Seeking a Return to Pride
Last week, tennis fans gathering at Berlin’s Rot Weiss club to enjoy the German Open received a jolt when they opened their programs. There appeared a photograph of Hermann Goring surrounded by uniformed Nazi officials, alongside text that described the flight of Jewish members from the club in the Hitler era. “With its membership reduced by half in this way, the club, previously known as a ‘Jewish club,’ opened itself to new members,” the program noted. “In sporting terms, this change brought no interruption for the club and top German tennis. On the contrary, golden times ensued.”
Except of course for the former members, some of whom may have last glimpsed the club from the platforms of the nearby Grunewald train station, from which thousands of Berlin Jews were deported.
This year’s German Open coincided with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It would be easy to interpret the story of the program as evidence of German indifference and callousness to the crimes of the past. But would that be just?
The program immediately exploded into a national scandal in Germany. The club director responsible for the program was suspended. Meanwhile, and over the same weekend as the German Open was being played, preparations were going forward for the dedication of a vast new memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in the very centre of Berlin on ground stretching from the Brandenburg Gate to the former site of Adolf Hitler’s bunker. This memorial is part of a long series of memorials in virtually every German city and town; the dedication ceremony on May 10 will be only the latest in a series of formal acts of remembrance and repentance by the highest officials of the German state. Which is the truer expression of modern, democratic Germany?
In a recent article in the online journal, OpenDemocracy.com, Matthias Matussek, London correspondent for Der Speigel, responded to those who equate modern Germany with the Nazi past: “We Germans confront the guilt and shame of our past daily, and more thoroughly and obsessively than probably any other nation on Earth has done.”
So they do. And it is fair to wonder whether at this point in history, an unending confrontation with guilt and shame is healthy for democratic Germany or for Germany’s democratic allies.
A friend told me this story. A major German wood products company decided it needed a corporate motto. After much research and focus-grouping, it decided on the slogan: “Wood with Pride” (Holtz mit Stoltz). The slogan was unveiled. It was focus-grouped. And the response from ordinary German wood products consumers was…gasping horror. They apparently considered it just a short step from that to goose-stepping down the Champs Elysees. In Germany, the very idea that a German could be “proud” of anything was shocking.
But people want to be proud of something. If you tell a large and mighty nation that it can never be proud of itself, the natural egotism of human beings will seek some other outlet, less wholesome than normal patriotism. Many in Germany support the unification of Europe much less as a rational response to real needs, and much more because they yearn to feel for “Europe” the loyalty and pride they cannot allow themselves to feel for their own country and their own culture. The terrible irony is that this united Europe is emerging as a much greater threat to the Atlantic Alliance and to European democracy than the Federal Republic of Germany would ever be.
Nor is it fanciful, I think, to see much of the rising tide of German anti-Americanism—expressed most notoriously in the German enthusiasm for the crackpot works of Michael Moore—as an indirect, perverted expression of nationalism. The psychology seems to be that if Germans cannot allow themselves to feel pride in Germany, they can at least demand that Americans feel ashamed of the United States.
For half a century, the Western world has found freedom, security and prosperity in an alliance between the United States and a Europe of sovereign states. Today, that Europe is dissolving itself into a new kind of union. The American-European partnership is daily becoming weaker, more difficult, more embittered.
Meanwhile, the threat of fascism is reappearing, this time wearing Islamic garb—and the democratic nations of Europe are reacting too often with bafflement and fear. They have told themselves a story about the past, in which (as EU commissioner Margot Wallstrom said in her VE-Day address) “nationalistic pride” produced the crimes of the Holocaust. They forget that it was also nationalistic pride that inspired the allied armies that defeated the authors of those crimes.
If the democracies are to summon up again the courage and character to defeat this new threat, they will need every strength and resource—including the strength and resource of democratic patriotism. The allies of the Second World War fought not to destroy Germany, but to save it. They succeeded. Democratic Germany deserves to be counted among the war’s winners—and to share in their pride and self-respect.