In The Shadow Of Their Past

THIS WAS TO have been the year that Europe put the second world war behind it. There were no more 50th anniversaries to commemorate; with the passing of French President FranCois Mitterrand, there was virtually no one left on the world stage who could be called to account for what he did or didn't do a half-century ago. But the war was not just an episode in Europe's thousand-year history of internecine aggression; it was a crime that will haunt the world's conscience forever. With each revelation from the archives, each new interpretation by historians, the nations of Europe, wincing, confront again the horrors in their past.

Once again Germany stood abashed before history. A new book by the American scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen showed the unsettling breadth of support that the Holocaust enlisted among ""ordinary Germans,'' especially the draftees in the police battalions who did the grunt work of genocide. Most Germans resisted the central thesis of ""Hitler's Willing Executioners'': that the entire nation endorsed genocide. ""We don't dispute the horrors,'' Der Spiegel publisher Rudolf Augstein wrote, but Goldhagen's conclusions were ""at best ignorant, if not in fact malicious.'' The book was a best seller anyway; Germany has a vast appetite for Holocaust history. German scholars face the horrors of the Nazi era with unflinching honesty, but often with a conspicuous absence of empathy. Goldhagen's book ""produced a much more emotional discussion than any German historian has been able to achieve,'' says the German-Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn. ""Outwardly, the Germans know much more about the Holocaust than any other nation. Inwardly--except for the political elite--they are reluctant to accept the responsibility.''

But it was not only in Germany that the ghosts of the 6 million were stirring. Historian Raul Hilberg points out that different societies confront the Holocaust at different times, but always belatedly. In America, it happened only after the Vietnam War raised people's awareness of the moral ambiguities of war. Most of Western Europe has lagged behind. It was only in 1995 that the French president, Jacques Chirac, publicly apologized for the role French officials played in the deportation of France's Jews.

But the pace of recriminations and apologies picked up noticeably in 1996. Austria finally disposed of the art and valuables seized from Jewish owners during the war; auctioned off by Christie's, the trove fetched almost $15 million for a fund to aid Holocaust survivors. The mayor of Paris promised to investigate charges that the city government still owns a valuable portfolio of real estate confiscated from Jews by Paris's wartime administration. One of his aides told NEWSWEEK that the city would make restitution wherever possible, adding: ""I fear some of what we may find.''

And a great deal of unwelcome attention was lavished on Swiss banks, whose notoriously secret interstices are suspected of holding millions of dollars in war-era deposits of shady provenance. Investigators are looking at two areas: the bank accounts of Holocaust victims themselves, presumably now the legitimate property of their heirs, and the secret accounts in which top Nazis stashed their war loot, to which the survivors may have a moral claim. Anyone counting on a windfall is likely to be disappointed. ""The chances of really finding something are small for everybody,'' concedes Herbert Winter, a Zurich lawyer representing families of Holocaust victims. ""But there may be a moral accounting.''

For Germans, meanwhile, the slow process of assimilating their ghastly history goes on, even as the nation starts to shed some of the stigma of its past. Diplomats are resolving the last formal international dispute remaining from the Nazi era, involving claims by Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war. And the longstanding taboo against stationing German troops outside the country (except on NATO ex- ercises) was broken when Bundeswehr forces joined the peacekeeping mission to Croatia. The only thing that spoiled this milestone was the straight-armed fascist salute with which some Croats greeted the Germans, an expression of solidarity dating back to the alliance between Croatian fascists and the Nazis. There is no better reminder of the need to constantly confront the past... than to have the past unexpectedly confront you.