BERLIN -- The worry that history will repeat itself is a necessarily imprecise business, but from here the past year's standard fears about a reunified Germany -- What if they're still warlike/ What if they haven't learned? -- look more than usually ironic. A month after the outbreak of the Gulf war, the most noticeable force in everyday life here is the still-raging German peace movement. Germany is here to tell us that it has learned, all right, and maybe a bit too thoroughly for some people's tastes.
In Berlin, demonstrations still block traffic daily, and hardly a boulevard is without its shattered store windows, blotchily mended with boards and tape, where the peace demonstrators have gone by. (Breaking windows of such socially suspect establishments as banks and businesses is a signature of Berlin protesters, and none, when asked, seems to find it inconsistent with the call for rejecting violent solutions.) "Say No" banners hang ubiquitously from windows, and school officials argue in the press over whether children should be excused from classes to attend protests. Some conscientious objectors to the draft who work in hospitals recently let it be known that they would not treat war wounded.
Like anti-war demonstrators in many countries, these protesters are mainly young and by no means a cross-section; early polls showed a majority of Germans supporting the war, and media debate has been loud and long. There has been ferocious recrimination and self-condemnation as commentators from all parts of the political spectrum chew over the Saddam-Hitler analogy and the poison gas/Germany/guilt tangle, often at a pitch of graphic directness that startles a visitor. (In the prestigious weekly Die Zeit, for instance, the commentator Wolf Biermann, accusing his countrymen of complicity in the threat to Israel, observed that "Jews sit 45 years after Auschwitz at home in their comfortable gas chambers behind sheets of plastic and gummed tape, that is progress.") A columnist for a Berlin daily paper suggested, shortly after, that it was healthier for the country's youth to march unthinkingly against war than it had been for them to march unthinkingly into, say, slaughter at Ypres; he was followed a day later by a sharp opposing editorial that excoriated the protests as "appeasement," a word that has passed into German untranslated.
German politicians such as Kohl are anything but deaf to the barbed comments from European neighbors (whose own peace movements are less obstreperous) about the essential personalities of nations reemerging under stress. They aren't referring to aggression but to the "Sonderweg" or "special way" syndrome, the idea that Germans will somehow always want to do it differently or go it alone. The Kohl government has responded with money and material, emissaries to Israel, renewed public efforts to crack down on companies breaking the embargo, and, from Kohl, sharp public rebukes of the protesters as morally irresponsible.
What's driving international irritation, though, is not just the content of public policy but something subtler, the insistent note struck by the protesters of no-one-knows-war's horrors-as-we-do smugness. The tacit claim is that, as inhabitors of a previously defeated country and of once-largely-destroyed cities, the Germans are especially sensitive to war's victims. Far from some kind of German "Sonderweg" or cultural personality trait, this tone can be traced to something perfectly specific, mainly generational and, in most other contexts, acknowledged as admirable: the intensity of the (West) German effort to teach its own past.
West Germany in the past few decades has plunged into a thorough and largely unprecedented effort to drive home the lessons of World War II. The tough-to-swallow lesson it pushes is that the war and the destruction were Germany's own fault; the easier and simultaneously more vivid one, that war's ravages are unforgivable and terrible. Both themes can be traced through curriculum, endless civic education handouts, public programming, public monuments. There are "peace museums" everywhere, and many town halls have detailed models of their cities before and after 1945.
In a real sense the Gulf crisis is the ultimate test of whether this education "works," posing, as it does, the challenge of applying both these oft-reiterated lessons in a situation where they come directly into logical conflict.
The Saddam-as-Hitler analogy puts it directly: How do you weigh the principle that the violence of war is unforgivable against the knowledge that the World Wars were fought because Germany had to be stopped? The way young people, especially protesters, deal with this conundrum should be a good measure of the sort of analytic skills that (West) German schools have been purveying on this prickly topic, and by extension the ones the East German schools are likely to get in future. Alas, such analysis in an anti-war context is nowhere to be heard, though after Kohl's criticism some leafleters began saying they were calling on both sides for a cease-fire.
It isn't as if the first lesson is invisible in the culture at large. The level and stinging intensity of self-condemnation is to be seen almost daily -- an article here, a book in a bookstore window, a passing conversational reference to "the German sickness" -- and it is one of the first and most surprising impressions to come with a degree of language facility. You wonder how many people anywhere would be comfortable with such an unremitting and reflexive habit of self-denigration -- and then gradually, the same question, whether it can work. How much of this is getting through and to whom?
The best-known public expression of both lessons together is central Berlin's ruined and partially rebuilt Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche, or Church of Memory. Its fragment of monumental tower contains exhibitions on the horrors of the Berlin bombardment; a plague makes reference to God's wrath and to punishment; dominating the broken hall, an altar-statue of Christ stands above the Biblical legend, ''Forgive Us Our Guilt.'' As it happens, the Gedachtniskirche is also a central meeting point for protesters. Most nights it hosts a small colony of haranguers and vigil-keepers, leafleters and candle-burners. Lately, it has developed into a sort of impromptu Hyde Park.
A week into the war I was leafleted there by a protester, aged maybe 20, whose fliers enumerated four anti-war demands: an immediate cease-fire by NATO and the opening of negotiations; German troops to be withdrawn from Turkey and the Mediterranean; no financial support of the war by Germany; and an immediate Mideast peace conference. Out of curiosity, I stopped and asked her why the group had directed no demands at Saddam Hussein. The West wanted this war, she answered readily; they wanted the oil back, but they ought to have waited and gotten it by peaceful means. The businessmen and government people hadn't wanted to wait. The money wasn't worth violence and bloodshed; nothing was.
Nothing, no circumstances whatever? I asked. We are standing literally in the shadow of the Gedachtniskirche. ''There was a time in the Middle Ages when violence could settle things, maybe,'' she said intensely, ''maybe two men, rushing at each other covered with metal, what harm could they do really? But those days are gone.'' Never, at any time? I asked, and, not intending to cue her but unable to help it, I looked up at the steeple. ''Violence is never the answer,'' she said, and turned away impatiently to leaflet somebody else.
It wouldn't be fair to take her as typical, only as a crystal-clear instance of the way an idea can slide from exemplary education to mere ideology, firm and inalterable and unproductive. It isn't evidence for war in the Gulf or against it, just evidence against indoctrination, as if we still needed any.
The writer, a member of the editorial page staff, is spending a year in Germany on a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.