Germany's road to redemption
MUNICH — Of the 4 million Syrian men, women and children who have fled their country, the Obama administration wants the United States to take in 10,000 over the next year. Britain has promised that it will revise its policy and resettle up to 20,000 Syrians over the next five years. And then there is Germany, where an estimated 800,000 asylum-seekers from Syria and other countries will arrive this year alone — more than in all of Europe last year.
You would think that German generosity would spur other countries to emulate or at least thank and praise it. Not quite. Some European politicians have been quick to criticize Germany for violating European Union rules, for creating a magnet that will attract more refugees and for increasing the risk of jihadi infiltration. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, “The problem is not a European problem. The problem is a German problem.” Marine Le Pen, France’s populist leader, said at a meeting of her party that “Germany probably thinks its population is moribund, and it is probably seeking to lower wages and continue to recruit slaves through mass immigration.” It was almost certainly a deliberate, sly reference to the Nazi policy of forced labor during World War II.
Europe is under stress on many fronts, and politicians have found an easy way to deflect the blame: Conjure up the ghosts of the Nazis. Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading magazine, reported that “Nazi symbols have become de rigueur at anti-austerity demonstrations,” pointing to posters and caricatures — some with Chancellor Angela Merkel turned into a Hitler look-alike — at rallies in Poland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and, of course, Greece.
During the debt negotiations, the Greek government approved a propaganda video that played in public transportation in Athens. The video included footage of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Greece with text that read, “We claim what Germany owes us.” Newspapers in Greece routinely compared Germany’s positions on its debt restructuring to Nazi policies.
In a recent Italian book titled “The Fourth Reich: How Germany Subdued Europe,” authors Gennaro Sangiuliano, the deputy head of news for the state-run television station Rai, and fellow journalist Vittorio Feltri argue that this time, the mechanism for subjugation is not tank divisions but the euro.
Now, one can disagree with certain German policies — the emphasis on austerity, for example. But it’s shameful to stoke up old hatreds that have no basis in today’s world. Modern Germany has tried as hard as any nation ever has to repent for its past. It has paid out hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations and foreign aid. Its culture is steeped in the memory of its misdeeds, with memorials, museums and monuments marking the most gruesome chapter of Germany’s history. On the grounds of the former Nazi headquarters in Munich, a new Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism provides a detailed, brutally honest history of the rise of Nazism.
Germany’s migration policies are part of its effort to overcome its past. After World War II, West Germany accepted 13 million people from Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, it took in half a million people displaced by the Balkan wars. Were Germany merely trying to address the demographic challenges brought by its shrinking population, it could simply expand its immigration quotas and take in more skilled immigrants from Asia, who would be much cheaper to absorb.
“I was born in 1957,” Kurt Kister, the editor of Munich’s leading newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, told me. “For my generation, the key was to do everything that was the opposite of the Third Reich. That was our goal. We were very comfortable being a passive, commercial, Americanized country with no power or ambition. But the world has changed. The role of Germany has changed. We are a great power but a reluctant one. People resent our power. I understand that. We resent our own power, too, in many ways.”
I asked him whether these anti-German posters and campaigns enrage him. His response was striking: “Well, I don’t like them at all. But we shouldn’t run away from our past. We did try to conquer Europe. We should always remember that.
Nothing can erase the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. But modern Germany is the most powerful example of the idea that people can change, cultures can change, and that over time, redemption is possible.
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group