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It may be scant comfort, but he didn't have to wait quite so long. Gebhardt was 60 when the Wall came down, and can now say, at no risk, that he is determined that the story of 1953 is passed on to the next generation. But the same inability to live honestly was evident everywhere in the communist east. In Prague, John Bok, a former dissident colleague of Václav Havel, told me what Czechoslovakia was like after the Soviet tanks had snuffed the Prague spring in August 1968. The mood, he says, "was gray, which is worse than black. A whole nation was grumbling in the pubs, living in hibernation." All you could do, Bok says, was to follow Havel's axiom to "live in truth;" to eschew heroism and take responsibility for yourself and those closest to you.
The awakening of eastern and central Europe since 1989 is sometimes inspiring. Terezín, just north of Prague, used to be a small Habsburg garrison town, and was converted by the Nazis into a "model" Jewish ghetto called Theresienstadt, a fake complete with orchestras, art classes and a thriving literary life. It was, of course, not a ghetto at all, but a concentration camp where 35,000 Jews died. Just outside the ghetto is an old fortress where Czech communists were imprisoned by the Nazis. During the years of communist rule, says Vojtech Blodig, deputy director of the ghetto museum, it was those communist martyrs, not the Jews, whose suffering was remembered. Schoolchildren were taken on tours of the fortress not the ghetto. "Young people in Terezín didn't know there had ever been a ghetto here," says Blodig. So when the museum opened in 1991, most Czechs associated Terezín with the communist regime; in the first few years, only 2.5% of visitors were Czech. But now more than 25% of visitors are Czech, and Blodig says that in some Czech towns, the local groups that maintain old synagogues don't have a single Jew among them. "We're taking care of the memories of our missing neighbors," he says.
That a thaw has come to those whose dreams were reduced to frozen stubble by communism is something we instinctively understand. But the third reason for the persistence of memory is more surprising. In "old" Europe, too in those places that never felt the communist boot the accretions of 50 years of denial are still being scraped away and the past exposed. At the documentation center in Nuremberg I asked Dietzfelbinger why it had taken so long to commemorate such central events in modern European history. "It has taken this city more than 60 years to accept its Nazi heritage," he said. Until the 1960s, he argued, those in the "responsible generation" simply ducked all talk of the Nazi years. Then, in the 1960s, their children began to ask questions about the past. Now finally Germans can have an honest debate about the Third Reich. But Dietzfelbinger then broadened this familiar point in an important way. I asked him if he ever thought it was time to say "enough," and stop picking over the bones of the past. "In an open society," he says, "that's not possible. But we have to understand the values of democracy as well as the shadows of the past. We have to help people understand that they now live in a system whose values can prevent new tragedies like the Holocaust."
This linking of the past to the present and future is at the heart of modern Europe. It means facing the truth of the awful last century, and applying its lessons to build a better society in this one. Of all those who have tried to do that, I have long had a soft spot for that deeply unfashionable figure, Helmut Kohl. The conservative German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998 understood with every fiber of his ample frame that Europe had to get beyond the divisions of the past. While others were nervously chewing their fingernails in 1989, he seized the opportunity to unite old and new Europe. When the Wall came down, Kohl who had lost a brother in World War II, and whose future wife was raped by Soviet troops in 1945 did not hesitate. Before anyone in the Kremlin had time for second thoughts, he committed himself to the reunification of Germany, while at the same time locking Germany into a European political and economic union in which its power would be constrained by multilateral institutions.
For those still committed to the old conception of the nation-state, Kohl was literally incomprehensible. In the spring of 1989, he hosted Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, at a Sunday lunch in his cosy home village of Deidesheim, in the heart of the Palatinate wine country. They ate at the Deidesheimer Hof, a lovely inn in the center of the village, where the specialty is saumagen stuffed pig's stomach. Thatcher did not enjoy it. As her aide Charles Powell later told the BBC, she chased the delicacy around her plate before hiding it under her knife and fork. (When I passed through Deidesheim on my trip I tried the saumagen too, and found it delicious, like a rather firm Scottish haggis.) After lunch Kohl and Thatcher visited the magnificent Romanesque Cathedral at Speyer. In the crypt amid the graves of kings and emperors Kohl took Powell to one side. "Surely," he said, "now she's seen me, in my part of Germany, close to the French border, surely she'll finally understand that I'm not German I'm European." No chance. As she got on the plane to fly back to London, Powell recalled, Thatcher kicked off her shoes and exclaimed, "My God, that man is so German!"
But what exactly did Kohl mean when he said that he was "European?" I think he was claiming a link to a time when national borders meant less than they later did, when Speyer was an imperial city of the Habsburgs, Europe was coterminous with Christendom, and Germany just meant the place were people spoke German. But there are other Europes, even in Speyer. At the time the cathedral was built, the most sophisticated "European" civilization was in Muslim Andalusia. Deep in the crypt, among a forest of arches, it's impossible to miss the Moorish influence on Romanesque art you could almost think you were in the great Mosque of Córdoba. Just down the street from the cathedral is a superbly preserved mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath-house, dating from the 12th century, when the Jewish community in Speyer was known throughout Europe for its wisdom and learning. The later history of the Jews of Speyer was marked less by scholarship than by pogroms and concentration camps. So perhaps the true lesson of the town is not that Europe doesn't need borders but rather that Europe has long had a problem with diversity, with a split sense of identity, with those who want to be Jewish and German, French and Muslim, black and British.
Next Budapest, Hungary