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Germany in the 20th century

“Don’t be complacent”

Genocide, world wars and two totalitarian dictatorships: German history is marked by traumas. Nonetheless, the country is today a respected and influential member of the international community. Quentin Peel is a senior foreign press correspondent in Berlin and discussed how Germany is coping with its past with Hans Dembowski.

Interview with Quentin Peel

It’s amazing that Germany has made friends with all neighbouring countries in spite of being deeply resented after World War II. Did our neighbours use European integration to civilise us?
To some extent, yes. The Federal Republic certainly had to conform with western democratic standards in this context. On the other hand, it was itself a driving force of European integration. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his successors saw this was the way to become accepted and even influential again. It obviously helped that other European leaders were equally willing to learn some lessons of disaster, pool sovereignty and engage in closer cooperation.

Before that happened, Germany lost all sovereignty and was even divided into two countries. Nazi criminals were tried in Nuremberg, and those trials established something like international criminal law. West Germany did not opt for democracy on its own, but the people certainly appreciated what I’d call our country’s second chance. Back then, our neighbours were deeply suspicious of Germany, but today nobody seems to harbour any serious doubts about our democracy.
That’s right, and I don’t think that any other country has done nearly as much to come to terms with the atrocities of its past and make sure they are not forgotten. You have the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and it is quite popular. There are numerous Jewish museums all over the country. Brass cobblestones in German streets remind people of those who lived there before they were murdered in concentration camps. No doubt, a strong sense of “never again” pervades public life.

Please give an example.
Well, when I first came here in the 60s, I was impressed by young people who travelled to Czechoslovakia to see Theresienstadt and other places of Nazi horrors. They belonged to the same post-war generation as I did, so they were not personally guilty. But they insisted that, at very least, they were responsible for making sure this kind of horror would never happen again. Much later, Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister, told me that, in his youth, he and others of his age felt their parents and teachers were all guilty, which inspired the protests and counter culture of the 60s and 70s. They thought the establishment only wanted to hush things up. In retrospect, it is amazing how public perception of the Nazi past has shifted the way the young generation back then wanted it to.

In the 1980s, Richard von Weizsäcker, who was our federal president, upset many conservative Germans by saying that 8 May 1945, the end of World War II, was a day of liberation. Today, nobody of public standing would disagree.
Exactly, and this sense of “never again” is evident in other ways too. For instance, Germans have a very healthy attitude about data security. They don’t want all sorts of institutions gathering their personal data. The attitude is rooted in the awful experience of secret services spying on citizens. Many institutions of the Federal Republic, moreover, had an in-built “never again” doctrine right from the start.

What institutions are you thinking of?
Consider the Bundesbank, your central bank, which is now a powerful member of the European Central Bank network. The Bundesbank is politically independent and always had the mandate to prevent inflation. The background is that macroeconomic instability was one of the reasons why the Weimar Republic failed. Another example is the Verfassungsgericht, the constitutional court. It is not simply a supreme court, its job is to protect the democratic post-war constitution. The point is that Germans do not take democracy for granted; they know it can be threatened from within the country. The Verfassungsgericht, moreover, was given the mandate to purge existing laws of Nazi legislation, so it can find existing legislation unconstitutional and void.

Is that a model for other countries that emerge from political disasters?
Yes, it is to a considerable extent. Russia would probably be a less troubled place today if Mikhail Gorbachev had not only introduced glasnost – transparency – but had also managed to establish some kind of Verfassungsgericht to ensure that policy­makers adhere to democratic principles. The Russian judiciary, however, needs to be reformed from top to bottom. Its entire system is politicised. The problem in Germany today, however, is that you stick to your rules, and struggle to not change the rules even when they do not suit the times anymore. To other Euro­peans, it is bewildering just how important the Bundesbank and the Verfassungsgericht are in the current Euro crisis. Germans seem obsessed with only discussing their beloved rules on public debt, but they shy from considering macroeconomic imbalances, for which there are no rules, though they have also contributed to the crisis. Germany benefited tremendously from exporting to other EU members and, by lending capital to the wrong debtors in some countries, German banks actually caused some of the debt problems there. In any case, Germany sometimes finds it hard to adapt to a changing world because of its insistence on rules and procedures. Such insistence is healthy in prin­ciple, but must not be over-done.

Many Germans feel uncomfortable about European Monetary Union, but nonetheless, there is no Eurosceptic party of relevance. Why do we differ from our neighbours in that respect?
I think Germans understand that the EU really has been good for your country. In the Netherlands, a populist like Geert Wilders can win votes by being xenophobic and Eurosceptic at once, but most Germans would think, no, he sounds like a Nazi, we don’t want that to happen again.

But there are still Nazis, and one Nazi party is even represented in two east German legislatures.
Yes, but right wing radicals are much stronger in other countries. That said, German re-unification has not been easy, and it is not finished yet. There still is a lot of frustration, especially among young people, and they need prospects for a better future in east Germany. Some find Nazi ideology appealing, romanticising pre-Christian Germanic tribes, worshiping nature and believing in an aggressive doctrine of the survival of the fittest. And the problem is not simply alienated youngsters, but rather that ordinary people in some areas find such Nazi attitudes acceptable.

But the Socialist regime of the former DDR was always proudly anti-fascist.
Of course it was, but that stance was cynical. They never actually confronted the past. All one had to do was to say “I’m a good socialist now”, and everything was okay.

A lot has happened to tackle Soviet-era totalitarianism. The former headquarters of the Stasi, the secret police, is now museum. The Stasi files are managed by a special government agency and those who were oppressed have access to the documents. Even the regime’s party has reorganised and is now part of the Left party. It seems we have dealt with east Germany’s Stasi past, but not its Nazi past.
Well, as I said, re-unification is unfinished business. And in a way that is actually quite healthy, because it does not allow Germany to decide to forget about the past and be complacent.

But doesn’t the fact that three Nazi terrorists could commit a series of murders in recent years without being detected prove that German state agencies don’t take right wing radicalism seriously?
That is true of some people in the secret service, but certainly not of state agencies in general. And it is a good thing that the secret service is now being shaken up. I have great faith in German democracy.

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