I CLEARLY remember a newsreel of the state memorial ceremony for Reinhard Heydrich, which I saw in late 1942, when I was a very young sergeant in the British army. (Germany exported movie news to Sweden and Switzerland, and some got to England.) Heydrich, the German governor of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic), had been killed by two Czech resistance fighters that spring. The service was in a dark hall in Berlin, lit by torches; a heathenish, Valhalla-like effect had been achieved. In his oration Hitler screamed that if the Czechs would not "co-exist peacefully" in the German Reich, they would at some future date be resettled in the Polar Circle. His audience shouted its approval. Earlier Hitler had picked the small town of Lidice, near the spot where the Czechs attacked Heydrich's car, as the focal point for immediate vengeance. Its adults were killed, its children shipped to camps and German orphanages and given German names.

Heydrich had not only been the ruler of Bohemia and Moravia; he had also been given the task of organizing the extermination of the Jews of Europe. The invitations to the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where the logistics of the gas chamber were worked out, had been sent out by him from Prague. "Mit anschliessendem Frühstück," his letters said -- "With breakfast to follow."

Hitler's Polar Circle plans have, fifty-four years later, attracted unexpected new interest. Several Sudeten Germans have sued in Czech courts for the restitution of lands and property that were appropriated after the Sudetens were expelled from what is now the Czech Republic, at the end of the Second World War. The government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which wants an apology from the Czechs for those expulsions, announced last year through its Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, that approval of the expulsions as part of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration by the Big Three (the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) did not make them legal. Kinkel sided with the Sudeten Germans, who assert that the declaration is in conflict with the United Nations Charter. (He uses the more circumspect phrase "in conflict with international law.")

A shiver must have gone through Germany's neighbors at this argument, which questions the very foundation of their states. Last February the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia published a statement in Prague reaffirming the Potsdam Declaration. But a feeling persisted that, just maybe, we were going back to square one.

As far as I could see, the U.S. media gave very little attention to this. It made me decide to take a trip, early this year, to southern Germany.

THE Second World War really started with those Sudeten Germans. Some two to three million of them lived in "the Sudetenland,"as the Germans called a Czech region along the border. In 1938 Hitler declared that the Sudetenland was Germany's last irredenta -- the last foreign territory that really belonged to Germany -- and that to get it was his "last demand" in Europe. All through the summer he fought a war of nerves against the West, raving about the perfidious Czechs and their "stage actor President," Eduard Benes, who were terrorizing Germans, beating German women and children who wore white stockings (the German "uniform") and murdering Germans in isolated villages. The circus of provocation was orchestrated for him by the leader of the Sudeten Germans, the Nazi Konrad Henlein. The United States was looking away at that time; England and France caved in and forced the Czechs to cede the Sudetenland. This was "Munich" -- the shameful surrender led by the English Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in the fall of 1938. Czechoslovakia lost its fortified border with Germany and its important armaments factories, and some six months later the rest of the country was taken by the Germans without a shot. Hitler came to Prague and slept in the government Hradcany Castle under the swastika flag. "I saw our enemies at Munich," he told his followers later. "They are little worms."

When one rethinks this story and the terror of the six-year German occupation that followed, in which some 350,000 Czechs lost their lives, one cannot be surprised that after the German surrender in 1945 there were numerous acts of local vengeance in which Sudeten Germans were killed. The bulk of those who remained were deported by the Czech government with a minimum of consideration -- not to the Polar Circle, though, but back to their fatherland. These Germans and their descendants now want their lands and houses back. Meanwhile, the Czech survivors of the German concentration camps, some 17,000, still have not received any compensation from Bonn.

I learned on my visit that there is a specifically political angle to this: the Sudeten Germans have a pressure group within Germany, the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, with political clout that the millions of German deportees from Poland never had. Bavaria, where most of them live, is one of the sixteen Länder (states) in reunited Germany; it has a lot of autonomous power. A 1954 act of its government established the Sudeten Germans as one of the four population groups that make up Bavaria (with the Swabians, the Franconians, and the Old Bavarians) and guarantees them Schirmherrschaft -- "high protection"or "guardianship." This gives the Sudetens a direct channel to the Bavarian government and through that to Bonn. Bonn's conservatives are particularly nervous right now about being outflanked on the right.

What is happening could be nothing more than a war of words. (Indeed, in a May speech Kinkel spoke of compensation for the Czech "victims of Nazi injustice.") It points, though, to a basic dilemma: either united Germany is an established country like any other, with all the egotism and arrogance of a major power, or it is still in a kind of quarantine. Europe's politicians and businesspeople have long accepted the first alternative, although I was often told that Kohl himself promotes a united Europe so fervently because he does not trust his country to be left on its own. He has called Germany's integration into Europe "a matter of life or death" for the twenty-first century.

One of the people who stressed this point of view to me was an editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung, a serious and liberal south-German newspaper. The day we first met he wrote in his paper, "He who tries to demand certain rights based on the past prepares a European catastrophe." Those words were directed at the Sudeten Germans in Bavaria. Thoughtful as they sound, they gave me the feeling that even he still didn't "get it."

It's not a matter of the Sudetens' claiming their property on the basis of past records. It is a matter of the past's not being a source of any kind of German rights. If Germany had been a victor, even for a limited time, whole nations and many old and famous cities would have been wiped off the earth. The best that reunited Germany can ask for, it seems to me, is a clean slate. By no stretch of emotion or law should it expect a court to study the deportation of the Sudetens or any other such actions outside their contexts.

When my discussion with the editor turned to united Germany's border with Poland, he called it a Wohlstandsgrenze -- a line between poor and well-off people. He was, perhaps unconsciously, downgrading a national border to an affair of economic zoning. After 1945, West German maps and atlases continued to show the 1937 borders. East Germany was usually called "Middle Germany." The Potsdam demarcations, the maps indicated, were but "temporary." Indeed they were -- but no one in the West predicted that they would change again to Germany's advantage. Among the many who played along with this negation of postwar political reality was the American oil company Esso, as Exxon was then called; when one had to drive through a checkpoint, the East German guards confiscated Esso road maps and tore them up with great gusto. A conference of West German education ministers ruled that in schoolbooks "the loss of German land in the East is to be established as a loss to the entire civilized world."

When I traveled this spring from Paris to Frankfurt on an evening train, I saw to my horror that the railroad map in the corridor showed no border at all between Germany and Poland beyond a two-inch-long dotted line west of Szczecin. With the first daylight I discovered that there was indeed a border marked, so thin as to be almost invisible against the blue of the Oder River, which it followed. I am sure that German railroad officials would say this was done unthinkingly. The towns east of the border were shown with both their Polish and old German names.

I had a few years before traveled by train from Berlin to Warsaw in a compartment full of what are called here Heimwehtouristen -- "homesickness tourists." At each stop they stood at the window and discussed what this or that town was "really" called. A German atlas from the time between the two world wars shows Strasbourg as a German town and omits the Polish corridor. One might say that German cartography is always one war behind.

NOTHING in this is so very surprising. I cannot think of a single historical example of a country's voluntarily giving up on its irredenta. That Germany is now as strong as it was in 1914, and Russia perhaps as weak as it was in 1914, does not make it any likelier that Germany will be the exception. The best chance for lasting peace would be if Germany under the Nazis was a historically unique situation.

A German historian, Fritz Fischer, in 1961 published a book about Germany's policies during the First World War, Griff nach der Weltmacht. The title translates as Grab for World Power, although "Griff" has a slightly less negative color than "grab." An abridged version was published by the New York publisher W. W. Norton under the calm title Germany's Aims in the First World War. In the book Fischer showed how the Kaiser's serious, polite, formalistic Germany was in its policies painfully close to Nazi Germany in the next war. Naturally, the book caused an outcry in West Germany, but its scholarship and the mass of documentation it presented left little room for factual criticism.

Fischer documented that Germany's war aim, almost until the bitter end, was the creation of a German Mitteleuropa that would include Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, Poland. In 1918 the Ukraine was added. (Analogous to it would be Mittelafrika, a German colony stretching across Africa from ocean to ocean.) Wartime German state documents said nonetheless that Germany was fighting for the "liberty of the continent of Europe and its peoples"; France, weakened "forever" by a German demand for 40 billion gold francs in reparations, would be forced to join the war against England.

A report to the Imperial Chancellery showed a map of the frontier strip isolating a rump Poland (perhaps to be ceded to Austria-Hungary), which was to be settled by Germans from the "Old Reich" -- after being "cleared" by deporting part of its Polish population and all its Jews. A memorandum drawn up at the instruction of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg declared, "The German people, the greatest colonising people of the world, . . . must be given wider frontiers within which it can live a full life." If the word Lebensraum isn't there yet, the concept certainly is.

I realize that it is not politically correct to generalize about an entire nation; still, centuries of a common history may put a stamp on a society which makes it hard for other societies to understand. I hope I am not venturing into an area of pseudo-science when I suggest that German aggressiveness was based not only on an overconfidence that the country presumably no longer feels about itself but also, paradoxically, on a lack of confidence it does feel. What is one to make otherwise of a report by Gustav Krupp, the arms manufacturer, written for the government in the fall of 1914? (The great industrialists of Germany played a large role in defining war policies.) Krupp wrote that German domination should continue in Belgium and extend to the north coast of France. He explained,
Here we should be lying at the very marrow of England's world power, a position -- perhaps the only one -- which could bring us England's lasting friendship [italics mine]. For only if we are able to hurt England badly at any moment will she really leave us unmolested, perhaps even become our 'friend', in so far as England is capable of friendship at all.
The truth about nations is endlessly complicated, and political predictions based on generalization may go awry: the recent past provides plenty of examples. I find reason for some optimism in this. An experience I had toward the end of my visit may illustrate what I mean. One of my conversations about the German irredenta was with an academician whose real feelings about the matter didn't become quite clear to me. He seemed to feel that Germany's reunification had indeed created a "new legal context." He then started talking about himself.

This man would have been born in Königsberg, in East Prussia, he told me, if his parents had not fled to the west from the approaching battles, in the winter of 1944-1945. He was born in West Germany just after the war ended.

Königsberg is now Kaliningrad, a town in Russia. As a naval base on the Baltic Sea, it was for many years closed to foreigners -- but no longer. Two years ago the academician traveled there. He wandered through what he still considered to be his home town, accompanied by a Russian student guide who spoke German. Coming to the street where his parents had lived, he found that their house was still standing. He looked at it for a while and then hastened on. But his guide suggested that they go back and ring the bell and ask for a look inside. The man balked at first, but then his curiosity got the better of him and he agreed.

They were asked in. Three families now lived in the house. When the man explained the reason for his visit, the Russians made him sit down and brought out tea and cakes, and eventually (of course) vodka. They were clearly poor people, but they searched high and low for something to give him as a present. If he warned them in advance, they told him, the next time they would receive him in style.

The academician paused here, lost in thought. Then, to my astonishment, he ended, "And I now think that that was the best day in my entire life."

Illustration by Igor Kopelnitsky

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