German Identity, Long Dormant, Reasserts Itself
The New York Times (Link) - Nicholas Kulish (September 10, 2010)
As a youth in the 1950s, the film director Volker Schl�ndorff tried to hide his German origins by learning to speak unaccented French. This summer, his daughter painted German flags on her cheeks and joined crowds of thousands on the Kurf�rstendamm, a historic avenue, waving their black, red and gold banners to celebrate the country�s World Cup victories.
Elena Schl�ndorff confessed that she never watched her father�s Academy Award-winning adaptation of �The Tin Drum,� G�nter Grass�s World War II epic, until a new director�s cut was released earlier this year. She had little interest in the Nazi era. �I don�t really feel touched by it,� said Ms. Schl�ndorff, 18, with a teenage shrug. �In our generation, we�ve gotten past it.�
Twenty years after reunification, Germany has come to terms with itself in a way that the postwar generation proclaimed would never be possible and Ms. Schl�ndorff�s post-Berlin Wall generation finds completely natural.
The shift is evident on the airwaves, where German songs are staging a comeback against the dominance of American pop, and in best sellers about Goethe and Schiller or in discovering Germany by foot, by car and by train from the Bavarian Alps to the old Hanseatic ports on the Baltic Sea.
In Parliament, politicians have debated ending conscription, threatening the post-Nazi ideal of an army of ordinary citizens, as German soldiers fight in Afghanistan. Despite fears of rising income inequality, Germany�s economic engine is humming and unemployment has fallen significantly in the former East Germany.
And Chancellor Angela Merkel has led a bloc of countries fending off President Obama�s calls for stimulus spending to combat the economic crisis, certain that the world should follow Germany�s example of austerity.
German pride did not die after the country�s defeat in World War II. Instead, like Sleeping Beauty in the Brothers Grimm version of the folk tale, it only fell into a deep slumber. The country has now awakened, ready to celebrate its economic ingenuity, its cultural treasures and the unsullied stretches of its history.
As Germany embarks on this journey of self-discovery, the question is whether it will leave behind a European project which was built in no small measure on the nation�s postwar guilt and on its pocketbook.
�Maybe it�s our time again,� said Catherine Mendle, 25, a school social worker strolling the grounds and halls of the square glass and concrete Chancellery building on a recent afternoon as part of a government open house. A military band played in the background, and Mrs. Merkel signed autographs for curious visitors.
�We have this extreme helper syndrome, to try to make the world love us again, and it�s completely overdone,� Ms. Mendle said. Germany, she said, had been reduced to simple stereotypes � Oktoberfest, auto factories, the Holocaust. Its rich traditions in music and literature, and its enduring emphasis on social welfare and a strong commitment to the environment, deserve more respect abroad and at home, Ms. Mendle said.
When Mr. Grass�s latest book came out in August, it was not the sort of recapitulation of Nazi crimes that made the Nobel Prize-winning writer world famous, but a �declaration of love,� as the subtitle states, to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm�s collection of German words into an unfinished dictionary.
�There is a lust to explore our contribution to world culture in Germany right now,� said Matthias Matussek, a journalist for the magazine Der Spiegel and author of a book exploring reasons Germans could be proud. His book generated significant controversy when it appeared in 2006 and now would be �just one of dozens on the shelf,� Mr. Matussek said.
In ways large and small Germany is flexing its muscles and reasserting a long-repressed national pride. Dozens of recent interviews across the country, with workers and businessmen, politicians and homemakers, artists and intellectuals, found a country more at ease with itself and its symbols, like its flag and its national anthem � a people still aware of their country�s history, but less willing to let it dictate their actions.
Concerns and Cautions
The change has not been universally welcomed, even in Germany. It has led to unusual scenes, such as antinationalist German leftists twice tearing down a more than 50-foot German flag that Lebanese immigrants had draped down the front of a building in the Berlin neighborhood of Neuk�lln this summer during the World Cup, when a soccer team full of immigrants� children captivated the country.
There are fears of emerging (or resurgent) chauvinism, seen recently in broadsides against Muslims by Thilo Sarrazin, who is stepping down from the board of the German central bank, after publishing a divisive best seller saying that Muslim immigrants are draining the social-welfare state and reproducing faster than ethnic Germans.
Diplomats and politicians have voiced rising concern over Germany�s direction in recent years, whether in striking a contentious gas-pipeline deal with Russia or blocking NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.
The leading philosopher J�rgen Habermas warned recently that Germany had become a �self-absorbed colossus.� The financier George Soros said this summer in a speech in Berlin that the government was �endangering the European Union� with its economic policies.
Germans, most of whose salaries and standard of living have not improved as the economy has strengthened, are more disenchanted than ever with the financial demands of the European Union. Questions about Germany�s commitment to the bloc found renewed urgency during the Greek debt crisis, which had threatened the stability of the euro, but signs had emerged well before that.
In the rush to pass the Lisbon Treaty, an accord intended to increase the European Union�s political and foreign policy powers, Germany�s Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe declared in June 2009 that the country�s constitutional identity �is not open to integration� and that the public perception of politics remained connected �to patterns of identification related to the nation-state, language, history and culture.�
While the court approved the treaty with several conditions, the strident tone of the decision was cause for alarm among supporters in Berlin and Brussels of a more unified Europe. A confidential analysis prepared for the president of the European Parliament said that the decision meant �this far and no further� for European integration.
The resistance to new demands partly reflects the transformation Germany has undergone in recent years. The country fused a dynamic economy in the West with a bankrupt one in the East. Germans were forced to realize that foreign guest workers were never going home � one-fifth of its residents are now immigrants or of immigrant background. The return of the capital to Berlin and the construction of a national Holocaust memorial stirred the nation�s darkest memories.
�It�s not like the 1930s, where the jackboots are going to be stomping into other countries,� said William M. Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany. �But having moved the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, there has been a profound psychological change, shifting the center of gravity to the east, with Germany thinking more like a Central European power.�
Concern about a more independent-minded Germany surfaced before the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989. Partly to dispel such fears, the political elites of the day, such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl, actually accelerated Germany�s commitment to its neighbors, helping the European Union expand eastward and create a common currency.
Germans were not eager to give up their beloved Deutsche mark at the time. Their reluctance has only grown as Germany has been called on to help bail out Greece and perhaps other European countries that have mismanaged their fiscal affairs. While European partners see Germany as a powerhouse of productivity with enviable, competitive export companies, the debate over the future here centers on an aging, shrinking population and the rising deficits that a smaller, older population will have to pay off.
In particular, the country�s municipal governments are heavily indebted. A recent study found that one in every 10 museums or other cultural institutions may be forced to close by 2020, as public funding is cut back.
�The crisis woke people up and led them to ask critical questions,� said Ulla R�bke, 65, a Bavarian homemaker. �We can�t support other countries when we have so many debts of our own.�
When France�s economic minister suggested earlier this year that Germany could try to promote consumer spending to support its struggling neighbors, her German counterpart shot back that countries that had lived �beyond their means� should not �point the finger.� Another leading conservative politician declared that �jealousy cannot be a factor in politics between European neighbors.�
A significant generational shift has taken place as the World War II generation has been dying off. For younger Germans, war in Europe is no longer a palpable memory or a tangible fear. In Mrs. Merkel�s cabinet today, only one minister was born before the end of the war. Three were born in the 1970s.
As head of the youth organization of Mrs. Merkel�s party, Philipp Missfelder, 31, is a leading member of the rising generation of German politicians. In an interview last week, he named not France or Poland but China and its neighbors as the most important countries for Germany�s future, and lamented that the European Union required so many summit meetings that Mrs. Merkel �barely has the chance� to take longer trips to East Asia to build up ties there.
Mr. Missfelder said the broader change in national pride was on display on a recent visit to a kindergarten where the children sang the national anthem, which �never would have happened� when he was growing up. But that confidence did not extend to the country�s future, because the German public was concerned about debt and rising inequality at home.
�People are afraid; the economy is booming but the wages aren�t rising,� Mr. Missfelder said, even though in the fall workers will have to start paying more for their health care. �The participation in prosperity is smaller.�
Need Amid Plenty
With its busy container port and noble lakefront properties, Hamburg is home to the highest proportion of millionaires in Germany. But there, in a basement cluttered with unused street signs, Horst and Angelika Matzen hand out donated computers to welfare recipients. On a recent afternoon a mother and her 6-year-old son picked one out, as did a former carpenter who had sawed off his left index finger in a work accident and was in the midst of retraining.
�The better our undertaking goes, the more it shows that father state isn�t taking care of people,� said Mr. Matzen, 58, who with his white beard looks the part for his role as Santa Claus. He and his wife know the hardship faced by their beneficiaries, because they are also living on the welfare system.
Mrs. Matzen, 53, worked for 33 years as an architectural draftswoman but said she faced age discrimination in her search for a new job. �There are a lot of forgotten people in this country.�
The fraying of the safety net troubles Germans deeply, in part because it is so deeply embedded in the country�s culture. The roots of their welfare state stretch all the way back to the 1880s, when under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany introduced health insurance, accident insurance and old-age and invalid pensions.
The number of people on the welfare program known as Hartz IV has remained stubbornly stuck at around 6.7 million people out of a population of 82 million. New jobs are lower paying and less secure. A study released in July found that the number of low-wage workers in Germany rose consistently from 1998 to 2008, to 6.6 million from 4.3 million. The number of temporary workers, just over 100,000 at the beginning of 1990, peaked at over 800,000 before the financial crisis.
German taxpayers already had to bear the burden of reunification, with the country spending by some estimates $2 trillion to rebuild East Germany. The fruits of that nation-building at home are increasingly visible, not just in the renovated splendors of historic cities like Leipzig and Dresden, but in the long moribund job market. From a high of 20.8 percent in February 2005, unemployment in the former East Germany fell to 11.5 percent by August 2010.
Before 1989, Tino Petsch was a disc jockey in Karl-Marx-Stadt, creating light shows for his performances on his domestically produced KC 85/3 personal computer. Today the city has returned to its historic name of Chemnitz, and Mr. Petsch, 43, is the chief executive of his own high-tech company there, 3D-Micromac, producing work stations for laser-micromachining.
�I see as many differences between North and South as I do between East and West,� said Mr. Petsch, who finds discussions of reunification 20 years after the fact pass�. Germany enjoys a stellar reputation among businessmen in growing markets like India, China or Brazil, which prize �made in Germany� and Beethoven but do not share Europe�s memories of the war. �When I�m overseas, I hear all the time that we should take more pride in our nation,� he said.
That process is gaining speed. The railway company Deutsche Bahn promised earlier this year to change its signs after a former school principal complained to his local member of Parliament about the use of English-language terms like �hot line,� �service point� and �kiss and ride.� Between 2000 and 2009, the share of German-produced acts in the Top 100 album charts rose to 36.7 percent from 19.5 percent.
Despite the uproar over integration, the country celebrated as one over its soccer team�s surprise success this past summer. The players� ethnic backgrounds spanned from Brazil to Poland to Tunisia, including the young German star Mesut �zil, whose family comes from Turkey, Germany�s largest source of immigrants.
�I told my Turkish barber that I thought Argentina was going to beat Germany,� said Shayan Parvand, 35, a Hamburg businessman and one of the 16 million people in Germany with what is known here as a migration background. �He got really mad at me, and said, ��zil is going to shoot a goal.� �
Mr. Parvand�s family could well represent the proud but complex new Germany. He was born in Iran and his wife grew up in the former East; they have a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
�I said to my wife recently that I�d like to build a house,� Mr. Parvand said, �and get one of those German flags to go with it.�