Germany: nationhood as burden

BERLIN.   Filipinos and Germans are a study in contrast.  The Germans are trying to forget that they are a nation; we are trying to remember that we are.  Events — like the collapse of communism — conspire to remind them of their national identity.  Migration, the hope of many Filipinos, devalues nationality.

“I am a European,” said my young guide passionately.  Blonde, blueeyed, and tall – he towered above me like one of the Hitler youths that one sees in American war movies.  “As a German, I am ashamed of what happened during the war.  I was not yet born.  But I must share part of the guilt,” he told me as we made our way through the Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn.

He liked visiting the museum, he said, because he liked to imagine how the holocaust could have happened, and why so many decent Germans allowed it to happen.  It had disturbed him that his last memory of his grandmother was that of an old woman whose eyes sparkled with admiration whenever she talked of Hitler.  “He gave us back our pride,” he remembers her saying.

The Museum itself is ambiguous or at best open-ended in its own account of the Hitler years.  Like most war museums or peace memorials, the history that one glimpses tends to be dysfunctional – that is to say, it talks of guilt everywhere, but never assigns it.  My guide, a cultural anthropology student from Cologne, is however unequivocal in his reading of the exhibition.  He looks at the photographs of the concentration camps, and he remarks: “This is what excessive nationalism does.”

How the exhibition spoke to me was a little different.  Panel after panel showed leaders making decisions in the name of a nation.  They could not have done so if there wasn’t at least a tacit consent on the part of those for whom they spoke.  But then, weren’t the masses they misled also their victims?  And should we blame the victims?

There are no easy answers to these questions.  Theodor Adorno, that great psychologist from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, tried to analyze the character of the authoritarian personality long before Hitler had come to power.   He and his colleagues understood what was happening.  But there were not enough intellectuals who cared, and who would take the risk to provide a new understanding of the events that were quickly unfolding.

I came away from the museum convinced more than ever that intellectuals in every society, precisely because they are gifted with the power of description,  have the greater responsibility to interpret the signs of the times.  To fail to do so – to fail to communicate their understanding and to link this to the values of the human community – would be a betrayal of their function.

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Berlin, the old cosmopolitan capital, testifies to the unsinkability of German nationhood.   Parceled out along ideological lines after the war, it is now restored to its wholeness.  After 1998, it will become once again the seat of a unified Germany, taking away that function and status from the more reserved and academic Bonn.  The move seems harmless and logical.  But it is not the way some of Germany’s neighbors understand it.

The Allied powers who took over defeated Germany wanted to make sure that the spiritual base of Nazism would forever remain buried under the rubble of the war.   And that no German nation would ever again threaten its neighbors.  By saddling it with reparations obligations, they sought to sap its energy.  By dividing it into an American, a British, a French, and a Russian zone – the Allies sought to extinguish its soul.

But fifty years after the end of the war, Germany is not only back in business.  It is also today the richest country in Europe, and quite possibly the nation with the highest morale in the region.  It has taken the lead in  the European Union, relentlessly championing the realization of a single currency for Europe, to the eternal discomfort of the British.

The unification of the two Germanys has however undoubtedly resuscitated the soul of Germany.  And while one hears criticisms about the enormous amount of money being poured into the “new” federal states, it never seems to get strong enough to make a difference in policy or in the outcome of elections.    Chancellor Helmut Kohl was clever to seize the opportunity when it presented itself.  Without waiting for a carefully formulated plan to be completed, he allowed the momentum of the collapse of the Berlin wall to lead the way to an early unification.

By 1998, Helmut Kohl ends his fourth term as Chancellor of Germany, surpassing the record of the venerable Konrad Adenauer.   If he goes for a fifth term, everyone concedes he would be unbeatable. Strangely enough, like Fidel Ramos, Kohl is not what one would regard a model of political charisma.  The Social Democrats say he is no Willy Brandt.  But that is small comfort to an opposition that cannot seem to put its act together.  He just seems to be making all the right moves.  As their critics would probably put it: both men are lucky, just lucky.

A closer look at Chancellor Kohl’s enormous political success, however, would seem to suggest that there is more — he has correctly read the pulse of the German nation.


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