There are times when history makes such an awkward guest. It hovers around some current event like a garrulous elder, interrupting the people who are trying to maintain decorum. It tugs on the sleeves of the guests, ruffles the diplomatic calm, whispers gossip from the old days.
See those two friends? says history. Once they were mortal enemies. See those enemies? Once they were allies. See that righteous country in the corner? I knew it when.
History simply refuses to obey the rules of international etiquette. If it has one great social flaw, one unforgivably rude habit, it's this: history remembers.
This is a perfect spring for history to make its mischief. We are about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the victory over Nazi Germany. But we are trying to do it without offending any Germans.
Today, our country is on the best of terms with its old foe. It's the Soviet allies who have become the "evil empire." So the question for the genteel diplomatic world is how to commemorate a big win without insulting the losers.
The U.S. government has come up with a politically polite solution to this social dilemma that would satisfy Emily Post. The president will make a pilgrimage to West Germany in May, but he has decided to skip the guilt trip to the concentration camps.
Reagan explained his motives this way: "Instead of reawakening the memories . . . maybe we should observe this day as the day when 40 years ago peace began and friendship. . . . I felt since the German people have very few alive that remember even the war and certainly none of them who were adults and participating in any way, they have a feeling and a guilt feeling that's been imposed upon them." He wants to keep history under control -- to give it limited access to the party.
Well, Reagan's math is off, but not as far as his moral compass. There are a lot of German veterans, like American veterans, who are alive, well and indeed younger than the president. The current chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was, as he reminds people regularly, only 15 at the end of World War II. But Holocaust writer Elie Weisel was 16 when his death camp was liberated.
There is a statute of limitations on national guilt. Young Germans have no more responsibility for Nazism than post-Civil War Americans had for slavery. But they do have the responsibility to remember. And so does the world.
What radically separated World War II from the other wars, what made the Allies liberators rather than mere victors, what confirmed American belief in this "good war" was the Nazi technology of evil. The camps. If a presidential visit to these murderous shrines would embarrass the ally, ignoring them shames our own sense of vaues. Even the memory of these victims is sacrificed to politics.
The Germans themselves have wrestled with the difficult task: How do you tell a postwar generation about the millions of people murdered by their elders? It wasn't until 1962 that German schools began to teach the Holocaust. Not many parents and grandparents tell their grandchildren stories about what they did in the war. There is a strong motivation to forget. Even this spring, it is said that the West German media concentrate more on the bombing of German cities and the advance of Soviet troops from the Eastern Front than on the Nazi regime.
But if our friendship with West Germany requires that we tiptoe around the past, then we have given up too much. If allegiance requires that we delicately avoid mentioning the deepest shame of humanity, it's a sham.
History is a troublesome guest because it reeks of truth. Let the Germans join this celebration, especially the young Germans whose feelings our government is worrying about. They were also liberated from the evils of Nazism on V-E Day. But we can't let history be barred from its place by etiquette's petty amorality.