated "19th-century Christian cliches about the ‘Eternal Jew´ and ‘eternal Jewish character,´ " said Jeremiah Riemer, an American scholar of European politics currently living in Berlin. "I think it´s strange, to say the least, that Chancellor Schroeder is seeking this dialogue with two people who play very, very deliberately with classic anti-Semitic subtexts," Riemer said. Professor Julius Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Institute at the University of Potsdam, defended Walser. "I am against criticism of Walser by people who don´t know his books," Schoeps said in a newspaper interview. "Walser is one of the greatest German writers, and writers are sometimes allowed to do things that others are not allowed to do. But they, too, have to measure up to historical facts." Dieckmann introduced the debate by saying, "There are no anti-Semites or nationalists on this podium." Acknowledging the protests, he apologized for his line about Israel in last year´s article. "I did write that, and it was dumb and untrue, and I have regretted it ever since," the journalist said. The discussion between Schroeder and Walser ultimately revealed how difficult it still is for Germany to define itself — even more than 50 years after World War II ended. Though the generation involved with or affected by the Nazi era is rapidly fading, the discussion showed that Germany´s struggle to come to terms with its past is very much alive. Schroeder said some of Germany´s greatest patriots were those who "resisted the murderous Nazi regime." He tried to define modern Germany in terms of its role within Europe, its reintegration of the former East and West Germanys, and its self-definition in terms of values rather than place. Walser described national identity as a feeling that to a large extent defies rational definition. He also suggested that, without the heavy reparation demands on Germany after World War I, there would have been no Hitler. Without Hitler, the argument goes, there would have been no Auschwitz. The theory of indirect Allied responsibility for Nazi war crimes is a common theme of conservative historians in Germany. In 1998, when accepting Germany´s highest literary award, Walser lamented the "repeated representation of" Germany´s "shame." His comments led to a wrenching, months-long debate with the late Ignatz Bubis, then head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, about whether it was acceptable for Walser to express his longing for an end to public discussion in Germany about the Holocaust. After the horrors committed by the Nazis in the name of "pure" nationhood, the theme of national identity remains taboo in Germany. Even the word "nation" is rarely used to describe Germany, except in right-wing circles. "Land" is the preferred term. References to patriotism also are problematic. German President Johannes Rau caused a stir when he called himself a "patriot" upon accepting his appointment in 1999. It is difficult even to express pride: When Laurenz Meyer, general secretary of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, said in March 2001 that he was proud to be a German, he was compared to a "neo-Nazi skinhead" by Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin of the Green Party. Meyer was reflecting a trend, said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, which noted that political leaders from across the spectrum were beginning to express pride in Germany. In fact, in his introductory statement at last week´s event, Schroeder said that members of his party today "can say proudly: ‘Yes´ to Germany, because it is a Germany based on the values of freedom and justice. "Our national pride is a pride in the people of Germany and on their accomplishments," he said.
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.