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Find Silvano D'Agostino's online prose.

The Historical German Burden

Silvano D'Agostino

I haven't had a lot to write about in the past few days because nothing happened (well, in school at least), and nobody cares that I watched the Bourne Trilogy this weekend (and found it awesome). But then I read this article in The Guardian and finally felt like I had something to say again.

I am German. Well, genetically I'm 50% German and 50% Italian, but I grew up in Germany, my Dad's been living in Germany for many years, and I always thought of myself as German. (When I'm under Italians I'm Italian, though. It's great to be able to choose sometimes.) I'm a proud German, too. I believe that Germans need to stop feeling guilty for a crime none of us have committed. Our history is more than unfortunate, and yes, there is certainly a responsibility we carry, but there is no reason whatsoever not to be proud of our country. Americans, Italians, the French, the British - every formerly imperialistic country has a certain responsibility, which is naturally attached to a certain guilt. But should that past form generation after generation in such a way that it is a burden to be German?

Let me be very clear: What happened in Germany (and Europe) due to incredibly idiotic but unfortunately intelligent people in the 1930's and early 40's is inexcusable. The fact that some similarly stupid people still have remotely related ideas today is terrible. But I am not one of those people. Nor are any of the Germans I know personally (and most Germans I don't know personally). I think the number of Germans who share national socialistic ideals is low but will never be reduced to zero - neither will the number of national socialistic Americans, Italians, French, or British, though. Dumb people exist all over the world.

Germans are not Nazis just because the Nazis were German.

I sense some sort of fear of revenge for the fact that historically speaking, and in comparison to many parts of the world, we have it good right now.

~Bernhard Schlink, author of the great book The Reader, in the formerly linked Guardian article.

I find the pessimism of many Germans just as troubling as the apparent existence of the thought of current Germany as a "Fourth Reich". Excuse me, but that is a ton of bullshit. I am not enough of an expert on the financial crisis to clarify exactly why Germany "has it good right now" (better than others, maybe, but good?), maybe we got lucky, maybe we made the right decisions at the right time, but that's how life goes sometimes (in capitalism anyways - that's an argument that goes too far at this point). You definitely cannot make a point that Germany doesn't want Europe to succeed, or that it was acting particularly greedy.

And still we Germans ask ourselves: "How long can it go on like this? Aren't we overdue for the crisis to hit us as well? Do we even deserve to have it this good?" I ask you: Why wouldn't we? What have we, the last two generations of Germans, done that we wouldn't deserve to have it good? We haven't started a world war, we haven't killed any jews or discriminated anyone. We're a great country, we have great diversity, and we deserve to be proud of ourselves, maybe even because we have it good right now.

If we don't fight for Europe, we're Nazis and want nothing to do with the world? If we do fight for Europe, however, we're an imperialistic Fourth Reich Germany, a whole new generation of Nazis?

I'm not saying we should forget about our history. We should indeed learn from it, we should be aware, perhaps more aware than anyone else, and we should have our eyes open at all times, but we don't need to feel guilty.

A few years ago there were Israeli exchange students at our school. I was among the lucky German students to accompany them to the close by concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank's memorial grave is located, and they invited us to attend a memorial service they held for their ancestors. It was very emotional, very interesting, and we were very thankful to be allowed to take part in the service. In turn they were grateful we attended. It was intercultural understanding at its best. We understood each other. The Israeli didn't expect us to be guilty, but simply sympathetic and empathetic. And we were, of course, because what happened to minorities in Nazi-Germany was horrible.

The difference between one generation to the next is huge already. A teacher broke out in tears during the ceremony because his father had been a member of the SS. I can see how that is yet a different situation, and everybody has to deal with the historic burden in a different way - but I pledge for a generation of Germans who can be proud of themselves. I went to the United States for a year as a representative of a bright Germany with delightful people, intelligent people, people who are proud, who love their country, but who love all other countries and countrymen just as much. That is who we are and who we should be!