Monday, May 16, 2005

V-E Day

My wife and I were in London on V-E Day. We did not stay in town long enough to partake of any of the events commemorating the anniversary, as we had plans that took us to Belgium, but the news coverage of the V-E Day celebrations has gotten me thinking.

V-E Day is certainly a day worth observing, but there is something wrong with the tone of the British celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

I believe that the soldiers, sailors, flyers, and civilians who defeated Hitler deserve the gratitude of everyone in the world. Britain did not defeat Nazi Germany alone, but they stood virtually alone against the Nazis for exactly one year (from the fall of France on 22 June 1940 until Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941). The human capital of the Soviet Union and the economic capital of the United States were critical to the defeat of Germany, but one must also acknowledge the fortitude of the British in the tally of factors that resulted in Germany's defeat.

That said, it is time for the British to put the triumphalism of the Battle of Britain to rest. There were many noble aspects to Britain's policies during the war, but there were many less-than-noble aspects as well. The Czechs who were sold-out at Munich in 1938 didn't regard the British as heroes. The Poles who fought alongside the British for six years only to see their country sold-out to Stalin did not regard Britain or the U.S. as heroic. The millions of Jews who perished in the death camps were not saved by the Allies despite the Allies' knowledge of the atrocities being committed in those camps. The Jews who survived the Holocaust only to be denied entry to Palestine did not regard the British as heroes. The German civilians who died in the firebombing of Dresden were killed by British and American bombs.

I am not trying to run-down the British; I am only noting that no nation's history is free from shameful behavior. There are untold numbers of African, Asian, and Native American, and European civilians who were killed by the British and Americans. All societies are guilty in direct proportion to the amount of power they have wielded. As Walter Benjamin noted, "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

So how about taking a lesson from Germany? This is a country that perpetrated some of the most heinous crimes in history. They have, however, spent the last sixty years reckoning with their shameful history. And do you know what? Their efforts have largely been successful. Germany is not paradise, but it is a free, prosperous country; a country that has provided moral leadership in forums such as the United Nations and the European Union. It is perhaps the only nation in the world that has attempted to make amends for its past wrongs. Germany has made humility a central part of its foreign policy. There is something to be learned from the Germans.

Contemporary Germany is, as I have noted, not without its faults. German society has had difficulty incorporating immigrants and even the grandchildren of immigrants. Many Germans have been too proud of the "economic miracle" that brought prosperity to postwar West Germany. The generation of 1968 saw their parents as self-satisfied and complacent in their wealth and self-righteousness. Germany was just as slow to react to the atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda as other Western powers.

But Germany has not killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Or millions of Vietnamese. Germany has not brutally suppressed Chechen separatists. Germany has not crushed peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Postwar Germany has not used nerve gas against civilians.

My point here is that it is still common for Americans and Britons to mock the Germans for their Nazi past. "Vee haf ways of makink you talk," for example, is a part of our popular culture. We still expect the Germans to revert to their supposedly characteristic Nazi/Prussian/militaristic behavior. They are still on probation.

Meanwhile we (Americans and Britons) think of ourselves as virtuous peoples pursuing virtuous policies. George W. Bush and Tony Blair are nothing if not self-righteous. Those Germans can't really be trusted not to revert to their evil ways, but aren't we doing a great service to the people of Iraq?

I propose the following: Let's let the Germans off the hook for Nazism. The Nazis are almost all dead now. The present-day Germans did not commit the crimes of the Holocaust and Second World War; in fact many of them have gone to great lengths to make their country a force for good in the world. Hitler and Mengele are black marks against the German (and Austrian) people, but Petra Kelly and Willy Brandt are gold stars on the metaphorical German report card. Postwar Germany is a country to be admired for many things and it is time they got their due. And while we are at it, perhaps the people of the U.S. and the U.K. could cast a more realistic eye on our countries' past and present actions.

I am indebted to an article in Der Spiegel by Matthias Matussek for sparking many of these reflections

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