A great many Americans, especially those of a certain age, cannot hear the German language being spoken—by anyone under any conditions—without instantly bringing to mind Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust. It’s not willed; it’s simply instinct. I share in that even as one whose name announces his German origins and who, in fact, has nothing but German forebears on all branches of the family tree as far back as anyone has been able to trace. (Though, as I mentioned last month, my parents chose not to teach their children German nor to have them regard themselves as German. As a small child during World War II, I experienced no ambivalence when with my toy gun I mercilessly mowed down Nazis by the score.) For people of my generation, the identification of Germany with the Nazi experience is ineradicable and near absolute. More than a half century after the collapse of the Third Reich, a special moral burden rests on Germany and things Germanic.
The question is, When if ever does the statute of limitations run out on that moral burden? For Nazism itself, of course, the answer is Never. There can never be anything faintly resembling a Romance of the Lost Cause for Hitler’s regime. Nor can people in Germany who were of age in those years entirely escape the burden, with the exception of those relative few who actively opposed the Nazis. One does not have to share Daniel Goldhagen’s crude moral notion that the whole German people were “willing accomplices” to Hitler’s genocidal madness to recognize the varying degrees of moral complicity not only among the Hitler enthusiasts but also among the many German citizens who merely “went along” with the Nazis and who chose not to see what they did not want to see.
The German people themselves, of course, are intensely aware of all this. The greater part of postwar German history, especially in the west, has been about coming to grips with the Nazi legacy. But the question increasingly intrudes, Does this coming to grips never have an end? There are not that many Germans left, after all, who were adults during the Third Reich. If you turned eighteen in 1933, when Hitler came to power, you are today eighty–six; even if you turned eighteen as late as 1945, when Hitler died by suicide and the Nazi regime collapsed, you are today seventy–four. The Germans alive during the Nazi years are dying off. Their successors have built a liberal democratic society that is economically dynamic and culturally vibrant. The issue is whether today’s Germans can get out from under the nation’s burden of guilt and begin to feel something like the normal patriotic pride toward their country that citizens of other nations experience.
Not surprisingly, the question divides the nation. As reported in the New York Times , Johannes Rau, Germany’s Social Democratic president, recently reiterated what has been the dominant view, at least on the left. Germans, he said, could be “glad” or “thankful” for their citizenship, but they could not feel “proud.” Conservative politicians seized on the statement. Thomas Goppel of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats, accused the president of polarizing the nation and added, “One must ask whether a president who does not have this pride can represent a country of eighty million citizens.” Lorenz Meyer, the general secretary of the Christian Democrats, has pointedly used the phrase, “I am proud to be a German.”
Some on the left have struck back. The Green Party’s Jürgen Triffin, environment minister in the Social Democratic“Green coalition government, said of the balding Mr. Meyer, “He not only looks like a skinhead, he thinks like one.” Triffin later apologized, but a number of conservatives are demanding his resignation.
The left/right division on the matter does not always hold. The Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, distanced himself from President Rau’s comment and declared himself “a German patriot who is proud of his country.” Schröder is a politician noted for his shrewd sense of public opinion and for his willingness to adjust his views to coincide with that opinion. His comments suggest, therefore, that he knows it would be a mistake for the German left to become identified as unpatriotic. Fears that expressions of patriotism would reawaken atavistic nationalist furies have decreased in recent years. Indeed, many Germans argue that suppression of healthy patriotism will only encourage reactionary nationalism. Guido Westerwelle, general secretary of the centrist Free Democrats, puts it this way: “We must not allow neo–Nazis and skinheads to define what national pride is. We democrats, from conservatives to social democrats, must show pride in our country.”
In an interesting complication, the reunification of the two Germanys has intensified calls for un apologetic expressions of patriotic pride. The Marxist rulers of the former East Germany taught their seventeen million subjects that they had no reason to feel guilt for Nazi crimes. Marxists had fought Nazis, after all, and were never part of the capitalist/fascist axis responsible for the Nazi phenomenon. East Germany, founded on Marxist principles and allied with a Soviet Union that had been the nation most responsible for Hitler’s defeat, held no taint of association with the crimes of the Third Reich. The analysis here was facile and dubious, but it apparently was persuasive. Most former East Germans do not in fact hold themselves responsible for what happened between 1933 and 1945, and feel few of the reservations their western counterparts do toward full“throated declarations of national pride.
This is, in the end, a matter for Germans themselves to sort out, but given the history of modern Germany outsiders are inevitably inclined toward nervous kibbitzing. (I remember my father once putting the matter in a way that oddly combined pride in and suspicion of his ethnic heritage: Allied control over a defeated Germany after 1945 would have to be very firm and near perpetual, he insisted, because the Germans were so immensely gifted and forceful they would otherwise soon become again the controllers of—at least—Europe.) German patriotism will always be a special case, one that requires careful watching—in the first instance from Germans themselves. After Auschwitz, Jews insist Never Again. The equivalent imperative among Germans must be, Never Forget.
That said, the advocates of patriotic pride seem to me correct. Recall the Vietnam years in America. The radical left trashed patriotism, insisting smugly that a nation characterized, past and present, by racism, sexism, and imperialism was undeserving of the love of those of refined sensibility. Who could love (how fitting the term) Amerika? (The more insufferable version of the argument was that only those who trashed America truly loved her.) Distinctions, of course, must be made: the moral equivalence with Nazism implied by “Amerika” was odious and historically ignorant. Germans suspicious of affirming their homeland have far better reasons than did those Americans.
Still, it is in the long–term interest both of Germany and her neighbors that she continue on her path to being a “normal” society, and normal citizens of normal countries feel affection for, and pride in, their nation. For many of us, the phrase “I am proud to be a German” will never be other than unsettling. But all things considered, it will be good if today’s Germans come to feel free to say it. But, at the same time, never forgetting.
James Nuechterlein is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. His writings have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including American Scholar, Review of Politics, South Atlantic Quarterly, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, National Review, and the New Criterion.