The Never-Ending Third Reich and The Sado-masochism of Anglo-German Relations

Although born in Düsseldorf, one of Germany's larger cities and incidentally the location of Germany's westernmost international airport of any note, I went to university and have worked in Britain for over twenty years. By now I am accustomed to and enamoured by many things British. There are just as many others, which I shall never understand. One was brought home to me during a recent telephone conversation with a Canadian friend of Scottish ancestry, who was on travelling via London to Edinburgh for his grandmother’s 105th birthday. I enquired as to how his grandmother was doing. My friend responded that she was doing fine but that her general alertness had been rather clouded of late by a sudden onset of acute Germanophobia. “You know, Andrew”, she apparently confessed during one of their recent telephone conversations, “I am terribly worried about those Germans. I am so worried ‘about our boys’.” The grandmother, of course, spent all her life in Scotland, never fought in or visited a theatre of war, married a man too young to serve in World War I and too well qualified to serve on the frontline during World War II, never suffered any bombing by the Luftwaffe, and to my friend’s knowledge none of her close relatives died or were seriously injured in either war. “Maybe I will find out more about these fears,” Andrew said, “if, that is, she’ll back from the trenches.”

World War II ended more than 65 years ago and most of the remaining war veterans will die in the next ten years. British society has undergone considerable social and economic change in the last thirty years. Such change, many agree, has not been uniformly for the best. British hostility to Germany, by contrast, appears timeless and unchanging. To many it seems to offer all the comforts of an old certainty. My friend’s grandmother, despite her years, has her fingers firmly on the pulse of the nation. When I came back from my Christmas holiday in early January last year, my minimalist TV choices that day were between two World War II movies and the all day Nazi special on the History Channel. The all day special consisted of ten hours of “The Nazis – Lessons from History” followed by six programmes of the series entitled ‘Auschwitz’. I can barely remember a week without at least one programme devoted to World War II, although in November of most years World War I tends to take over for a week or two, and occasionally wartime documentaries are crowded out by more imminent broadcasts of Anglo-German clashes on the football pitch. When the Pope recently visited Britain, it was not always clear whether media and street protests were fuelled by disapproval of Catholic moral teachings or by the Pope’s nationality. Several television programmes and newspaper articles were devoted to the Pope’s ‘early years’ in the Hitler youth, a time when he was barely in his mid-teens and membership of the Nazi youth organisation was compulsory. Germanophobia seems so rampant that not too long ago an English trial judge, when faced with a plea of discrimination on the grounds of nationality by a German plaintiff, could not resist pointing out that one had to bear in mind that anti-German feeling and prejudice form part of Britain’s national heritage and cherished national memory. It is part, in other words, of what it means to be British.

Of course, as often happens, it is tempting to exaggerate. Firstly, the British media’s obsession with the Third Reich often coincides with anti-German sentiment, but the two are nonetheless distinct from each other. Secondly, Germanophobia has to be considered in the context of general xenophobia in Britain, and after nearly a quarter of a century spent in England, I am not sure who is more hated or despised: the French or the Germans. Thirdly, Britain’s enduring fascination with World War II is, of course, a sign of national nostalgia just as much as of anti-German prejudice. The older generation in particular see it as the last great act of national collective effort and self-assertion, the final episode in the history of the Empire before its imminent dissolution. Many are alienated by aspects of modern British life, the European Union, and the growing Americanisation of British business, politics and social life; they look back on the war as a golden age of ‘one nation’ solidarity, moral certainty and ultimate triumph. Finally, anti-German feeling though more vocally expressed in Britain, is still latently present in many European countries. Recent Greek media reactions to German demands for closer economic scrutiny of other members of the Eurozone have demonstrated this feeling only too clearly.

While wars of aggression, war crimes, human rights violations and even genocide are hardly German inventions, Germany has had the misfortune of going through its most militaristic and ‘adventurous’ phase in foreign policy relatively recently in history, which is forever preserved by extensive documentary and pictorial evidence. Besides, the Nazis were responsible for one of the most comprehensive and certainly best-documented crimes of genocide. All these qualifications have obvious validity, but they cannot explain the abiding obsession with Nazi Germany in the British media and elsewhere or why German history is still largely reduced to the twelve years from 1933 to 1945, and why it still seems impossible to criticise any aspect of German economic or foreign policy, especially on EU matters, without some kind of Nazi connotation or similar historical insinuation lurking somewhere in the background. Austrians, who, on a per capita basis, more than fulfilled their quota of ideological wrong-doing in Nazi Germany, have not been accorded a commensurate share of the blame. The same, though to a lesser extent, can probably be said of Japan.  Why has nearly a lifetime of peaceful and democratic development in Germany done so little to put the Third Reich into some kind of historical perspective? The answer cannot simply be that collective guilt is a reality and Germany’s wrongs are unparalleled. Part of the answer has to be Germany’s own masochistic attitude to its past in addition to the powerful and abiding political interests both within Germany and abroad that constantly ensure ever-recurring reminders of Germany’s Nazi past.

British obsession with Nazi Germany’s past is mirrored only by Germany’s self-flagellation about it. In a recent television interview, the well-known German self-styled political philosopher and social critic, Caroline Emcke seriously defended the notion of collective guilt. Even the otherwise eminently rational Jürgen Habermas has seemed to endorse this view, at least occasionally. German politicians, above all, still go out of their way to remind their countrymen of their country’s special responsibility to European integration, Germany’s eastern and western neighbours, asylum seekers, the state of Israel, ethnic minorities and non-EU immigrants. When the former Social-Democrat politician Thilo Sarrazin recently drew attention to the catastrophically low birth-rate amongst native Germans, the economic burdens and social problems of immigration, and the general failure to integrate the country’s minorities, he was widely denounced as a crypto-Nazi, a racist, and a divisive and dangerous right-winger. Little wonder that in Germany’s pluralistic society, where the right to free speech is enshrined by one of perpetuity clauses of the German Constitution, he was still quickly expelled by his Social-Democratic Party and removed from his post as a director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank.

Reunification slightly qualified Germany’s obsession with the Third Reich as Germany now had the ‘good fortune’ of having a second authoritarian regime to deal with, but Chancellors Helmut Kohl, and, to a lesser extent, Angela Merkel, have continued to speak of European economic and political integration as Germany’s special responsibility. Helmut Kohl, whom the then Greek foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos famously likened to a character in one of Rabelais’ novels, ‘a giant of bestial force and a child’s brain’, repeatedly described European unification as the opposite side of the coin of German reunification. The self-declared historian, whose doctoral thesis on the ‘Development of the Political Parties in Rhineland-Palatinate in 1946 and 1947’ had to be withdrawn from ordinary university library facilities lest its intellectual merits be too closely scrutinised, never offered his countrymen a full explanation for his reunification maxim propelling much of his foreign policy.

The shadow of history has made German politicians too fearful to articulate their country’s economic and political structure as one of the more successful of the larger medium-sized states. They have needed the umbrella of the European Union and the cover of France to advocate some aspects of this structure to the rest of Europe. In the process, Germany has relinquished its own currency, monetary policy and a variety of less well known constitutional prerogatives and aspects of fiscal autonomy. This has often been done in contravention of public opinion. All opinion polls in the 1990s showed that the vast majority of Germans did not want to give up the Deutschmark, yet Germany’s leaders went ahead and did so. One poll was particularly revealing. When responding to question 5 about whether they were in favour of a common currency, most Germans duly said ‘yes’, only to answer overwhelmingly ‘no’  to question 9 which asked ‘Are you in favour of the abolition of the Deutschmark?’ The poll illustrates what has been and continues to be at the heart of popular support for further EU integration in Germany: Germany’s disturbed sense of national identity and its inhibitions in asserting legitimate national interests except under the politically correct, safe umbrella of a common EU policy. Germany is well advised not to forget its painful past, but the historical bequest of nearly seventy years of painful self-examination appears to have left a twisted instead of a sound sense of national identity. Germany’s rhapsodical incantations of ‘nostra culpa’ have fostered irrational policy-making instead of enlightened and democratically accountable policies. The Euro might prove to be the crowning example of a post-war history of German false consciousness turned on its head. Having pushed half of Europe into the Euro under the guise of a common European destiny that now seems at least premature, Germany cannot, and would indeed be ill advised, to call an ‘end to the affair’.

Nearly seventy years on, the spectre of Germany’s Nazi past shows no signs of being laid to rest. The reasons for this perpetuation go beyond British Germanophobia and German self-hatred – both within Germany and abroad. To begin with, German political leaders have been telling their people that to be good Germans they must above all be good Europeans, an attitude illustrated by the fact that there is no political party in Germany that is even mildly critical of the EU and that all political parties voted in favour the Euro despite their voters having misgivings about the project. Furthermore, German politicians, more so than others, desperately want to be liked by their counterparts, particularly when they go abroad. Their road to likability has involved establishing their communautaire credentials and by giving occasional aid and financial handouts. Outside Germany, there are multiple motives and reasons why the Holocaust and Germany's Nazi past will not be laid to rest. Firstly, in a world where practically no one ever agrees on anything except on the facts that excessive bank bonus payments are inevitable, that the financial markets cannot be regulated and that the end of the welfare state is inevitable, where very few shared ethical assumptions exist, everyone can nevertheless still agree that, whatever the disagreements between them, nothing can ever be as bad as what the Germans – a term all too readily used in place of the Nazis – did during World War II. It is a kind of minimal ethical commitment everyone can safely concur with, and one that costs very little indeed. It leaves everyone with a common feeling that one’s conduct, however bad, does not, at least, fall below the all-time low set by Germany.

Secondly, the Nazis also serve as a convenient spectre that can be readily evoked whenever Germany or a German might do something that others do not like.  ‘The Germans yet again’ was a rallying cry when Chancellor Merkel argued that some kind of mechanism must be put in place to prevent budget deficits of Eurozone member states spiralling out of control. Similarly, references to Germany’s Nazi past are never wholly absent, either when critics express dissatisfaction with the Pope’s stance on modern materialism or birth control or with his warnings against opening the EU to Muslim and non-European states. Thirdly, reminders of the Nazi past have been a convenient and almost fool-proof trigger to extract financial aid and assistance from Germany, as recent Euro aid packages agreed to in the face of widespread scepticism of the German population, amply demonstrate. The latest proposals for a Eurozone rescuing fund show that the sums involved may soon exceed two-thirds of Germany’s annual total budget.

Fourthly, memories of genocide and other crimes committed under the Third Reich are easily evoked when uncomfortable questions are raised about the financial implications and social consequences of the mass influx of refugees and illegal non-EU immigrants into Western and Central Europe. It is effectively impossible to initiate a dispassionate discussion about the consequences of immigration for the survival of the welfare state in any large European state, particularly in Germany.

Finally, the whole machinery of human rights movement, conceived and set up under the immediate impact of WW II and the Third Reich, has lost perspective. The courts have since vastly extended the meaning and scope of many human rights, but a rational discussion of the interpretation now attached to many rights  is still impeded by unhelpful references to the past. For instance, the talk about the need to prevent another Third Reich, genocide or wars, bears little or no meaningful relationship with issues such as whether the right to privacy should extend to abortion or whether there should exist a right to family reunion and fertility treatment, both key issues in current human rights law, both in Europe and the US.

There are limits even to evoking the past. The largest EU Member States are entitled to the most votes in the EU’s Council of Ministers and when Poland suggested that it be given a larger share of the votes, because the Polish population of around 40 million would be much larger had it not been for World War II and German occupation, even German masochism reached its limits. Poland’s demands were just an extreme example of the extent to which references to Germany’s Nazi past are used as a bargaining tool and the distorted effect they have on political debate.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed long ago, if one stands next to a river, it is never the same water that runs past. Similarly, history does not repeat itself exactly and neither do historical disasters. Nazism was a historical phenomenon of its times. It exploited a number of universal traits of human psychology and responded to particular needs of Germans at the time but it is no more likely to replicate itself than Soviet Communism, Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s regime.

The incessant obsession with Germany’s past has an unhelpful and infantilising effect on European politics and impedes rational debate and policy-making. Further economic and political EU integration should be assessed on its economic and political merits, not out of a fear that Germany must be contained. Perhaps, Germany would show greater maturity and democratic consciousness if issues such as immigration, German military interventions abroad, and relations with the Middle East could be discussed dispassionately, without a nebulous feeling of collective guilt and without constant references to wartime atrocities. The saga of the Euro is a case in point. Most Germans did not want it in the 1990s, both because of the imponderables involved and because the Deutschmark had become the one symbol of German national identity which was not discredited by Germany’s Nazi past.

The mitigation of the German obsession would help Britain too. It has a great deal more to deal with in the light of imminent social and economic problems than Germany’s resurgence. Broadly speaking, both countries are, if not in the same boat, at least, in the same place as result of the same shipwreck. If sadistic Britain still wants to indulge its German obsession, perhaps there could be no better way for Britain to irritate Germany than denying the German masochist’s desire for yet more criticism and abuse. As yet, both countries still have to grow up. Growing up, as Freud observed, is only possible when one’s immediate ancestors have died. For Germany and Britain, their “adulthood” of more rational engagement is contingent on the long-overdue burial of their obsession with their legacies of World War II.

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