The one national prejudice I have retained throughout my life is a prejudice against the Germans, by whom I do not mean the neo-Nazis or the old Nazis or the Nazi fellow travelers or the Nazi approvers. To my shame, I mean the Germans; the innocent with the guilty, the too young and the too ignorant and the too decent -- in my silent heart I have hated them all. And that prejudice, like all prejudices, has hated me. It has lived lavishly within me, sprawled on a divan like a retired mobster in Brazil; has lived there since I was seven, overhearing my German Jewish grandparents talk in whispers about our extended, exterminated family; has lived there since I read H. G. Wells on inborn German evil, and Jung on collective guilt; has lived there since I taught Richard Hughes's novel, "The Fox in the Attic," in which I saw the fox as the latent German temperament. It has led the good, fat life, this prejudice -- or at least it had until last week.
But last week the Bundestag, or lower house of the West German parliament in Bonn, voted to remove the statue of limitations or murder and thus to continue to prosecute Nazi war criminals. The vote was close, 255 to 222, but no matter. The debate was bitter, and hinged, some say, on something as ephemeral as the showing last year of the TV movie, Holocaust." No matter again. The vote was right, heartening. As soon as I read about it, I reached unconsciously for my prejudice -- my own war criminal -- and dragged it into the light where it fumed and blinked.
My prejudice is not a major issue. An irrational hatred of a people, any people, is a crummy little thing, deserving of no concessions or conversions from any government, certainly no parliamentary votes. But for Germany itself there could be no more important decision than that vote last week. It said to the prejudiced and unprejudiced world alike: We know how to deal with the past on which you cannot place a statute of limitations.
Of course, in general, the idea of a statute of limitations is not only proper, but fair. It is designed to protect the innocent from the faulty memories of their accusers, or from their own faulty memories when they are called upon in their self-defense. Any member of the Bonn parliament who voted to impose the statute of limitations on those grounds did so honorably, though he was wrong. He would have been voting to preserve the judicial system, to protect the idea of presumed innocence, which could easily be weakened by a long passage of time.
But the German judicial system was not at stake in the vote. And neither, in fact, was the practical matter of establishing a statute that would allow thousands of Martin Bormanns to come crawling out of the South American woodwork. There are Nazis in hiding, to be sure. But in spite of Hollywood's pictures of satanic hordes tooling up to rise again, there cannot be all that many war criminals left, and, in any case, their capture and trials would only satisfy a portion of the reason behind the German vote.
No: That vote in Bonn was a philosophical, almost a psychological decision, the kind of rare decision a person or a nation makes that shows precisely how he wishes to live.
For there are two distinct ways of dealing with the past, especially with past fraught with guilt. And both have the same end: to protect the future. So the question is what sort of future you wish to protect. One way is to keep the past alive and in front of you, to make "an expression of joint responsibility for our history," as Christian Democrat Johannes Gerster put it in the parliamentary debate.
The other way is to bury it in the name of a clean slate, to place a statute of limitations on it, as one would place a statute of limitations on memory, as if that were possible. That is how hypocrites are made, through self-deception. And that is how monsters are made, too, both personal and national ones; for a life intent on denying the past must concentrate very hard to make the denial stick, until that mind eventually grows obsessed with denial, until denial alone becomes its reason for living, and so it feeds on a lie.
What the Germans have understood is that everything lives in the past, that all we have is memory and a hope of virtue to make use of it. The fact to remember about the Nazis is that they were people. And that is the fact with which the Germans have decided to live; the fact that their history -- which is part of the world's history -- is still in hiding someplace, full of fury and terror that it, too, will be dragged into the light.