CULTURE

The Germany that can say ‘no’

It’s notoriously difficult to escape history in this corner of Europe. Any German attempt to flex its muscle abroad raises the eyebrows of its weary neighbors. But it also triggers the recurrent existential debate over what the Germans describe with a typically Teutonic word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung – overcoming the past without forgetting it. Of course, the rest of the world cannot forever punish Germany over the gas chambers. Young Germans, too, are less willing to take the blame for the crimes of their grandparents. «The previous generation was in some way involved in the crimes. But the current generation has nothing to do with what happened,» Professor Andreas Stergiou told Kathimerini English Edition after a recent conference on Germany’s foreign policy held at the Goethe Institute in Athens. «As the reactions to the Holocaust memorial showed, some people are protesting attempts to stir up the past.» Berlin’s vast Holocaust memorial – a sprawling field of some 2,700 stone slabs near the Brandenburg Gate dedicated to the 6 million Jews that died in Nazi concentration camps during WWII – was finally inaugurated in 2005 after many years of delays and controversy. Wartime guilt has left its mark on German self-understanding. National pride is still taboo. In 2001 a Christian Democrat caused a furor after declaring he was «proud to be German» – a government minister even accused him of having «the mentality of a skinhead.» The media and politicians were quickly embroiled in a raucous debate about how Germans should feel about the German nation. The late president Johannes Rau said he was «glad» or even «grateful» for being German, adding that one can only be proud of what one has achieved oneself, while ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder danced around the verbiage, saying he was proud of what «people have achieved, and of the democratic culture.» Stergiou – author of the book «German Foreign Policy 1945-2005: From Dependence to Independence» (Roes 2005), which was presented at the conference – underscored the singularity of the German condition. «In Greece, like in most countries, national pride is exclusively associated with the past. For Germany the question has been ‘How can you inspire pride among the masses?’ The answer,» Stergiou continued, «was ‘For what Germany achieved after the war’ – the so-called economic miracle.» And not without good reason. Germany managed to swiftly rise from the ruins of the war into Europe’s powerhouse. However its guilty inhibitions always made sure it was not led astray from its «giant-with-feet-of-clay» image. To be sure, the Germans never let themselves become anyone’s patsies. «Germany’s economic prosperity gave it a considerable degree of geopolitical power – that’s what kept it alive in the political game,» Stergiou said. «Through its economic power, the Germans made it necessary for other states to upgrade their relations with Germany.» Before the launch of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, Bonn would write big checks to foreign governments to make sure they would not recognize its communist counterpart to the east. Gulliver unbound During the Cold War, things were more or less straightforward. Germany looked at France for European integration – a project partly aimed at locking Germany into Europe – while the US provided a nuclear guarantee. To some it seemed like the Germans got a free ride. «The argument holds in the case of Germany,» admitted Stergiou, noting that NATO’s nuclear umbrella allowed them – and other Western Europeans – to build their much-cherished albeit costly «nanny states» while the Americans did all the dirty work of containment. The fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification ushered in an era of renewed German assertiveness. Some feared that, having rediscovered nationhood, the Germans would be poised to abandon its postwar substitute, the European Community. Others feared Germany would seek to take over the «European home,» turning Helmut Kohl’s mantra of a European Germany on its head. Gulliver was unbound. Notwithstanding the steady drumbeat of fatalism from British tabloids, there were indeed signs that Germany was shedding its postwar bonds for a more go-it-alone course. The pressure to recognize Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the symbolism of moving its capital from pacifist Bonn to history-haunted Berlin, the dispatch of German troops to Kosovo in 1999, to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2000 and to Afghanistan in 2001 (breaking with the principle that Germany would never again send armies to territories occupied by the Wehrmacht during the war) – all signaled that the country was finally back to «normal.» In a much-debated move before the 2002 polls, Schroeder even played the anti-American card by assaulting Bush’s Iraq campaign, winning a tissue-thin re-election. Now the CDU, a traditional US ally, is up to fixing the damage. «The Christian Democrats have traditionally been on good terms with Washington and they will try to bridge the gap with the US. But with a former Schroeder aide as foreign minister, it will be interesting to see how it will all play out,» Stergiou said. Interestingly, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s new foreign minister in an uneasy coalition with the Social Democrats, was Schroeder’s chief of staff. Now he appears set for some awkward acrobatics. Merkel has already started to depart from the footsteps of her predecessor. During a meeting on the EU budget in December, the new chancellor emerged as a discreet mediator between Chirac and Blair. Her transatlantic visit involved a great deal of fence-mending, and during a security conference in Munich earlier this month, US officials were impressed by her tough talk on Iran and her pledge to give her full backing to the NATO alliance. Earlier in Putin’s Russia, Merkel raised the previously-taboo issue of human rights abuses – a zone where Schroeder would never dare to tread. «The Germans,» Goethe once said, «make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.»