Germany has undergone five different political systems in the space of a few generations: monarchy, the Weimar Republic, Nazi totalitarianism, the separation into democracy in the West and real socialism in the East, and finally reunification. It seems reasonable at first, given such tumult, to ask whether Germany is now a normal country twenty years after the fall of the Wall. But before we look at normalcy in Germany in historical perspective, let’s consider the history of Germany’s three largest immediate neighbors for a moment.
After Poland was divided up for a third time in 1795 between Russia, Austria and Prussia, it disappeared from the map for more than a century. It regained its independence in 1919 and had very little time to enjoy it before the Nazis invaded in 1939. Once the war was over, the Poles spent fifty years under the iron fist of communism. Naturally enough, these periods of volatility have left Poles with many abnormalities to address.
Austria is still smarting over the loss of its empire. More relevant to the purpose of our question, it also audaciously embraced a national postwar self-deception that the country had never cheered on Hitler, that, on the contrary, Austria had been German National Socialism’s very first victim. Is it better, or more normal, that most Austrians have internalized this lie?
France is on its fifth republic since the Revolution (and never mind an intervening empire or two), so they too have had their share of volatility to manage. As for the years from 1940 to 1945, the French long took pride in and substantially exaggerated their heroic resistance against the Nazis, only fairly recently admitting to the shame of collaboration as well. Normal?
The point of this brief excursus is to suggest that, except for the remarkably stable Anglo-Saxon democracies, periods of uncertainty, volatility and political discontinuity have been the historical rule rather than the exception in Continental Europe. All the psycho-social faultlines that these upheavals typically create—the difficult questions of discerning loyalty and treason, opportunity and criminality, morality and the need to embrace lesser evils in times of desperation—are themselves perfectly normal. It follows that even a war of aggression with as large a scope as World War II need not raise questions of normalcy; the Napoleonic Wars were arguably as savage and as aggressive in nature. Nor necessarily would the remarkable postwar transformation of what Thomas Nipperdey called the unruhige Reich—one of the main culprits in the First World War and the lone aggressor in the Second—into a stable and democratic political system. Without what Dan Diner has called the Zivilisationsbruch—the dispassionate attempt by an apparently cultured people to wipe out an entire swath of the population from the face of the earth—the question of normalcy would probably never have come up. It was the Holocaust that made the Germans an enigma, not only to others but also to themselves.
So it remains, and it is no wonder the quest for normalcy goes back to the Holocaust. After all, ambiguity and difficulty has surrounded Germans’ attempt to understand it from the start. Not that the Federal Republic of Germany tried very hard to come to terms with it by punishing the main culprits, but the truth is that the social re-integration of defeated military and government cadres was more important to most than punishment. And that applies to Germany’s occupying authorities as well as to Germans. Germans at first also seemed unable to grasp the historical, political and moral dimensions of the murder of European Jewry, and were somewhat tactless in expressing themselves over it. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic, referred to the reparations earmarked for Israel and the Jewish Claims Conference as Wiedergutmachung, or making amends—as if money could be any sort of recompense. Yet Adenauer’s acceptance of collective German responsibility and his offer of aid to the new Jewish state were surely the right things to do, as was his determination to re-arm Germany in the service of peace. It is easy nowadays to forget Adenauer’s courage in doing these things. Most West Germans at the time were none too keen on either reparations or rearmament. Essayist Eike Geisel coined a new term for what they were much more concerned about: Wiedergutwerdung, or “becoming good again.”
Unlike Adenauer’s embrace of reality, however awkwardly phrased it was at times, Wiedergutwerdung did not require any concrete penitent, or responsible, behavior. Instead, it is entirely based on the abstract moral debate over how to best learn from German history. The results, which had precious little practical relevance, culminated in a slogan: “Never again.” Never again go to war; never again operate a place like Auschwitz.
Thus the “good German” had passed from deepest evil to the height of moral superiority in a trice. He had, in short, turned into a pacifist. He despised and continues to despise uniforms: The police were the “fascist pigs” of the late 1960s student revolts, and to this day it is rare to see a uniformed soldier on the street in Germany. He does not like the foreign military deployments that ensued after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and comforts himself that these are not undertaken in Germany’s “selfish” interest, but rather out of moral or political obligation. The Bundeswehr went to prevent genocide in the Balkans, no less, so that was all right. German soldiers are only in Afghanistan to provide development aid, out of loyalty to the Americans, and that is all right, so long as German soldiers neither kill nor are killed. Few Germans have noticed how the slogan “never again war” has overshadowed the slogan “never again Auschwitz”, or the idea that at times the use of force might not only be necessary but desirable to prevent greater evils.
The good German believes that talk and negotiation, especially multilateral negotiation, will resolve conflicts, that resorting to weapons is a return to barbarism. Surprisingly enough, however, he is not appalled by vulgar military dictatorships, perhaps because he expects so little from those who do not uphold the high moral standards he cherishes. He does, however, despise democracies that use force for existential or political reasons. It is more than an irony of history that those turn out to be the United States, the country that liberated Germany from the Nazis through armed conflict, and Israel, the country that became the refuge of many of those who escaped extermination.
Wiedergutwerdung, the special German version of “pacifism without a price tag”, has kept the good German from descending into the dark realm of realpolitik, where a more or less rational policy of interest is developed and difficult moral choices must be made. This pacifism is less a political strategy than an attempt to fulfill a desire: If Germans back then were despised as the incarnation of evil, then the good German of today wishes to be loved, so that finally, once again, he can love himself. Contemporary German pacifism is not selfless.
This is why the good German sometimes so shamelessly shows off his moral superiority and the grand achievement of having learned his lesson from history. But even though Germans can now guffaw at the stock character of the evil Nazi and immediately identify with the Jewish “Inglourious Basterds” of Quentin Tarantino’s recent film, he hasn’t understood the most important lesson. Not only is the “good German” as dumb a cliché as the diabolical Nazi; the pretense of moral superiority also becomes intolerable when it serves as an excuse to shirk responsibility or to avoid choices. One cannot be “entirely good” in asymmetric wars such as the one being fought in Afghanistan, so the choice comes down to engaging in lesser evils to avoid greater ones. A person who cannot, or who refuses, to make that choice is not a sympathetic character. In fact, such a person has learned nothing of use from German history. He only widens that gap between his own perception of what is lovable and that of others.
Of course, to speak of love is not normal language for a discussion about politics and history. We will see the onset of normalcy in Germany when the “good German” stops basing views of political action only on the abstract lessons of history instead of the real ones, when he understands that a moral high ground alone is not a good platform for formulating national policy. The genuinely good German will approach “normalcy” when he takes Tina Turner’s approach to the subject: What’s love got to do with it? For this, unfortunately, I think we will wait a long time.