Ninety years after 1919, seventy years after 1939, twenty years after 1989: Could it be it time for Germany to declare normalcy, for Germans to stop obsessing about their history and start living in the present? After all, we Germans have accomplished what is today broadly reckoned to be an honorable and complete accounting of the guilt amassed in the Holocaust and two world wars (admittedly, with some early prodding from outside, including the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Eichmann trial). By now, our relentless navel-gazing bores even our friends. At worst, it is hard to distinguish from self-indulgence, complacency, or a disguise for attitudes based on entirely different premises. Our allies feel strongly that our obsession is preventing us from paying appropriate attention to more urgent matters, such as bearing our fair share of the burden in Afghanistan. So what on earth is keeping us from lifting our national gaze from our navels to a more normal horizon?
It’s simple: If your grandfather were a psychopath who committed mass murder on an epochal scale, self-examination would become a reflex that would be hard to shake off. It is, I think, both comparable to and the exact opposite of the situation of the grandchildren of the victims.
My German age cohort (I am a post-Wall child, born in 1962) is that of the grandchildren of the Tätergeneration, the perpetrators of the Holocaust and World War II. To us, the biological or historical determinism, as well as the pathos, of earlier times seems embarrassingly histrionic. We feel much the same about the narcissistic hatred Germany’s soixante-huitards nursed for their fathers (and in some cases their mothers). But then, we know that we are lucky in being the later-borns. Our parents were themselves children or young adults when the Thousand-Year Reich came to its apocalyptic close. For them, life began again, quite unexpectedly, in 1945. Some, like my father, were boys drafted to defend the regime they feared and despised in the last months of the war. But mostly they were swept along in the maelstrom as objects of history rather than actors in it. As grownups, many were rendered mute about their experiences by an awareness of their elders’ guilt.
As we only learned to understand much later, when we had become adults ourselves, others (my parents among them) were admirably clear in laying out the truth about the appalling crimes that had been committed by so many Germans, and explaining to their children the difference between the personal guilt of the perpetrators and the political responsibility of their heirs. Their passionate concern that we should have a “real” and “safe” childhood made us understand that there were things that they too could not bear to speak about.
Today, the grandchildren of the Tätergeneration are far enough removed for analytical detachment. Yet at the same time they are still old enough for shame, sadness and a terrible sense of loss: for millions of lives, and for the destruction of a European culture in which Jews, and Judaism, had played a central, even essential, part. (In that sense, Germany’s genocide was also a cultural suicide.) Yes, some of that grief is for the terrified children and adolescents who later were carefully hidden away within our parents’ adult selves. Even when we are preoccupied by the business of our daily lives, inanimate reminders of our past surround us: We reflexively read the crazy patchwork of our inner cities as a reverse imprint of aerial bombardments, the punishment for Germany’s crimes. In central Berlin, where I live, I need only turn into the next side-street to find facades still deeply pockmarked from the artillery barrages of 64 years ago—wounds which are, of course, mere shadows of those Germany inflicted elsewhere.
All this is naturally unnatural, or unnaturally natural—it depends on one’s starting point. It is certainly not a matter for therapy. Our past is our inheritance, and we live with it as gracefully and responsibly as we can. Chancellor Helmut Kohl (born in 1930), caused a scandal during a visit to Israel in 1984 by remarking that he had been spared from personal responsibility for the Holocaust by die Gnade der späten Geburt—the blessing of later birth. He was excoriated for seemingly trying to close Germany’s criminal file; what he meant to say, if ineptly, was “there but for the grace of God go I.” My generation’s blessing—such as it is—is that we may grieve without having to hate.
None of this is to ask for empathy. And it does not excuse the continuing pathologies of German political culture: the pervasive self-righteousness; the odd contrast between our passionate concern for the plight of peoples who live far away from us (like the Tibetans) and the even stranger lack of empathy with those whose concerns ought to be much closer to ours, such as the Kosovar Albanians or East Europeans who fear a resurgent Russia; the insistence on our moral exceptionalism (in which we occasionally match our American mentors); and the self-deceptions these pathologies produce, to the bemusement or dismay of our friends and neighbors.
To take just one of many possible examples, listen to this sentence from a recent speech by Guido Westerwelle (born in December 1961), leader of the Free Democratic Party and, at the time, aspiring Foreign Minister in a center-right coalition after the September 27 federal elections: “The key to Germany’s strength lies not in the strength of its troops, but rather in its diplomatic savoir-faire, its sense of responsibility toward our fellow humans, and its economic power. These, above all, are the source of our political and moral authority” (emphasis mine). We are not just strong and wealthy, Westerwelle is telling us; we’re also in the right. Our normalcy, in other words, resides in the fact that we are special. Quite possibly, all this stems from wounded narcissism; but the point is that it is narcissism. If that is normal, then the word defies definition.