Monday 18 November 2019

Declan Lynch: War guilt gives way to immense power

Many of us have failed to notice a discreet but distinct change in the German demeanour, writes Declan Lynch

At some point in recent history it seems that Germany stopped feeling guilty about destroying the world.

There was no announcement of this, no official statement that Germany no longer deems it appropriate to have a guilty conscience about the Second World War, and as for the First World War ... we'll just draw a discreet veil.

Indeed, it all seems to have happened so discreetly it has gone almost unnoticed, even by the sort of people who are supposed to be noticing these things -- journalists, historians, the citizens of Poland.

But if you think about it at all, you realise that there is something fundamentally different about the way that Germany is conducting itself in the world now, and the way it used to be.

For as long as I can remember, Germany has been deeply aware of its appalling burden of guilt. Before Merkel, who was born in 1954, its leaders had been witnesses to the War, and would spend much of their time trying to reassure us that that was all over now. The rest of their time would be devoted to making money.

And they did both of these things very well. In fact they were so good at being good Germans, they could somehow appear at once abjectly humble and immensely powerful, an extremely difficult trick

which they performed with a sort of genius.

And the larger structure of the EU seemed to clarify that genius, reassuring us that anything left over after another highly industrious day on the Ruhr might be used for benign purposes -- say, to build a library in Mayo -- rather than creating a Fourth Reich. Indeed, the absence of a vast army meant that they were already making a profit from their guilt alone.

Now we no longer perceive this great and totally justified sense of guilt. We perceive only the immense power.

It seems astonishing, for example, that in Germany's recent relations with Greece, at no point in the proceedings has a voice been raised to suggest that the Greeks may indeed be wastrels by comparison with the Germans, but within living memory Greece was destroyed by the same Germans, or at least by their fathers. Maybe that entitles them to a few long lunches?

In fact, maybe that even entitles them to a free lunch, on Germany, for a period of, say, 50 years, or 100 years, or maybe even for 1,000 years. With a good bottle of red on the side.

Then again perhaps this perception of a new guilt-free Germany is partly just a matter of the individual personality of Angela Merkel, who along with Nicolas Sarkozy, Jose Manuel Barroso and Jean-Claude Trichet is just one of a deeply horrible set of people who seem to have arrived all at once to take Europe down the road to perdition.

Wherever it's coming from, these days we would hardly recognise the Harry Enfield character Jurgen, the massively apologetic German. We would recognise only the Jurgen who eventually reveals that he is not so apologetic after all.

And perhaps the widespread failure to notice this distinct change in the German demeanour is also due to the current dominance of economics in our lives. It is so limited, and its practitioners inhabit such a shallow and a shrunken place, perhaps they don't mention the War because they really can't address anything that happened in human history before the collapse of Bear Sterns.

Which is not to suggest that Germany shouldn't be able to move on, to draw a line under it, to let it go.

We might compare post-war Germany to an alcoholic who entered a rigorous programme of recovery, who has not been found wanting in any aspect of it, and who is now indeed ready to move on. Even for Germany, the process of alcoholic atonement, as it were, must come to an end at some stage.

That is how it works, and that is perfectly fine ... as long as the alcoholic in question has no plans to start drinking again.

Despite its present mood of intolerance and even aggression, it would seem that Germany is still sober, so to speak. For now, there are no suggestions of a return to the old regime of a bottle of whiskey for breakfast, a long day boozing in the bierkellers, and then cracking on into Poland. So to speak.

But here and there, you get the impression that there are some in Germany who feel that it might just be OK now to have a glass of wine with a meal.

Sunday Independent

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