SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

12/13/2012 05:11 PM

The Ugly German Rears Its Head

Why Germany Can't Shed Its Troubling Past

An Essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit

The 2006 World Cup in Germany seemed like a fairy tale come true for the country. Suddenly, years of troubling history seemed to lift amidst euphoria over the cosmopolitan twist fate had brought to the country. But this year, amid fresh debates over xenophobia, many are left wondering if the ugly German is back.

How splendid we were in 2006. The world liked us, even loved us, because we were so good at exuberantly letting our hair down. The Germans danced to celebrate the football World Cup they were hosting, and almost everyone was pleased to join the party. Sixty years after World War II and the Holocaust, the nation of perpetrators seemed to have come out from under its depression, and the world seemed prepared to take these Germans into its heart.

Now we seem ugly again. When the Greeks or the Spaniards protest against the supposed dictate of the Germans in euro policy, some of their posters depict Nazi motifs. When America author Tuvia Tenenbom recently traveled through Germany, he discovered plenty of anti-Semitism. His book, recently published in German, has triggered an intense discussion. We're back where we didn't want to be, caught in the spell of a Nazi past, one that also dominates the present.

But we don't even need the opinions of others to bring us to this conclusion. What were our big issues in 2012?

In April, author Günter Grass wrote a poem that was so sharply critical of Israel that the Nobel laureate came under the suspicion of being anti-Semitic. A few members of the Pirate Party sounded so naïve when they talked about the Nazis as to create the impression that they had understood nothing about Germany's past. Germans spent half the summer debating whether Nadja Drygalla, whose boyfriend was a member of a neo-Nazi group, should be allowed to compete in the London Olympics as part of the German women's rowing eight team. The other half of the summer was dominated by the debate over whether a Russian opera singer with a swastika tattoo should be allowed to sing at the Bayreuth Festival. In late August, several media organizations, including SPIEGEL, reported that neo-Nazis had infiltrated a neighborhood in the western German city of Dortmund, and that they had even established a presence in the fan section of the city's football club, Borussia Dortmund.

Throughout the year, we read news reports on the upcoming trial of a presumed member and supporter of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right terrorist group believed responsible for the murder of nine men of immigrant origin and a policewoman. Many of the reports addressed mistakes made by the authorities. Another ongoing story was the question of whether the interior ministers of the German states plan to launch a new case to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).

Is There Anything Left To Be Happy About?

Wow! Now that's quite a lot to process. When we look back at the media reports of 2012, there is much about this year that hints at the country's Nazi past. And there doesn't seem to be anything left of the happy, cosmopolitan Germany of 2006, nor of the exciting summer of 2010, when a young German team thrilled the world with its coltish and offensive approach to football at the World Cup in South Africa. Many of the players were children of immigrants, and Germany came across as a relaxed, multicultural nation.

Well, what's so important about football, one might ask? The answer is that it does indeed play a big role in shaping the image a country projects internationally. Without its footballers, Brazil would not be seen as a nation of lightness and ease. In 2010, it was the Germans who showed the world what beautiful football was all about. No one begrudged them their victories, which isn't really the case most of the time. Those were our golden days.

At the end of 2012, it seems as if we were the gloomy Germans once again, the Germans who either cannot or don't want to shed their horrific past. It seems that it's time for us to adjust our self-image once again.

The first realization of this year is that the others won't allow us to shake off our past. Angry Greeks don't need Grass, the NSU or Drygalla's boyfriend to be reminded of the Nazis. The horrors of the Nazi occupation are still burned into the collective memory. There are times when this is irrelevant, but the economic crisis isn't one of those times. No one in Greece wants to be told what to do by Germans anymore.

Of course, history is also being exploited here. In reality, Chancellor Angela Merkel's actions aren't all that rigid and merciless, and calling her a new Hitler is quite a stretch. In the end, she is consistently committed to helping the Greeks. For those wanting to portray her as especially hideous, the job is a relatively easy one -- all people have to do is add a swastika armband or a Hitler moustache to a photo or drawing of the chancellor to convince everyone of how evil this women supposedly is, and of what a terrible position her victims are in.

The Nazis are also useful. For some people in other countries, they are part of a story to which people can relate, which is why it is repeated again and again. When Hollywood shows an interest in Germany, it's usually in the Nazi era. Quentin Tarantino shot the dark Nazi comedy "Inglourious Basterds," and Tom Cruise portrayed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the film "Valkyrie". Modern-day Germany is too boring for Hollywood. When Germans are needed on a Hollywood set, it's as Nazis or their opponents. Anti-Semitic Germans also make for a promising narrative for author Tenenbom.

The True Scandal

We can celebrate as exuberantly as we wish, and we can play football as magnificently as we sometimes do, and yet the Nazi story will be with us for a long time to come. The reality is that there is hardly anything that interests the Germans as much about themselves as their relationship to the Hitler era. This is borne out by the great debates of the year: Grass, Drygalla, the NSU and Bayreuth. But it seems almost ridiculous for half the country to obsess over whether a young woman with a questionable boyfriend should be allowed to row for Germany. Do we have nothing better to do?

As lively as these debates are, they have also been repeated ad nauseum. Why all this constant rehashing of Hitler and the past, some ask? But it's really about the present. Hitler isn't the problem. The problem is our society.

The scandal isn't that Nadja Drygalla was part of the German rowing team. The scandal is that young Germans in the 21st century feel the need to be neo-Nazis. The scandal is that neo-Nazis now dominate a neighborhood in the Ruhr region, a region that, ironically enough, was long proud of its capacity to integrate different ethnic groups. The scandal is that for years a terrorist group was able to pass undetected as it shot and killed people from immigrant communities, and that some public servants couldn't or wouldn't see what monstrosities were taking place in Germany.

Does it happen elsewhere? Of course it does. Other countries, like Hungary, the Netherlands, France and Denmark, even have radical right-wing parties represented in their national parliaments. Does that mean it isn't really all that bad in Germany? No, it is. Even after almost 70 years, it does make a difference whether an act of xenophobia happens in Germany or in Spain. We remain a special case, because Hitler is one of us.

I recently met a man named Noah Klieger, and the circumstances were as follows: He is a Jew from Israel who managed to survive Auschwitz by claiming he was a boxer, which meant that he received larger food rations for being in exhibition bouts. I am a German whose grandfather was in the SA. I don't know what he did, because he didn't talk about it. Our family has a document, a piece of paper from the SA's personnel files, on which are printed three words that I have trouble associating with my Opa, who I remember as a thin, quiet and kind man. I loved him. The words on the piece of paper are: "Good for brawls."

When I spoke with Klieger, I thought about the fact that my grandfather didn't want people like him to be alive. My grandfather had no objection to all of the Jews being exterminated, and perhaps he even participated. I didn't mention this to Klieger, because I wasn't the subject of our conversation, and because such a confession would have seemed strange to me. But Klieger could certainly imagine that my deceased relatives must have at least tolerated the extermination of the Jews. The same applies to most Germans he encounters.

That's why no one wanted to accept the possibility of a normal relationship developing between Germans and Israelis that's identical to the normal relationship between Spaniards and Israelis. It's why Günter Grass was so off the mark with his poem directed against Israeli policy. Of course Germans can criticize Israel, and I too cannot endorse the Netanyahu government's settlement policy. But I think that we have to find a special tone, and that we can't argue without taking history into account. Grass, a man of words, wasn't able to find this tone.

A Shadow that Constantly Regenerates Itself

Here is another realization of 2012: The Germans lack a suitable approach to questions surrounding these issues. It was awkward, the way German sports officials dealt with Drygalla. They were so afraid that they would do something wrong that they kept pressuring the woman until she finally decided to go home. In the NSU case, on the other hand, the authorities were so negligent and careless that five senior members of the domestic intelligence agency have since resigned. And then there are the foolish words of some members of the Pirate Party, which sometimes were not the product of a right-wing extremist mindset but rather of an idiotic thoughtlessness in dealing with German history.

For Germany, all of this means that it isn't possible to shake off the shadow of the Nazi years, because people in other countries have a need or a desire to continue remembering the atrocities. It isn't possible, because the shadow is constantly regenerating itself, and because the history of xenophobia is more far-reaching, and German xenophobia seems different from its Spanish or British versions.

An Accurate Image of Germany Today

In fact, shaking off this shadow isn't even desirable. All nations live with their history and in their history. Being a Spaniard means having internalized Spain's history. The sum of our memories coalesces into a mentality. Engagement with the past helps people understand themselves and makes life interesting. If done well, it protects us from the mistakes that were made in the past.

In the 1950s, the Germans largely refused to accept the malignant part of their history, both in West Germany and East Germany. In the late 1960s, an alarmist attitude developed as a reaction. Then references to the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust became part of a totality, extending to almost all aspects of life. Many were obsessed with a constant fear that it could happen again. Extreme left-wing terrorists fought the nation of then Chancellor Willy Brandt, which sought to expand democracy, calling it pre-fascist. It was absurd and idiotic.

We shouldn't be thinking in terms of totality but parallelism. Sometimes we address our history and its aura in the present, and sometimes we don't. Then we celebrate, or we work, or we do whatever we need to do. This works, of course. There are times when my grandfather feels like a heavy burden to me, when I ask myself what he did and why, and if any of it is still part of me. But those times are temporary; I don't go through life feeling despondent.

No one expects us to. Berlin, once the center of Hitler's demonic Reich, is now the capital of party life, one of the world's top destinations for young people looking for fun. They come flying in on weekends and go dancing with happy-go-lucky Germans at famous clubs like the Berghain or the Kater Holzig. Unfortunately, their travel guides tell them that if they happen to be dark-skinned, they should be careful in some neighborhoods. They experience the relaxed nature of everyday life in the popular Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg districts, and perhaps some of them find the time to visit the Holocaust Memorial. When they fly home, they take along an accurate picture of Germany today.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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