The Past Is Not Over Yet


Paris. -- The bad past is always a problem. The United States has taken 20 years to recognize the Vietnamese government whose forces defeated the United States, and it still cannot forget the defeat.

The past is not over for Cuba and the United States. Cuba still is unrecognized and embargoed by Washington, even though it would be hard to find a significant number of Americans, outside the Cuban community in Miami, who today could explain why all of this should be going on four decades after Fidel Castro's conquest of Fulgencio Batista's Cuba, in a country now in economic ruin.

France's difficulty in coming to terms with its Vichy past is well known, and it took an American historian, Robert Paxton, to lay out the facts about Vichy in 1972.

There nonetheless was general satisfaction in France two weeks ago when the new president, Jacques Chirac, acknowledged that France and the French state bear responsibility for wartime crimes against the Jews and collaboration with the Nazis.

There followed a predictable dissent on the right, from the National Front party, which said that Mr. Chirac was paying "his electoral debts." There was an equally predictable dissent on the left, from the friends of Mr. Chirac's Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, himself a sometime official of the Vichy government.

The cases of France and America, and their difficult pasts, are charged with continuing political controversy, which is not true in the same way for Germany, where there is no one to defend what was done in the war. However this poses the most original and consequential problem.

France's ignominy concerned acts committed in conditions of national humiliation or military occupation, exacerbated by the fact that the worst of them were initiated by Vichy officials themselves.

The political implications of admitting this provides a part of the explanation for Mr. Mitterrand's persistent evasions, and the entire explanation for General DeGaulle's superb cynicism, after the war, in treating all of the French as if they had all from the start been members of the Resistance.

Germany has confronted a past in which the nation's government, popularly sustained, was responsible for unprecedented crimes against humanity and Western civilization itself. These crimes in detail were undoubtedly unknown to most ordinary Germans at the time, but they had been implicit in the program of the regime.

The Germans have admitted this, and asked forgiveness of their victims. Their only important equivocation has been that of certain historians who suggest that what happened in Germany echoed what had been happening in Stalinist Russia -- which would excuse the Nazis only of originality.

The German popular response has been an impulse to withdraw from history. European Union has been put in the place of German nationhood, and the future resolutely envisaged in non-national terms. This is a radical strategy for dealing with Germany's past, which fails to convince some of its neighbors, yet is undoubtedly the commitment of a large part of the German public.

The cost of so radical a solution? In the French case national integrity is intact, if admittedly tarnished. The ship of state sails on. In the German case the past is expunged at the same time that guilt is admitted. Is this a valid answer? How can it be, when it rests on so romantic a conception of what the European Union could in the foreseeable future become? The German past has been confronted -- but not the implications of that past for German nationhood in the future.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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