Posted Monday, November 10, 2003

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Monday, November 10, 2003


 The Holocaust

Old crimes and continuing responsibilities


By Thane Rosenbaum


NEW YORK: When it comes to the Holocaust, the Germans just can't catch a break. With the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht on Nov. 9 and a memorial to the victims of Nazi genocide under construction in Berlin, the discussion in Germany has suddenly shifted from broken glass to purified gas.

Zyklon BDegussa, a German chemical company with an exemplary record of supporting Holocaust-restitution programs, was chosen to provide an antigraffiti coating for the memorial. It was chosen, that is, until the foundation overseeing the memorial's construction decided that using the product would itself be a desecration. It seems that one of Degussa's affiliated companies once supplied Zyklon B, the poisonous gas that killed millions of Jews in concentration camps.

For critics, this exposed an unseemly moral contradiction: In protecting the building from graffiti, Degussa would simultaneously profit from the memorial and wash the stain from its own tainted past. And the drama improbably worsened in the last few days, when the discovery that a Degussa subsidiary had supplied a product used in the cement foundation prompted discussion of whether to tear out whatever work contains Degussa's material.

But many Germans want to know this: Why must Degussa, which has acted so admirably in the postwar era, still be punished for the collaborationist activities of an affiliate 60 years ago? This matter raises the difficult question of whether continuous acts of national atonement and corporate redemption must necessarily lead to forgiveness.

Through the years Germany has been desperate in its desire to be forgiven. To some extent it has a point. No nation has undergone greater self-examination about its direct role and complicity in mass murder than Germany has. There have been endless acknowledgments and meaningful gestures of restitution. Germany has been in an arrested state of moral inquiry, continually examining its character, seeking some clarity about the madness it once mindlessly saluted.

Given their good faith, the Germans are understandably left wondering: Is forgiveness ever forthcoming, or is our guilt eternal?

We live in an era when it is fashionable for people and nations to confess to crimes and express remorse. Indeed, the South African experience is one model of this reconciliatory atmosphere. Yet, while forgiveness is desirable, it isn't necessary as a moral gesture, and sometimes is not even appropriate.

The Germans seem to be confusing legal guilt with moral responsibility. Guilt is a legal term, while responsibility is a moral one. Acknowledgment, truth and apologies are moral imperatives, but forgiveness is not, precisely because it suggests starting over with a clean slate, which in this case only ghosts are empowered to grant. And while there are Holocaust survivors still living, we must respect their revulsion at Degussa's involvement.

It may be true that the majority of contemporary Germans are legally innocent of crimes committed under the Third Reich, which is why there is such collective frustration about not being able to shake the stigma of genocide. But regardless of redemptive impulses and achievements, everyone in Germany remains morally responsible. This was a crime that took place on German land. The soil and soul of Germany are fated to have long memories, and Degussa, despite its commendable recent deeds, should not be profiting from its newfound virtue.

It is not German guilt that must be eternal, but the acceptance of moral responsibility - no matter how many years have passed since Zyklon B was last used to claim lives, and no matter how many other life-protecting chemicals have replaced it.

Thane Rosenbaum is author of "The Golems of Gotham: A Novel" and the upcoming "The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Right.'



Work on Holocaust Memorial Stopped over Degussa Role

Jul 2001: Lea Rosh's Holocaust Memorial Campaign Aims to Shock Germany | Der Spiegel: "Welches Plakat?" | Holocaust Memorial Donations Sought | 'Holocaust Never Happened' ad prompts survivor's lawsuit | Provocative German Holocaust Denial Poster Removed

The 1947 Bruno Tesch trial (whose Degesch firm distributed the Zyklon B pesticide product East of the Elbe)

Data on Lea Rosh

New History, new Memories, but old Problems remain

Art versus memory

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