German Guilt Wears Thin

If It Becomes a Normal Country, Where Does That Leave Europe (And Me!)?

My German 3 summer school instructor at Berkeley once pulled me aside after class to accuse me of having a deep-seated hatred toward all things German. Irritated, I told her, “Yeah, that’s why I’m spending my summer learning your damn language.”

More than 20 years later, my German-language skills are just as lacking as before, but my relationship to the Fatherland is as complicated as ever. I don’t hate Germany. But, apart from being fond of Berlin (whose openly gay mayor calls it “poor but sexy”), I don’t exactly love Germany either.

That’s noteworthy, since Germany is the foreign country I head to most often by far. Over the past decade, I’ve gone at least once a year. I’ve been there three times in the past nine months alone.

A little obsessed? Perhaps. But it’s got nothing to do with beer, the autobahn, or the “snappy uniforms and racy Mercedes staff cars” invoked by Tobias Wolff in his memoir to explain most boys’ interest in the place. What fascinates me most about Germany is Germany’s fascination with itself.

That’s not quite as esoteric as it sounds. While journalists and academics tend to separate questions of culture and identity from economics and foreign affairs, in Germany’s case it’s impossible to understand one without the other.

There is a timeless quality to the drama unfolding these days in the eurozone–a drama on which the health of the global economy hinges, if you believe in the rationality of skittish markets. It’s the latest installment in the long-running quest to define Germany’s role in Europe, and whether there can be a Europe that transcends German self-realization.

Last week, investors around the world waited nervously to see whether Chancellor Angela Merkel could convince the Bundestag, the upper chamber of the nation’s legislature, to support more aggressive efforts to bail out Greece and other European countries that have lived beyond their means, courtesy of German creditworthiness, since adopting the euro currency. Strange how the question of what the Germans will do is central to the fate of the world’s anemic financial recovery–and, let’s face it, central to Barack Obama’s presidency. Strange, and a bit retro.

While the international press frames the European debt crisis as a morality tale being played out between thrifty (and condescending) Germans who are being asked to pay for the profligacy of the Greeks, the real moral struggle being waged is within Germany itself.

I was in southwest Germany last week being a little profligate myself, enjoying the wine harvest in the quaint towns and villages of the Palatinate. One night, over dinner with the in-laws (did I mention that my wife of two and a half years is a German immigrant?), we discussed whether Germany should pony up more cash to bail out Greece. My wife’s stepmother suggested that Greece be summarily ejected from the eurozone, while my father-in-law remained adamant about Germany’s duty to uphold a united continent.

It turns out old dad was in the minority. Polls show that upwards of 80 percent of the German public is opposed to the expanded bailout that the Bundestag ultimately approved last week. The citizens of the region’s strongest economy are questioning whether they still want to be the saviors of Europe. In other words, they are wondering aloud whether they have reached the moment in which they no longer need to redeem themselves for the sins of their past.

The old European joke about NATO–the North Atlantic Treaty Organization–is that it was meant to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. But it is the European Union that stands as the true monument to Germany’s redemption. It began as a way to keep Germany and France from crossing the Rhine again by binding them together economically. Indeed, as difficult as it might be for Americans to understand, post-war German identity has been inextricably intertwined with the idea of pan-Europeanism. Germans embraced the European project as a way to keep their nationalist past in check.

A decade ago, while on one of several U.S.-German exchange trips I’ve joined, I had a befuddling (at least for me) conversation with a former member of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s cabinet. He insisted that he was European before he was German. I was as skeptical then as I am now, but I’ve since learned to appreciate how genuinely eager Germans were to distance themselves from their dark past by embracing peaceful cooperation. Save us from ourselves, thoughtful Germans seemed to implore.

From the very beginning it was this obsession with their own guilt and redemption that made Germans so interesting to me. Their national self-consciousness made them exceedingly articulate about who they are and want to be and what images they should or should not project.

A few years ago while trying to explain to me what he considered the essence of German identity, Turkish-German novelist Feridun Zaimoglu instructed me to write down the word Selbstzweifel. “I want you to write down the German word for self-doubt,” he said. “S-E-L-B … We do think a lot about who we are. That’s what I love about Germans. But then we have serious doubts.”

But in the last few years, there’ve been growing signs that Germans are moving beyond their national angst. Despite its hardships, reunification of East and West after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 set the stage for a new era of national self-confidence.

Perhaps no place is this link between reunification and redemption more evident than in the eastern city of Dresden, which was devastated by Allied firebombing in February 1945.

For nearly 60 years, long after the city around it had been rebuilt, Dresden’s 18th-century Protestant cathedral, the Church of Our Lady, remained in rubble at the center of town as a powerful symbol of the horrors of war. But shortly after reunification, a group of concerned citizens issued a “Call from Dresden.” While West Germans forked over billions in taxes to bring their poorer eastern brethren back into the fold, a process begun 21 years ago today, the power of the Dresden call was that it was an appeal for individuals within Germany and around the world to restore the pastel-colored baroque gem, to become a “Christian center for world peace.” The response was remarkable, pulling in 100 million euros.

In need of my own shot of redemption and drawn by the powerful symbol of the rebuilt Frauenkirche, in 2005, I spent a cold, snowy Christmas alone in Dresden. The locals I spoke with told me–generally over a cup of hot-spiced red wine–that before the church was rebuilt there was something missing not only from the city’s skyline but from its soul. The rare American-style private fundraising effort also enabled Germans everywhere to participate in the rebuilding effort, which deepened its symbolic appeal to the national psyche. More than a few observers saw this unprecedented showing of citizen-driven civic engagement as signaling a stronger, more confident civil society.

Half a year later, during the World Cup they hosted, Germans stunned themselves with the expression of a newfound, playful patriotism. My wife, who was working in a biotech firm in central Berlin at the time, recalls the combination of discomfort and relief she felt at seeing the black-red-gold flag being furled from apartment balconies before big games. “We had been scared of showing too much national pride,” she recalls. “But it was that summer, I think, that we learned that pride doesn’t have to equal aggression.”

According to one opinion survey, by 2009, the number of Germans who said they were “very proud” to be German had doubled over the previous eight years. One of the survey’s authors concluded that it was the management of a successful democracy and economy that convinced both western and eastern Germans that they were entitled to feelings other than shame about their country.

It was this resurgence of national pride that enabled 80 percent of the German public to oppose Chancellor Merkel’s expanded bailout plan. While still in favor of European cooperation, the public is evidently less convinced of their obligation to bankroll it themselves.

As an American, I’m thrilled that the German parliament bucked the will of their people. The last thing our own economy needs is for the euro to collapse. But if the showdown in the Bundestag last week taught us anything, it’s that the most neurotic of nations is on the verge of getting up from the therapist’s couch. Europe will have to deal with that fact. So will the United States.

As for me? I guess I’ll have to find another conflicted nation to obsess over. Maybe Korea …

Gregory Rodriguez is founding director of Zócalo Public Square.

*Photo courtesy of Tim Waters.


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