Germans Can Never Escape
By Thomas Kielinger
30 May, 2004
in 1940, I have reason, as a German, to reflect on the unique facets
of a helter-skelter existence at the mercy of the 20th century. But
as the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaches, I would much rather cut
and run from what, in my carefree moments, I consider settled history
than ask probing questions about where my country stands before the
court of history. Alas, there is nowhere to hide, no peace for the wicked.
Sure enough, Gerhard Schröder will stand both tall and humble among
his peers on the Normandy beaches next Sunday, the first German leader
since the war to have been invited to join the commemorations. In one
sense, we still don't belong there, as the erstwhile adversary against
whom a whole world rose as in a crusade to defeat utterly.
In another, though,
this is exactly where we, as Germans, should be seen linking hands with
history, past and present. For D-Day symbolises better than any other
moment of the war the twin lessons hammered into our consciousness:
that the day had dawned which would ultimately lead to Germany being
both vanquished and liberated, defeated and freed, cast into despair
and resuscitated at the same time, to experience, in the words of Lincoln's
Gettysburg address, 'a new birth of freedom'.
Now this sounds
just like the happy ending that it is. But happy endings don't end there,
not in the modern world they don't. We live in an era of images and
totemic icons that emanate a perpetuity-like quality. It has still not
been properly comprehended how the availability of film and photographic
record changes our perception of history, impinging on the very notion
of what may be called 'the past' and when one can safely say of a certain
period that it has finally faded into the fog of the long-gone.
Since biblical times,
a period of 40 years was considered to be the passage of time after
which the mind could be set free to look back and say 'that's now history'.
For one thing, 40 years was about the measure of time living memory
could reasonably span; life expectancy was much lower then. For another,
man needed the delivery from the past to muster the courage to face
the tomorrow. While mindful of lessons learnt, the innocence of a new
beginning was nevertheless allowed to reassert itself.
Oh for the days
of such innocence. What sets us apart, nowadays, is not only living
memory's longer retention span - owing to increased life expectancy
- but also the perennial presence of the yesterday through countless
photographic and filmed images; it may never be allowed to become 'a
thing of the past'.
Dr Stephen Badsey,
the historical adviser to D-Day in Colour, a film to be shown next Sunday
on ITV1, told The Observer last week of his excitement at finding a
hitherto unknown colour document of the first paratroopers into Normandy.
'This is a very rare and quite extraordinarily unique piece of film,'
Badsey said. 'To have a visual record brings it so much closer.'
There lies the rub.
Closer, ever closer. My whole life I have struggled against the visual
record of the unsavoury trail Germany left during those 12 infamous
years. In fact, every generation of young Germans has this particular
handicap to live with and to live down. One is confronted with it at
every five-year-cycle of anniversaries, not to mention the 10-year sweep
which will culminate next year on the 60th anniversary of the end of
the war. Already, this D-Day commemoration reaches 20 years beyond the
old measure of the period considered to be, mercifully, a piece of history.
Why do Germans,
alone among Europeans, have such a badly stunted sense of pride about
their homeland, Goethe and Heine and Beethoven notwithstanding? It has
to do with this curse of the visual record of inhumanity perpetrated
lurking on the sidelines as if it happened only the other day. Right
up close and personal. Time and again you are hit with the compelling
presence of other people's heroism and your own country's shame, between,
say, 6 June on Normandy's beaches and 15 April 1945 when the British
army opened up Bergen-Belsen to scenes of unimaginable horror.
The footage shot
at Belsen is the first sequence of images shown as you enter the Holocaust
museum in Washington DC. There is no respite, no merciful passage of
time, no fading into the past. The emblems of good and evil are here
to stay, ever fresh before our eyes.
Yes, of course,
also the good. It has been my privilege to have lived through Germany's
postwar beginnings. The heroism of the survivor generation of Germans,
as they rebuilt from rack and ruin, I consider one of the great testimonies
of man's ability to regain, against all odds, his moral and physical
equilibrium. It is as much a triumph of good as the previous chapter
was one of evil. Read Michael Frayn's introduction to Democracy, his
play about the rise and fall of Willy Brandt, and you begin to grasp
the size of the feat which is Germany reborn as a fully fledged modern
about it I was from my earliest years. Did I see in this my own way
out from under the weight of the visual mementoes of another Germany
chasing after my peace of mind? In the mid-1960s, as a young lecturer
at the German department of University College, Cardiff, I had also
to give an extracurricular German course to an adult education class,
which I used to liven up with views exchanged about modern-day Germany.
In 1966 a right-wing
nationalist splinter party had begun to rear its ugly head, luring many
disaffected voters in regional elections. As a result, the world was
awash with anxiety about what that might portend and if Germany was
straying into her old ways. Not to worry, I used to tell my Cardiff
listeners. Do not doubt the stability of a society completely remade
under the rule of law. Warts and all - wasn't democracy the worst form
of government, as Churchill famously said, except all others?
I should not have
paraded my certitude so brazenly before an audience still full of the
vision of the Germany gone 20 years before. A number of the people left
my class in disgust at this cocksure youngster's analysis.
Amazingly - or not
so - the story repeated itself many years later, in 1990. I had been
invited to address the Royal Defence College in London about the new
Germany, with reunification only a few months away. I decided to go
after Conor Cruise O'Brien published his essay about 'The Fourth Reich',
which I did my best to deconstruct as utterly fictitious. I still remember
my punch line. 'The Germany you see before you,' so I averred, 'is evincing
the smallest national ego in its history. Rather than being concerned
about a Fourth Reich, you will soon have reason to worry about the opposite:
Germany's lack of self-confidence, a reluctance to engage in the common
effort to contain new conflicts."
The reaction of
my audience hit me like a déjà vu . The speaker must be
some kind of agent of the German government trying to spread disinformation,
some of the questions flung at me implied. Never before have we heard
such rosy-eyed rubbish. The incredulity was complete. Forty-five years
after 1945 hardly any one wanted to let go of the images, the pictures,
the visual identity of Germany of old, irrespective of the impressive
record we had scored in the meantime as a valued member of the West.
There is an uncanny
truth to our picture-riddled world. The visual record of history can
bedevil us like a deadweight constantly militating against many a valiant
effort to rebuild and make amends. For the ageless nature of filmed
history causes the natural mortality of events to be suspended and stretched
ad infinitum. One day Americans will wake up and realise the damage
the photos at Abu Ghraib prison have done to their hallowed exceptionalism;
I fervently hope it will not be a coup de grace .
As a German I have
learnt to live with the unease that comes with so much shame for ever
held aloft in its immediacy. Between Goethe's Weimar and next-door Buchenwald
there is a truce that defies all peace-making. I have learnt to understand,
too, that I wouldn't be here had it not been for what happened 60 years
ago on Normandy's beaches. Defeat and liberation, I cannot choose between
them. They will for ever be entwined.
Kielinger is the UK correspondent of the German daily Die Welt