What a new German movie can teach America about confronting its history with domestic radicals

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There is an ungainly German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that has no equivalent in the English language. It means "coming to terms with past," and it was coined to refer to the efforts of German intellectuals, journalists, and even some politicians who, over the past half century, insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country's history was both a moral and political necessity. As a result of these efforts, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has become part of the core political culture of contemporary Germany.

A new German movie that has attracted considerable attention in Europe is part of this tradition--albeit in an unusual way. While Vergangenheitsbewältigung generally refers to examination of the Nazi era, this film looks at another chapter in German history: the rise, during the 1970s, of a radical left-wing group called the Red Army Faction (or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof). Obviously, the group's crimes were in no way analogous to those of the Nazis; the RAF ultimately murdered 34 people, while the Nazis murdered millions. Still, an honest reckoning with the past is exactly what the movie attempts. And, in providing a frank and unsentimental depiction of the brutal excesses associated with 1960s radicalism, it sets an example that Hollywood would do well to follow.

In 1985, Stefan Aust--one of West Germany's most prominent journalists and for many years editor of Der Spiegel, the country's most popular news magazine--published a book about the Red Army Faction called Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, which went on to become a best-seller. In September, a feature film based on the book, and carrying the same name, opened in Germany. And, several weeks ago, the movie's East Coast American premier took place at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Aust in attendance to answer questions from the sold-out audience....

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