It’s a pity that the Nobel Peace Prize did not go to one of the bookies’ favourites, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her compassion in welcoming Syrian refugees. It would have been like a balm to the sores that have festered in German minds over the decades since World War II, a small counterweight to the shame uncovered with the liberation of concentration camps in 1945.
A memorable quote from the 1980s classic Yes, Minister has the slippery British bureaucrat Humphrey Appleby explaining to his minister why the Germans wanted to be part of the European Community. “They went in to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race,” he says.
That’s a casually caustic way of framing the weight of guilt several Germans felt and still feel for what their grandparents did in World War II. It’s a memory that refuses to go away: Many of that generation were involved in the butchery of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. And many more, in the eyes of the outside world and their own descendants, were complicit in the murder by keeping quiet.
I spent four years in Germany starting a decade ago, and the N-word (psst: it stands for Nazi) hung in the air like a perpetual cloud that threatened to obscure the Frankfurt sunshine. German friends who even broached the subject were in a perpetual state of apology for something that had happened 60 years earlier, as if they had personal responsibility.
One colleague volunteered that his grandfather had commanded a band of slave labourers in the war years. Another bemoaned the fact, when I tried to politely gloss over the years 1939-45, that Germany wouldn’t live down its crimes for the next 150 years.
Everywhere, amid the prosperity, were reminders of a past that the nation wished fervently had never happened. Tiny stone tablets commemorating Jewish citizens murdered in the holocaust. Grand buildings in the Nazi style that would have been the toast of town if not for the opprobrium attached to the men who constructed them. And the chequered history of German companies – some had produced poison gas, some used slave labour, some had had Nazi founders.
Foreigners could be cruel. The British, a nation with altogether prouder war memories, would lose no opportunity to rub in war guilt. But they weren’t the only ones. An Indian friend would yell: “What are you doing, you Nazi!” on the rare occasion when a local driver would behave in a less than decorous manner on the autobahn. It was almost painful to watch.
To their credit, the Germans never made an attempt to run away from their guilt, and faced it head on. To a foreigner it almost looked like they were overdoing it. But to appreciate them, one needs to view their behaviour in the context of history’s other aggressors, some of whom are still proud of their ancestors’ murderous ways.
No German could ever be nationalistic in public, no remark even vaguely dismissive of the horrors of WWII would be tolerated, no criticism of Israel brooked. A successful hosting of the football World Cup in 2006 allowed a little national pride to bubble to the surface, probably quickly dispelled. A superb World Cup win eight years later would have been harder to downplay.
Even when the German stepped up to the plate and led a rescue of Greece, the current EU basket case, they won few friends. Here was admirably austere and hardworking Germany pushing for a helping hand to notoriously dissolute Greece. Merkel came across as strong but preachy, and resentment, not gratitude was the dominant emotion among the recipients of the help.
Why Merkel’s helping hand to the Syrian refugees was different in that it was a grand humanitarian gesture, and one that truly won leadership for the Germans in Europe (even if some of her countrymen oppose the generosity). A pity about the Nobel, but then, virtue is its own reward.