I AM GLAD PRESIDENT Reagan is going to Bitburg. I am an American who lived in Germany from the time I was in kindergarten until 11th grade. I attended German schools, learned the language, made many German friends and learned something about how young Germans think about Hitler and the war.
For my friends' sake, I am glad the president declared last month that it was "unnecessary" to impose further feelings of guilt on the Germans.
And whatever the drawbacks of the president's visiting that particular cemetery in Bitburg, it is an important gesture to my former classmates. I feel I owe it to them to tell the world how their heads would bow in shame at the mention of Hitler, and to describe the courage with which they accepted the responsibility for crimes they didn't commit.
Their sense of remorse surpasses anything I've seen displayed by my American peers when they're reminded of our nation's sins: the Indians massacred in the name of manifest destiny; the blacks enslaved to pick cotton, and the Japanese-Americans dispossessed and interned during World War II.
Young Germans do not need further reminders from us of their nation's war guilt. We Americans appear to have forgotten that we are allied with a new generation of Germans -- Germans who have undergone 40 years of penance and are now, more than ever, in need of a signal that their nation's crimes, while they will never be forgotten, will not be held against them.
In 1969, my recently-divorced mother and I took me and my sister to live in Germany. It was supposed to be a three-month visit with my grandfather from Arizona who had a job in Munich with Radio Free Europe. But my mother liked Germany, and we ended up staying 11 years.
The day we arrived in Munich, we drove through the streets in a taxicab and my grandfather pointed out the Friedensengel," the statue of the "angel of peace." The angel's wing was bent, and grandfather explained, "That happened under Hitler, during World War II. The angel was hit by a bomb."
The name Hitler meant nothing to me, but I noticed how our cab driver suddenly gripped the steering wheel with both hands and fixed his eyes on the road.
I was about to ask who this Hitler was, but my mother preempted my question with a snap of her fingers, which meant, "We'll talk about it later."
That night, she tucked me into bed and told me about Adolph Hitler. I went to sleep, terrified by what I'd heard about an evil madman, who killed millions of Jews and singlehandedly started a very big war.
Once I'd heard about Hitler, I wanted to know more. But by the time I entered second grade in a German school, I'd learned that my playmates weren't the people to ask about him. Hitler's name was more offensive to them than any dirty word I had learned on the playground. They would shrug at my questions and kick a hole in the ground until I changed the subject.
After World War II, West Germans accepted the blame. They decided that the best way of coming to terms with their past was to pass on to the next generation a legacy of guilt.
The concentration camps have been preserved because they are considered the supreme, irrefutable proof of German war guilt -- Kriegesschuld. Each year, German educators send as many children as they can on field trips to the death camps. Participation is mandatory. Once the students have walked through the gas chambers and have inspected for themselves the charred furnaces, they are considered ready to assume their share of Germany's guilt.
Until then, though, German kids aren't invited to ask questions about Nazi Germany. As youngsters, they are conditioned by parental frowns never to mention Hitler's name without a sober expression on their face.
But behind their faces, I learned, was the same curiosity and fascination I felt about Hitler. Although it seemed to be forbidden, my German friends and I started looking for clues.
We looked for Hitlers in the phone book, but found none. His Munich headquarters had been around the corner from our apartment building. From the street, we could see the sixth floor windows were all boarded shut. We tried to go upstairs, but the staircase was blocked.
In school, we dared each other to draw swastikas on the blackboard and leave them there for the teacher to see. We wanted to watch her reaction. One day, my classmate Clemens was sent to see our principal because he persisted in asking why no one in the school was named Adolph. Clemens also was the kid who found the full lyrics to the Nazi national anthem -- and taught them to the whole class. When we were caught singing it during recess, the class was severely reprimanded.
By seventh grade, however, pranks related to Nazism began losing their interest. As seventh graders, we were issued our first "adult" history books. Even though World War II is a 10th-grade history subject, we read the chapters toward the back of the book which dealt with Nazi Germany. They were accompanied by pictures of Hitler and concentration camps, which we spent hours gaping at in disbelief. Seventh grade was the year my classmates started asking their relatives specific questions about World War II -- questions that could no longer be dismissed as childish audacity.
Barbara and Tina, two seventh-grade classmates, spent an afternoon at my house listening to Paul McCartney and the Wings, munching on pretzel sticks and gossiping about our math teacher.
He had a little black mustache and a tendency to turn very red when yelling at students for misbehaving. We were rehashing a scene that week when he had yelled at us for sitting on a window ledge during recess.
Tina and I were giggling because we'd agreed that he must have been a member of the Hitler Youth -- we figured that was where he had learned to trim his mustache and make his face turn red.
Our joke must have jarred a thought in Barbara. She had a strange, blank expression as she said. "You know, my father doesn't believe any of that ever happened."
I popped a pretzel stick in my mouth while Tina asked Barbara what she meant by "any of that." I gagged on my pretzel stick when Barbara answered. "I mean all that stuff with the Jews. I asked him about the concentration camps," she said, fingering her stringy blond hair and squinting with uncertainty.
"But he said they never existed. When I showed him the picture in our history book, he said it was a forgery." She added quickly, "But I don't believe him."
Barbara's story was eventually spread to every member of our class, prompting others to talk about what they were finding out at home. Some kids said their grandfathers refused to talk about the war and their experiences. Others reported that their fathers had shown them their red Hitler Youth scarves and the swatiska armbands that had been part of their uniforms. One kid said his father had made him swear he wouldn't tell anyone about the autographed picture of the "Fuehrer" kept at home.
Sometimes our teachers would overhear us, and start discussions in class about World War II. The talks always ended with a reminder that Germany alone was to blame for the war. My classmates would bow their heads and stare at their desks, while I would look around, unable to identify with their guilt, but aware that an oppressive mood had settled over the classroom.
In 1980, when I was 16, I had observed this phenomenon of bowed heads for 11 years. Still, I was unprepared for what I saw the day our class sponsor announced the annual 10th grade field trip to Dachau, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich. It was time for the excursion that is meant to impress upon people like Clemens, Barbara and Tina the horror and magnitude of the crimes their people committed against humanity during the war.
When our class sponsor announced Dachau, all heads in the room were bowed, except mine. This time, however, as I scanned the room, I saw some of my classmates staring at me in anger, as if I had caught them standing naked. For the first time, all of us were conscious that I was a foreigner -- an American -- who was intruding on their masochistic display of guilt and shame.
As our sponsor quietly explained the significance of the trip to Dachau, I saw my neighbor twisting a handkerchief around her fingers so tightly that her nails were turning blue. When he was done, I raised my hand, intending to ask permission to be excused from the excursion, but I couldn't speak. I was still clearing my throat when he said, "Miss Tierney, you don't have to accompany us, unless, of course, you wish to . . . " I stayed home from school that day.
Are the West Germans making a mistake in imposing the Kriegesschuld on each new generation? Some say it is necessary for a country to be acutely aware of its past. But others say it is a mistake -- and perhaps politically dangerous -- to make each generation responsible for the crimes of its predecessors.
Will young Germans go on feeling guilty? Or will they, at some point, find it more than they can handle, deny the guilt and seek a release in nationalism?
In the summer of 1984, I returned to Munich and had a conversation that left me wondering if perhaps Kriegesschuld is pushing young Germans into just such a "whiplash" of nationalism. The conversation took place over tea with my ninth-grade biology teacher, who almost flunked me for reading a magazine in class instead of taking notes on the reproductive cycles of amphibians.
She is a small, feisty woman of 42 who delights in arguments. Her turquoise eyes would sparkle while bantering with students who challenged her right to lecture against cruelty toward animals, when she was known to sport a fox wrap during the winter.
Her eyes were sparkling now, as we sat over tea and cherry strudel. She listened to me complain about Ronald Reagan's flag-waving campaign. "I think it's disgusting," I said. "It kills me to see how Americans are so tickled with his flag propaganda."
I wasn't looking at her when she answered me. "I think it's great to see America standing so tall again," she declared. I thought she was, but when I looked up, her eyes were solemn. Touching my arm lightly, she said: "I wish that you would infect our kids with some of that 'flagomania'."
Exasperated, I blurted out, "But isn't this what you wanted -- a new Germany of citizens who are so ashamed of their past that they vow to kill themselves before they let it happen again?"
She pressed my arm urgently. She bowed her head and then almost whispered, "Oh yes. They've turned out the way we wanted them to. The problem is, we've been too successful. The guilt -- it's more than they can bear. And you know, it's not really theirs."