Germany, the “nation of perpetrators,” has run the gamut between being universally liked and “seeming ugly again” in just six years, according to an essay by German journalist and author Dirk Kurbjuweit published in Der Spiegel. Now, though, it again seems to be a prisoner of its Nazi past.
“How splendid we were in 2006. The world liked us, even loved us, because we were so good at exuberantly letting our hair down,” wrote Kurbjuweit in the plaintive article this weekend, referring to Germany’s successes on the soccer field. “Sixty years after World War II and the Holocaust, the nation of perpetrators seemed to have come out from under its depression, and the world seemed prepared to take these Germans into its heart.”
But things have changed in the past six years, lamented the author, whose grandfather served in the Nazi SA. “We’re back where we didn’t want to be, caught in the spell of a Nazi past, one that also dominates the present.”
Kurbjuweit cited a poem by celebrated German author Günter Grass that heavily criticized Israel — with which most Germans were in agreement, according to a survey — as one example of the rise of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and xenophobia in Germany. “Of course Germans can criticize Israel, and I too cannot endorse the Netanyahu government’s settlement policy,” he wrote. “But I think that we have to find a special tone, and that we can’t argue without taking history into account. Grass, a man of words, wasn’t able to find this tone.”
Grass’s poem and other recent incidents, such as the debate over whether or not to allow a Russian opera singer with a swastika tattoo to perform in Germany and the rise of neo-Nazi organizations, were said by Kurbjuweit to hint at the country’s Nazi past – or at German society’s seeming naïveté about it.
“At the end of 2012, it seems as if we were the gloomy Germans once again, the Germans who either cannot or don’t want to shed their horrific past,” continued Kurbjuweit. “Angry Greeks don’t need Grass … to be reminded of the Nazis. The horrors of the Nazi occupation are still burned into the collective memory. There are times when this is irrelevant, but the economic crisis isn’t one of those times. No one in Greece wants to be told what to do by Germans anymore.”
The Nazi era, he said, has come to symbolize Germany and represent it around the world – from protesting EU nations to Hollywood producers, who would much rather make a film about World War II than about “boring” modern Germany. “When Germans are needed on a Hollywood set, it’s as Nazis or their opponents.”
But for Germany, bad publicity isn’t limited to the big screen. For example, in a recent book by American Jewish author Tuvia Tenenbom, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany,” the author describes the six months he spent traveling through Germany and the anti-Semitism he encountered on the way. “Anti-Semitic Germans … make for a promising narrative for author Tenenbom,” said Kurbjuweit, but not just for him: “The reality is that there is hardly anything that interests the Germans as much about themselves as their relationship to the Hitler era.”
Why do the Germans rehash the Hitler era “ad nauseam,” asked the author? Why do young Germans in the 21st century feel the need to be neo-Nazis? How can it be that neo-Nazi groups can dominate entire neighborhoods in modern Germany?
While the author admitted that similar incidents have taken place elsewhere in Europe, such as Hungary and France, Germany remains a “special case”: “Even after almost 70 years,” he wrote, “it does make a difference whether an act of xenophobia happens in Germany or in Spain … because Hitler is one of us.”