Germans Learn Humility 

Here we are, at the dawn of the 21st century, and Germany is the most powerful nation in Europe. Germany contains 80 million people, Germany’s vast bulk straddles the old Cold War divide, Germany has an economy growing faster than anyone thought possible a few years ago. A thousand articles and probably as many books have been written describing Germany’s imperial revival, the country’s expanding neo-Nazi movement, the new German pushiness, and the new German pride. In the spirit of the counterintuitive, I would therefore like to offer two short anecdotes that describe a different Germany, or anyway the Germany that I always seem to find when I am there, as I was this week.

Anecdote No. 1: Yesterday afternoon, I went to the top of the dome of the rebuilt Reichstag. If you haven’t read about the Reichstag somewhere else already, let me be the first to tell you that this rather graceless 19th-century building, destroyed during the war and left in ruins afterward, has now been transformed into one of the most spectacular “new” buildings in Europe. Beautifully restored, it is now crowned by an elegant glass dome, the inside of which offers a 360-degree view of the city: East German concrete blocks on one side, West German glass office buildings on the other, dozens of cranes—Berlin is Europe’s largest building site—still huddled around the center where the Wall used to be. From each of the four corners of the Reichstag, crowning it all, fly enormous German flags.

I’d seen the dome several times from the outside before, and I’d followed the debates about the Reichstag and the reconstruction of the city. Some were so uncomfortable about the “Reich” part of the word “Reichstag” that they petitioned to have it officially renamed, inventing a word that roughly translates as “meeting-place-of-the-German-parliament-in-the-Reichstag-building.” Others disliked the scale of the new government office buildings, and especially the new Chancellery, the size of which has finally led, this very morning, to the inevitable New York Times headline: “What Would Albert Speer Say?” But although I had scoffed at this sort of German hand-wringing, it was only when I went up to the top I realized how stupendously imperial the whole project really is. Up there, inside the dome, you are meant to be impressed—impressed by the breadth of vision of those who commissioned the new building, by the high-tech wizardry of its construction, by the vastness of the city at your feet far below, by the new buildings, the new railway station, the new roads and parks.

Just as I was thinking all of these things, however, there was a sudden roll of drums.

I looked down. A band playing a silly, pompous Prussian marching tune was parading into the hall below the dome. Several dozen grown-up men, full of figure and florid of face, all dressed up as birds, animals, jesters, playing cards, were dancing round in circles, gleefully hopping up and down and shaking the bells that hung from their costumes in time to the music. As far as I could work it out, they were members of some sort of provincial guild, the ancient order of something or other. Having apparently nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon, they had come to Berlin, largely to poke fun at the Reichstag and any politicians who might be getting too big for their boots: They too are the new Germany.

Anecdote No. 2: Yesterday morning, before visiting the Reichstag, I was sitting round a large, square conference table, listening to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. In Europe, Fischer is notorious, firstly because he is a former student radical, and not just the kind who smoked pot but never inhaled. Stern magazine published pictures of him last month as a black-helmeted street fighter, beating up a policeman, as well as an interview in which he confessed, “Yes, I was a militant. (You can view the photos here, courtesy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.) Back then, to fight meant to demonstrate, to demonstrate against state power, which we wanted to bring down.” Fischer has also recently testified as a character witness in the trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, one of his comrades from those days. Unlike Fischer, Klein did not evolve into a mainstream politician: instead, he has confessed to participation in terrorist kidnappings and murder in 1975. All of Germany watched the trial and took a hard look at Klein: There, but for the grace of God, might have gone Joschka Fischer.

But Fischer is also notorious for a speech he made last year at the Humboldt University in Berlin, in which he argued for the abandonment of the current, undemocratic organization of the European Union, for the creation of a wider European federation, and for the strengthening of the European parliament (click here for the Daily Telegraph’s barely civil account of it). These proposals were greeted rather skeptically, to say the least. There were widespread mutterings about Fischer’s imperial pretensions. In particular, the French interior minister accused Germany of “still dreaming of the German Holy Roman Empire,” and—also predictably—of having still not recovered from “the historical accident of Nazism.”

You could hardly imagine someone who, on paper, is a more sinister figure. On the one hand, he has links not just to the left, but to extremist leftist terrorists. On the other hand, it seems he openly dreams of a Greater Europe, under benign—or not so benign—German hegemony.

Then, with the same whimsicality as the guild members in their clown suits appeared at the Reichstag—alas, there was no drum roll—he walks into the room: a dapper figure in a three-piece suit, peering over his little round wire-rimmed glasses, and shaking his head in earnest agreement with other speakers. During a rather wide-ranging discussion of German national identity—the sort of pained discussion about national identity that only Germans ever have—he at one point dismissed the notion of Germany having something to “offer” the rest of Europe by stating flatly that “Europe is defined by the traditions of the French revolution, British parliamentarianism, and the American revolution.” I don’t quite know how to convey how surprising it is to hear such a thing: imagine an American president dismissing American history, praising “our British heritage” instead, and you’ll have some idea.

He then went on to dismiss Germany’s Prussian heritage: “Prussia was not a German state, it was a German-Polish state.” Asked about German history, he shrugged: “What can you be proud of? As you get older, you mourn the past even more.” He called for more immigration, for the relaxation of Germany’s strict citizenship laws, shook everybody’s hands and walked out of the room. One could criticize some aspects of the whole performance, but it was not the behavior of a man with a secret plot to take over Europe.

Conclusion: There isn’t one, exactly—except perhaps to say that Germany appears, for the first time in its history, to have developed some sort of self-deflating, self-deprecating part of its national personality, something it never had before. It builds vast new monuments to its new power—and then makes fun of them. It produces idealistic national politicians who speak of grandiose plans—and then wave away any suggestion of a German contribution to European political culture as an irrelevance. As Germany slowly recovers from unification—and it is only now really starting to recover—and really becomes the dominant power in Europe again, we may yet have cause to be grateful.