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17/04/2007

The fine art of whitewashing

By Arno Widmann

Baden-Württemberg's Premier Günther Oettinger claimed in his speech at the funeral of his late predecessor Hans Filbinger that the man had not been a Nazi. "To the contrary, he was an opponent of the NS regime." In fact, Filbinger had to leave office in 1978 after the writer Rolf Hochhuth exposed his earlier position as Navy judge during the National Socialist era, during which time he delivered death sentences to several deserters. And in a juristic commentary of 1935, Filbinger wrote that the people (die Volksgemeinschaft ) are a blood community "(Blutsgemeinschaft") and must be kept "pure" so that "the racially privileged elements of the German population can be advanced, according to plan." After stepping down, Filbinger claimed he had been made victim of a media campaign and said, famously: "What was lawful at the time cannot have been unlawful today." ("Was damals rechtens war, kann heute nicht Unrecht gewesen sein.")

Günther Oettinger takes it back: the claim he made in his speech at the funeral of Hans Filbinger (obit) that the man had opposed the Nazi regime. It took a long time. Now it's out. Günther Oettinger actually humbled himself. Angela Merkel is satisfied. On Monday, Baden-Württemberg premier Günther Oettinger offered an apology and now it seems to be up to us, the public, to accept it. But we didn't hear an apology. Mr. Oettinger said that he felt badly about the misunderstanding. But there was no misunderstanding. And quite apart from that: it would have been wonderful had the politicians realised that one can't excuse oneself. An apology can not be accepted by the person who speaks it but rather and only by the person to whom it is owed. So Oettinger cannot excuse himself. But he can and should ask to be excused. That he has yet to do. For days, he didn't acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. He said he was sorry if there had been a misunderstanding – the head of the CDU in Baden Württemberg was willing to go no further than that. Now he's decided to relent and retract the most repellent of his comments.

That's good. That is a first step but it's not enough. Angela Merkel persevered. She showed Günther Oettinger and his kind that the whitewashing of history has its limits. We're pleased about that. We still remember how long we waited in vain for this kind of decisiveness from Helmut Kohl.

Let us recall what Günther Oettinger said in his funeral speech: "Despite what is to be read in some obituaries, we must affirm: Hans Filbinger was no Nazi. To the contrary: he was an opponent of the National Socialist regime." Later in the same speech, Oettinger explained: "For the record: no judgement of Hans Filbinger led to the loss of a human life." These were the sentences that caused the scandal. They were lies. Worse, however, was the pithy tone with which Oettinger delivered his superior knowledge. In Oettinger's first reaction, which took days to come, he didn't take back any of his remarks. He repeated that Filbinger had been an opponent of the National Socialists. But he started the sentence with "I believe." Thus his comments left the realm of asserted facts and entered that of Credo. In the eyes of sceptical observers, this amounted to a retraction; in the eyes of his supporters, a confirmation.

He allowed Bild to ask a few questions and that's where the decisive comment appeared: "When I got to know him (Filbinger) later, he was a deeply Christian and conservative person who had distanced himself demonstrably from the NS regime." Anyone who heard the choppy staccato of his funeral speech knew that this was a retreat of sorts. But it was equally evident that Oettinger was not able to bring himself to say that it was wrong – dishonest – to claim that Filbinger had been an opponent of the Nazi regime. Oettinger had no evidence for this claim. He simply made it, hoping he'd get away with it.

That he didn't get away with it speaks for an alert public and even more, for the Chancellor and CDU head Angela Merkel. Her reaction – and of course its publication by the CDU – taught Oettinger a few mores. It would be nice if there was no place whatsoever in the CDU for such lies. And definitely not at the level of premier.

But the fact that Oettinger is getting off so easily – not naming his error as such, not having to ask for an apology but rather just modifying his comments – confirms the widely-shared sense that the governing classes have gotten quite comfortable in a self-righteousness that's immune to all people and all things. It's impossible to demand of children, students and the rest of humanity that they admit their mistakes when a political leader has yet to understand that making and admitting mistakes are pre-requisites to avoiding them. Of course, it's easy to think that this is less about the whitewashing of random mistakes and more an honouring and perpetuation of the specifically Christian conservative Nazi whitewashing of the West German post-war era. But that can't be in our interest – nor in that of the CDU and Angela Merkel.

*

This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on April 17, 2007.

Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of die tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he is feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

translation: nb


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