The Ugly German Rears Its Head Why Germany Can't Shed Its Troubling Past

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.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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derelly 12/13/2012
1. Ugly German
I lived in Germany for over 2 decades and what made a huge impression on me is that Germany as a nation has spent an incredible amount of time dealing with it's ugly past, much more than any other country. People are aware of the past and question how the war and its terrors all happened. This awareness helps to keep them (hopefully) from reoccurring. It is one of the most open minded countries. Consider in comparison how Japan whitewashes the war out of school textbooks, and the British (I am British BTW) ignore the many skeletons in their collective closet. To have a national consciousness based on the feeling that you 'fought the good fight' back then, won, and that makes you immune to such issues happening in your country is a danger. At least the Germans are quick to recognize the problem quickly—how many Greeks are closing their eyes to the ethnic violence there? As the article says, it is very easy to paint Hitler moustaches on peoples pictures and thereby make cheap allusions to their activity that have nothing to do with reality.
javiersosanin 12/14/2012
2. Ugly German?
Hello! I really like this magazine, but let me tell you that I'm fed up with the way it keeps on regreting and crying for the german past. Nowadays Germany is a sinonym of success and a model country for the world. The only one who doesn't know it,is the german people. And if der Spiegel want to remember the past, it could also focus on Beethoven, Kant, or Koch (just for saying some of the greatest german genius in world history). Germany is much more than the nazis. Der Spiegel can't hide it. I'm from Argentina, and I don't even got german forefathers, but please, being proud of the own nation is not a sin. Greets!
beschwingt 12/14/2012
Zitat von sysopThe 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.
"*many* are left wondering if the ugly German is back" And who exactly is "many" supposed to be? This reminds me of FOX news quoting with "some people say..." - This is what i´d call "quality jounalism". In the heads of self-hating leftist journalsist like Dirk Kurbjuweit, the "ugly german" will always persist. Its what they live for... and from.
sandvik83 12/14/2012
Thank you for an extremely well written and thought-provoking article. The past is an extremely useful political tool, and that is why no-one will let Germany shed its history. It is usually used to push the blame for internal problems out to an external source, and Germany is an easy target in this respect. It is a remnant of the old system in Europe with wars and reparations with all the problems of the present being blamed on the past in order for men to grab or maintain power. Germany is an easy target in this respect. But not the only one. African dictators still blame all problems on their ex colonial masters. Argentina reacted to its current economic woes with a wave of "anti-britainism". Certain groups in the Middle East are convinced the christian Crusades are still going on. No country can, in this age at least, shed its past. All you can do is to distance yourself from it. A large majority of germans do not want another Reich, and as long as things are that way, there is no need for concern. Greeks will stop with the Nazi comparisons when their economy improves. Sanity will return, at least until the next crisis when Germany, unfortunately, will once again be an easy target of blame.
dyinglikeflies 12/15/2012
5. dyinglikeflies
In mentioning Gunter Grass, a "beloved" writer, and the outrage over his selective criticism of Israel and it's defense capabilities, is it not relevant to cite to Grass' having hid his past membership in the Waffen SS? Grass' behavior exhibits, in his selective, leftist outrage, a bias that possibly even he is unaware of, and a complex self hatred that in fact is not self hatred at all but indeed a narcissism and continued quest for personal redemption. He is not the only German who acts this way-which undercuts the moral authority of Germans, if they have any, to lecture Israelis on the evil of militarism.
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