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CONFESSIONS GIVE COUNTRIES A FRESH START

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This is the year that making history finally became a daily event. We get up in the morning and count the governments or assumptions that toppled overnight.

But making history, it turns out, is more than churning out dates for future students to memorize on their time charts. Making history is also, and in tandem, rewriting the past.In just a few weeks, we've seen Europe updated and backdated with truths. Now we'll find out whose truth will be etched, not only in history books, but in the collective memory.

East Germany's new democratic government began its future by admitting the country's guilt in the past. The old regime had blamed the Holocaust on fascists, but the new government apologized as Germans: "We feel sorrow and shame and acknowledge this burden of German history."

The Soviet Union, stumbling out of its old empire, uttered the first admission that it wasn't the Nazis who killed the Polish officer corps in the Katyn Forest during World War II. It was the Soviet secret police.

These duly labeled "historic" confessions, half-a-century after the fact, were not exactly news bulletins to the rest of the world. But it wasn't the world's history they were rewriting, it was their own. They were speaking about their past to their present, making a fresh start with a clean break.

This is often an offshoot of current events. History changes hands as quickly as governments. The past is among the spoils that go to the victors. The new contenders for power, whether democratic or royal, stake their claims on history.

But what is striking about the rewrites of the present year is that they aren't based on glory. They are based on guilt.

Both the Soviets and the Germans are promoting their own right to rule, their legitimacy, on confessions of past wrongdoing. Charles Maier, a Harvard historian, compares this approach to that of psychiatry: "When people enter therapy, they have to remember. When regimes cleanse themselves, they have to take on the task of remembering, for the first time, things that took place that they'd like to forget."

But guilt is rarely an easy sell. The speed with which the Soviets have disavowed Stalinism and East Germans reversed their teachings can lead to a false impression.

The same month in which the East Germans apologized, the Japanese chose to avoid any mention of their country's aggressive role in their renovated memorial at Hiroshima. The "aggressor's corner" won't appear in the memorial's portrait of the suffering city.

The same month in which the Soviets admitted the massacre of Poles, the Turks were still fighting their culpability in the death of up to a million Armenians. The Turkish resentment inhibited the Senate from making April 24 the official day of Armenian remembrance.

West Germans are now saying "enough" to guilt about their Nazi past.

Ultimately what is most important is not the sudden I-am-sorries, but the willingness to use the past as a prod for a future worth remembering.