More than 40 years after the defeat of the Third Reich, a spate of anti-Jewish remarks by conservative politicians has sparked debate in West Germany about whether a revival of anti-Semitism could take root in a new generation that disclaims responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust.
The persistent anxiety among the 30,000 members of West Germany's Jewish community that anti-Semitic prejudice could be cloaked in repressed yearnings among many Germans to be freed from historical guilt has grown more acute recently following several outbursts by local politicians.
When Feldmuehle Nobel, a subsidiary of the Flick industrial empire accused of exploiting more than 40,000 forced laborers during the war, paid $2 million in reparations to a Jewish survivors' group this year, a right-wing member of parliament reacted by saying, "Jews have neither a legal nor moral basis for a claim."
The legislator, Herman Fellner, a 35-year-old member of the Bavarian wing of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats, then observed that "Jews are quick to speak up when money jingles in German cash registers."
Later, Count Wilderich von Spee, the Christian Democratic mayor of the Ruhr valley town of Korschenbroich, was forced to resign his post following an uproar over his suggestion at a meeting that the town's budget could be balanced by killing "a few rich Jews."
The comments were deplored this week by President Richard von Weizsaecker, who in a speech marking the start of "Brotherhood Week" called them "irreconcilable with our view of people and with democratic humanity, with history, with the honor of our people."
"We cannot excuse these remarks," he continued. "They have worried and deeply offended our Jewish fellow citizens and Jews around the world."
"The consequences for us . . . would be incalculable if our friends were to have to worry seriously about a resurgence of anti-Semitism," Weizsaecker said.
The controversy also instigated a special discussion last week among members of parliament who warned about "an alarming trend" in anti-Semitic prejudice. One of the sponsors of the debate, Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher, a respected member of the liberal Free Democrats, the governing coalition's junior partner, revealed that she had received volumes of hate mail after presenting an award to Werner Nachmann, chairman of the Council of Jews in West Germany.
Hamm-Bruecher reported that one of the signed letters said, "You have honored a top Jew. The death sentence is too good for you."
Nachmann has urged West German political leaders to launch urgent consultations on how to contain anti-Semitism because last year's 40th commemoration of the end of World War II revealed rising public sentiment that four decades of national guilt are sufficient to atone for the crimes of the Nazi era.
"While no one would say that young Germans bear actual guilt for the crimes against Jews, an increasing number of politicians are questioning whether they even should feel moral responsibility," Nachmann said.
Since 1953, the West German government has paid more than $30 billion to victims of Nazi persecution and their relatives, according to Finance Ministry officials. Bonn is currently paying out more than $700 million a year to Holocaust survivors, mainly in monthly checks disbursed to Israeli citizens.
East Germany's communist government, on the other hand, has refused to pay any reparations to Israel or Jewish survivors. East Berlin insists that only West Germany, as a capitalist creation, carries the burden of the Nazi legacy because big business supported Adolf Hitler's campaign to exterminate communists as well as Jews.
Kohl, 55, prides himself on being the first West German chancellor to reach adulthood after the war, which he feels permits him to speak for a new German generation unshackled by guilt. He has spoken occasionally of the "mercy of a late birth" which spared him the travails of conscience that plague many older Germans who acquiesced in or did not speak out against Nazi atrocities.
The chancellor, however, dismissed the notion of rising anti-Jewish feelings among Germans and attributed the disparaging comments by members of his party to individual lapses of stupidity or foolishness. "It is going too far to make sweeping statements about a resurgence of anti-Semitic trends in West Germany," Kohl told parliament. "The vast majority of citizens, especially the younger generation, are immune to anti-Semitism."
Members of the radical Greens party have charged that Kohl's determination to speak for a new era in which memory of past horrors would be repressed if not forgotten has contributed to a climate in which anti-Semitism could flourish again.
The opposition Social Democrats also warned about the risks of allowing a new generation of Germans to be absolved of historical responsibility to the extent that anti-Semitism would be tolerated, or that they would forget a special sensitivity owed to Jews.
"We must not draw a line beneath our history, which is tied up with the Holocaust," said Anne-Marie Renger, a leading Social Democrat and vice president of the West German parliament.