In an attempt to recapture the long-lost limelight, the former Waffen SS volunteer turned Germany's self-imputed anti-Nazi conscience, Gunter Grass, published a badly written poem in which he warned against German complicity in an imminent annihilation of the Iranian people by a nuclear-armed Israel.
The poem provoked expected reactions from all the usual suspects: denunciations, smear campaigns against the vain and bombastic octogenarian, and exhilaration in Iran and among anti-Semites and anti-Zionists the world over.
But one elephant remained unobserved in this crowded room: Grass' poem represents the new, ominous spirit of a resurgent Germany.
In in his controversial tome, "Hitler's Willing Executioners", the author, Daniel Goldhagen, posits that the Germans underwent a miraculous transformation in the wake of their devastating defeat in World war II. En masse, they have abandoned their centuries-old rabid, virulent, and ultimately lethal brand of anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism and became docile, altruistic citizens of the New World Order. This unlikely scenario sounds too good to be true because it is far from the truth.
In the last 9 years (starting in late 2003), I have had multiple opportunities to collaborate or hold lengthy conversations with dozens of young German scholars, intellectuals, artists, and budding politicians from across the political and ideological spectrum. As alcohol and mutual acquaintance put them at ease, they all, with one or two exceptions, reverted to shocking form.
Granted, this is far from a representative and statistically-significant sample. It may well mislead me and my readers into stereotypical generalizations. All the same, what these educated Germans in their thirties and forties had to say was both telling and ominous.
All my interlocutors paid lip service by strongly and unequivocally decrying the errant generations of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, the subtle twist was that they criticized their predecessors for having failed to subjugate Europe, not for having embarked on this inane project in the first place. They also found the Nazi methods employed in the pursuit of Deutschland uber Alles distasteful and vulgar, though not always reprehensible.
Three years ago (in 2004), I dined at length with young political activists and thank tank scholars from a renowned right-of-center foundation (Stifftung). They were well-aware that I am an Israeli and a Jew. The exchange was so disconcerting that moments after we have dispersed, I committed it to paper from still fresh memory. It is typical of conversations I have had also with German left-of-center and centrist intellectuals and professionals.
As we were discussing European Union integration, one of them, an up-and-coming politician in his party, said: "After all, Hitler was the architect of the new Europe". Prompted to elaborate, he went on to say that Hitler had a vision of a united Europe, though under Germany's thumb. "The EU is and always was a German project." - He concluded.
I begged to differ, pointing out the chasm between the German praxis of uniting a land mass by war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing and the French vision of peacefully bringing ever closer the polities that occupy the continent while preserving their integrity and identity.
"There's more to Germany than Hitler." - Commented a German political advisor bitterly - "You constantly harp on this period, but we have a rich history, you know. Germans have been dreaming of European unity for at least a hundred years."
"Who are these 'You' who constantly reduce German history to the Nazi period?" - I enquired, not innocently.
"You," - my interlocutor responded vaguely, sweeping the scenery with an expansive movement of his arm.
"Next you will say that Hitler wasn't such a bad chap after all." - My Slavic wife interjected.
A chorus of well-rehearsed protestations arose: "He was a beast!", "He was a monster!", "The Holocaust was an inexcusable crime against the entire Human Race!" and such. But, to my hypervigilant ears, these slogans sounded mechanical and hollow.
"Hitler did some pretty bad things but also a lot of good. He revived the German economy, for instance." - Reasoned a senior member of the Think Tank.
"Please don't mention the Autobahns!" - I implored him.
"Hitler was not worse than other leaders of his period, like Stalin or Mussolini."
Again I disagreed:
"You cannot compare Hitler and Stalin to any other leader in history, before or after. They were sui generis. Their paranoia-fuelled butchery was a first and hitherto a lonely case in the annals of Mankind. The question that the world is grappling with ever since is how come a nominally civilized nation like Germany gave rise to Hitler, this grotesque apparition, and then proceeded to sacrifice itself to realize his morbid and sick nightmares."
The only woman in our group, a translator, observed resentfully:
"Germans were as much victims of Hitler as the Jews. They, too, were exterminated by a murderous regime."
"The word 'exterminated' is a euphemism for murdered or killed." - I explained to my wife - "Germans cloak reality behind a veil of disorienting and distorting language. The monetary compensation they have paid to the victims of the Holocaust, the greatest sadistic mass murder in history, they call 'Wiedergutmachung', 'making it all well again, restoring'."
I turned to the fuming feminine component of the long-forgotten dinner:
"Germans were not murdered merely because they were Germans. Germans got killed because they elected a deranged idiot to office and then declared war on the rest of the world with the express intention of assassinating tens of millions of people, whole nations, in effect - which they almost succeeded to do in the case of the Jews. You were no more victims than Hitler himself."
"Outrageous!" - Hissed my counterparty - "Not all Germans were Nazis, you know! Hitler took over Germany by force and violence! The Germans didn't want the war, Hitler forced it on them!"
"It sure doesn't look like it in the newsreels that I have seen."
"Propaganda!" - The political advisor pooh-poohed my observation - "What did you expect from this gang of criminals - objective new coverage? The Germans of my grandfather's generation were caught in a trap and couldn't extricate themselves without risking their lives and property. The SS committed atrocities, but the SS was a minuscule portion of the population and was composed of good-for-nothings and ex-convicts. The Wehrmacht fought honorably. Germans suffered greatly during the war. The Allies bombed our cities indiscriminately with the express intent of causing as many civilian casualties as possible, you know. But this kind of misbehavior is not considered a war crime because it was perpetrated against Germans."
"They must have been imitating the honorable Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe which carpet-bombed Warsaw, Belgrade, and hundreds of other cities in Europe."
Moments of uneasy silence lingered and I ordered the bill.
"It's on me." - Insisted the politician - "Let me defray some of the damage we, Germans, have inflicted upon you in Auschwitz." - He grinned
"Since we are into stereotypes, please don't pay, it would be so un-Jewish of you!" - Contributed the translator.
They all burst into howls of convulsive laughter.
A few months later, I had the occasion to watch the movie "The Fall" with Bruno Ganz in the lead role. It portrays a Hitler that is human and empathic, almost likable.
The repellent conversation I had with these young Germans is only a part of a larger ominous pattern. Germans have a proven history of confusing assertiveness for malignant narcissism. Liberalism and democracy are far from being an entrenched tradition in a nation that gave the world Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler.
As Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has finally admitted recently (in August 2007), journalists and opposition members of parliament are regularly harassed by the authorities for unfavorable and investigative reporting, in defiance of the highest courts of the land. The Committee to Protect Journalists concurs. Germany's sprawling and all-pervasive civil service routinely uses red tape and regulatory powers to stifle dissent, punish adversaries of the regime, and reward cronies of the powers-that-be.
The generations of Germans that have grown up in a post Cold War and united country are again imbibing the volatile compound of victimhood and haughtiness. German historians and intellectuals are casting their compatriots as the victims of both Hitler's barbaric regime and the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Allies.
Germany aspires to a "place under the Sun" to properly reflect its economic might and geopolitical importance. But this newfound self-confidence is tainted with the contempt with which Germans hold all others: Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Turks, and assorted minorities. This disdain is well-concealed but it is there, festering. Combined with Germans' resurgent grandiosity and dreams of European domination, Germany is once again a threat to its neighbors and, above all, to itself.