Saturday, December 18, 2010

German history - that old chestnut!

Berlin has always fascinated me for its history, its place at the fulcrum of the cold war.This is the city where the two superpowers of the twentieth century collided in the ruins of the world's most despicable dictatorship. It's a pity that almost all visible traces of that history have been eradicated in the haste to leave it behind. Today Berlin is a city of Neubauten - there are almost no old buildings left. Bombs cleansed it of its Nazi and pre-Nazi history, and the enthusiasm of reunification wiped away almost all traces of the Stasi era. Hitler's bunker is a carpark. Checkpoint Charlie is a tacky tourist attraction. The past is objectified and captured in numerous memorials and museums, all of which serve to delineate now from then, to sharpen the distinction between the enlightened Germany of today and the dark Germany of the past.

Yet among Germans there remains a deep-seated unease about the past. For years after the war, the past was buried because it was still too close. Then, as a new generation arose and demanded a reckoning, a period of Auseinandersetzung began. From denial, Germany moved to self-confrontation, sought to deal with the past by raking over the killing fields for every last bone, every rusty locket. And now the wheel has turned again. Now the past is too far away. With the 2006 World Cup came the feeling that Germans can be proud to be Germans again, the past be damned.

There is even, according to one of my hosts here, a concealed arrogance, the surreptitious return of that repressed thread of national superiority. She told me about getting into an argument with a businessman on the train one day. He accused her of being a 'radical' (she's anything but), and spoke of the German people as a 'huge social experiment', from the Nazis to the enlightened current day, as if it all formed a rational continuum, as if it were all part of a whole that made sense, even bestowed a certain special status. When in fact, if nothing else is clear, the dark period of Germany's history is a great, ghastly and senseless wound, which can never really heal, perhaps which never really should. According to more than one German I spoke to, many Berliners have a sense of pride in their huge holocaust memorial, claiming that it is the envy of other states. Wahnsinn! Of course Germany should have such a memorial, but pride is surely not the appropriate emotion.

But on the other hand, how does a people live with such a wound in its psyche? At least for the Jewish people the healing journey is somewhat signposted, has somewhat clear-cut parameters. Museums and memorials are symbolically and educationally important, but 'museumification' is hardly a sufficient response in itself. Yes, the past must be allowed to rest to some extent, and forcing younger generations of Germans to bear the cross of guilt for their great-grandfathers' sins is likely to backfire. And yet the desire of modern-day Germany to at last wash its hands of history is a disturbing trend. Not because of fears of a peculiarly German evil that only eternal vigilance can keep bound - in my opinion the next appalling regime is about as likely to come out of New Zealand as it is out of Germany. But because no people are better placed to build and maintain a lighthouse on these evil rocks than the Germans. A searching light must always be maintained here, and if there is to be any redemption of this history for Germany, it is Germany which must keep that light burning.

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