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Whitewashing History (or: Judging a Judge)

by DoDo Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 04:43:05 AM EST

In the last few days, yet another scandal touching on the Nazi past was brewing in Germany.

Hans Karl Filbinger of the Christian Democrats (CDU) was prime minister of conservative southern state Baden-Württemberg for 12 years, where he was a big opponent of the 1968 movement. In 1978, he was forced to resign, when it became public that he was a Navy judge in Norway during WWII.

Filbinger died two weeks ago. On his funeral a week ago, the present PM of Baden-Württemberg, Günther Oettinger (right), delivered a speech, in which he sought to reinterpret Filbinger from perpetrator to an opponent of the Nazi system.

This grew into a big scandal. Critics accused Oettinger of rewriting history, even chancellor Merkel criticised him, and there were loud calls for his resignation. Then he put out a communique that he 'feels sorry' for the controversy, but didn't admit any error or said sorry to the victims -- which only boosted the outrage. He at last apologised today (right).

For more details on the case, for a broader context on what this case is a symptom for, and for the current-politics significance of this case, dive below the fold.

1. History

The darkest part in Filbinger's past consists of four death sentences against deserters. He and his apologists tried to argue that in three of these cases, the deserters successfully fled to Sweden, so the sentence couldn't and didn't hurt them, while in the fourth case, when he even personally oversaw the execution, his coming late into the case and supposed lack of choices are brought up as proof of his lack of responsibility. But some historians answer with a clear No when asked whether capital punishment was really a military lawyer's only choice back then.

Oettinger himself didn't even re-tell most of this apologia, just blatantly declared that 'no one died because of Filbinger' -- promting a first loud protest from the widow of that executed deserter.

Filbinger also maintained that he became Navy prosecutor against his will, and that he was an NSDAP (Nazi Party) member from 1937 only because he was pressed to join as a condition for continuing his legal studies. However, if we consider that Filbinger was in the Nazi party militia SA for longer, and that back in 1935, he wrote an essay expousing the race-cleanliness elements of Nazi ideology, the above sound more like excuses...

Oettinger summarised this controversy by the also blatant formulation that Filbinger was no Nazi but an opponent of the Nazi regime.

2. Fight over history

In this case, the two basic West German attitudes towards the Nazi past clash again.

Guilt and responsibility for the Third Reich came in many levels and shades. Some were in the leadership, many more in the militias, also in the bureaucracy, still more gave their vote, or saw things but looked away. Some believed the ideology, but more wanted to make a career, even more were just conformists. Mitläufer (=c. 'going-along-er', a bit different connotations than the usual translation 'fellow-traveller') is a word for the latter, less clear cases.

So after WWII, there were millions with a more or less sullied past. One way to 'deal' with this is to 'forget the past' (apart from some ritual commemoration of Germans who resisted Hitler, identifying with them even though they were too few and not like the majority) and focus on the future. This was the attitude of conservatives under first West German chancellor Adenauer during the post-war Wirtschaftswunder (=economic miralce).

But other forces called for an open confrontation with the past, and a removal of past Nazis from top spots. This movement also turned into a generational conflict by the sixties, and reached its culmination in the student movements of 1968. But the traditionalist party base of the CDU (and Bavarian CSU) never learnt.

Filbinger's case is intimately tied into the second phase of the German cultural war, too: the conservative backlash against the socio-cultural reforms of the '68-ers.

As Baden-Württemberg PM, despite an initial period when he was in Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats and ended confessionary schools, Filbinger fought tooth-and-nails against the student bodies (he even achieved an elimination of student autonomy by law), socialism, environmentalists and free morals.

After his forced resignation, Filbinger set up a hyper-conservative think-tank with some far-right connections, the Studienzentrum Weikersheim (SZW). The mentor of the writer of current B-W PM Oettinger's funerary speech (who earlier wrote a Filbinger biography) was a member of SZW.

3. Using history for a powerplay

What might seem startling at first sight in this affair is that Oettinger himself was not known as a member of the arch-conservative wing. When the CDU won again in Baden-Württemberg last year, he even considered a coalition with the Greens.

What might explain Oettinger's obviously conscious choice of a revisionist speech writer? German magazine SPIEGEL, whose reporting on what happens in the backrooms of German politics is still first-rate, has a theory.

Oettinger has a rival in the local party branch: Stefan Mappus, leader of the CDU faction in the state assembly. Mappus is credited with foiling the coalition with the Greens, and he also stopped Oettinger's economic-liberal plans to extend opening times for shops.

Mappus is an arch-conservative, and gets the support of arch-conservative local party branch members. So SPIEGEL thinks Oettinger wanted to steal some wind from the sails of his rival with a little controversy.

However, now that Oettinger was forced to say sorry today, this tactical move seems to have backfired. If he is even forced to resign (first reactions say that this apology wasn't enough), watch out for the name Mappus in the coming years.

In other German news: German machine builders have surpassed the Japanese in production for the first time in 2006. (I wonder though what percentage of their machines' parts were built in China or Slovakia.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 04:47:04 AM EST
Great bit of reporting, DoDo.  Thanks.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 06:39:08 AM EST
Thank you DoDo for the diary. I haven't payed much attention to what is happening over the boarder. I wasn't even aware the Filbinger was still alive until two weeks ago. I still remember him from when he was the prime minister of Baden-Württember - but that is a long time ago.
by Fran on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 10:39:15 AM EST
Update: now one of the most prominent members of the CDU's arch-conservative wing, Brandenburg state interior minister Jörg Schönbohm attacked Merkel openly for criticising Oettinger. In a lecturing tone, he spoke about the job of both to avert damage from Germany and Baden-Württenberg (ah oh...), and said making the criticism via telephone was damaging because it fuelled the scandal (as if silence wouldn't have been more damaging)...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 17th, 2007 at 05:54:45 AM EST

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