We May Be Odd But We’re Not Crazy

By Bernd Ulrich in Die Zeit Online, December 11, 2015

Any German born before 1928 travelling to Israel requires a visa. The reason behind this rule is clear: anyone who was of legal age in the Nazi period and, therefore, could have been guilty of a crime during this time, cannot just wander freely into the Jewish State. Just one and a half million people now live in Germany who were of legal age during that period – less than two percent. The vast majority of the German people bear no personal guilt, neither do their parents nor most of their grand parents anymore.

We should all keep this in mind when faced with current claims from the international community that Germany’s refugee policy is determined by a heavy burden of guilt. At times, Germany has been praised for establishing a model Willkommenskultur (the positive message of welcoming migrants) out of their ever-present sense of guilt (Washington Post), and at other times rebuked for letting their history drive them to become irrational starry-eyed idealists who have put all of Europe in danger (The Guardian). Not to be outdone in the game of paternalizing and pathologizing Germany, the French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, has gone even further in an interview with Die Zeit: “When the first waves of immigration arrived, Germany saw her chance to wipe away her historical stigma. She could finally buy her freedom from it.” This notion is particularly helpful given that not a single word of it is true.

Firstly, just the facts. When the first waves of refugees arrived and German politics, including the chancellor, were yet to wake up to the full extent of the situation, thousands of Germans had already started doing something very simple: they were giving the people who had suddenly appeared on their front lawns water and sausage sandwiches (pork-free sausages naturally). The idea that they were motivated by a historical stigma rather than simple human impulse is pure fantasy.

And when this grassroots Willkommenskultur was made an official policy by the chancellor, there were a number of things going through Angela Merkel’s head – above all, the refugees dying of thirst – but Auschwitz certainly wasn’t one of them.

Finally, buying freedom from a stigma. Those German people (hopefully the majority) who believe they have a share of the historical responsibility for the holocaust know at the same time (you learn this in school and at university but you can also figure this out through simple reflection) that those who start to think you can draw a line under the war and the Holocaust are immediately stuck in a catch-22 situation. The German people who believe they can buy their freedom from the stigma haven’t grasped it. However, those who haven’t grasped it don’t have a thorn in their soul either and, as such, don’t need to buy their freedom from the stigma.

In any case, the historical pathological argument has the weakness that it can be manipulated to serve any purpose. A few weeks before Germany, deluded by guilt, opened up her doors to the Syrian people, she had infamously conquered Europe with a kind of austerity-fascism, in which she mysteriously didn’t seem to mind being once again seen as the evil German nation. This was apparently as a result of the deeply ingrained trauma of inflation, a mere hundred years ago, which led to the rise of Hitler.

Have you lost your minds, my dear British and French Friends?! We like being a little odd but we’re not crazy. We’ve worked quite hard to deal with our history – it’s no longer an angry force in our sub-conscience but rather the result of decades of reflection, arguments, new reflections, realization and more arguments.

It might not be nice to see from the outside but it’s easy to understand: even with all the indirect lessons learned from her own history, Germany has – in the present! – had damned good experiences: the anti-authoritarian approach has improved our schools; ecological thinking has become a competitive advantage, and relatively economical at that. Federalism has helped us become fairly talented Europeans. And in recent years the German people have discovered their ability to deal with newcomers from abroad and found it to be useful. And so they consider it a real possibility that the Willkommenskultur will prove to be an investment for the future.

Yes, it’s just that simple.

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One response to “We May Be Odd But We’re Not Crazy

  1. henrylotin@rogers.com

    Very thoughtful article. There is a difference between the “guilt” of history, and the “lessons” of history. 21st C Germany is demonstrating that, as for generations now, the vast majority of Germany’s (not just leaders) instinctively seek the high moral path and make evidence-based judgements about how to respond to the suffering of others, suffering that may inconvenience the rest of us. Germany, like Canada, may have had the extra incentive of trying harder up the high road, hearing hate and fear from some other quarters. I have no hesitation looking to German political leaders for moral leadership, wishing that other political leaders would do the same.