Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Maybe, Just Maybe, It's Time To Lay Off the Germans About World War II

After steamrolling Brazil in the semis and handling Argentina in the championship, Germany had to expect the inevitable patronizing advice.  Enjoy your World Cup Germany, but not too much.  Remember the Nazis.

Foreign Policy published a roundup of post World Cup commentaries from inside and outside of Germany.  Many echoed the "worry that accomplishments on the soccer field might lead to the kind of nationalism that once fueled Nazi aggression."  Foreign Policy itself chided the pundits, saying that no one could reasonably think that a World Cup win would spark an invasion of France.

It is true that international fans see soccer in different terms than US sports fans follow their sports. Not even Southeastern Conference football, with its us against them overtones of the old Confederacy, comes close to the rabid nationalism of soccer.  Oakland and Philadelphia NFL fans also pale in comparison.  Neither fan base has ever brought dynamite to fan events.  International soccer, even at its least violent, gives countries a chance to air historical hatreds and grievances in a relatively safe environment.  English fans still love to torment Germans with "two world wars, one World Cup."

Certainly Germans will for the foreseeable future be reminded by other countries' fans of lost wars and historical horrors. Serious punditry, however, must stop reading "Nazi" into every expression of German patriotism.

Germans eligible to vote in the early 1930s when Hitler's Nazis first gained control of the Reichstag would be over a hundred years old now.  Young men called up at the very end of the war to fill the withered ranks of the Wehrmacht would be, at the youngest, 85.

National Socialism is not an a priori congenital defect of every German.  It was a social sickness brought on by economic desperation and fear.  When elections were free, voters did not give a majority of their votes to the Nazis, but did give them more votes than other parties.  It is no comforting thought that the Germans gave the second highest number of votes to Communists who had a proven track record of mass murder and destruction.  Germans had lost faith in both democracy and the highly structured business system's (not a free market at all) ability to solve fundamental problems. As the national economy collapsed for the second time since the end of the war and street fighting militias battled in the streets, the people grew tired and terrified at the same time.  Faith in the old imperial family and aristocracy had died for most Germans in 1918, even though those old institutions might have offered the most peaceful way back to domestic order, had they tried.

Multiple national traumas of complete military defeat, admitting to being the sole cause of the horror of World War I, utter economic collapse provided the context for Nazi electoral victory.  The likely senility or Alzheimer's of the aged President Paul von Hindenburg also greased the rails.  Germany's Weimar Constitution also provided no checks and balances against the whims of the electorate. James Madison's fear of the "tyranny of the majority" (in this case, tyranny of almost 40 percent of the voters) came to life in its worst form.

This is not to say that Nazi supporters deserve a pass.  Adolf Hitler ruled the Nazi Party completely, even before the Night of the Long Knives purges.  His Mein Kampf is satanic scripture, dripping with evil in all its forms.  No one could say that they did not know Hitler's most horrible plans for Europe, Jewish people, and others.  They allowed themselves to be deceived by Joseph Goebbels (who had studied American advertising during his doctoral education) into seeing the Nazis not as ambassadors of stone cold hatred, but as friends of the middle class. Again, however, this was a moment in the history of the German nation.

There is, today, no lurking heart of darkness in the German character waiting to be unleashed by athletic triumph.

Wartime propaganda, necessary at the time, did create a powerful narrative not easily shaken.  American and British media experts painted a line of unbroken malevolence straight backwards from 1940s National Socialism through World War I to Prussian aristocratic militarism.  It condemned Germany as a nation unable to contain its will to power and thirst for bloody violence.

Historical facts did not fit the narrative.

Germans have historically seen their nation as one with a special mission in Europe and to civilization at large. Their barbarian hordes undermined the Western Roman Empire, but assimilated its spirit and aspirations. Germanic tribes under warrior kings carved out sections of the old empire.  They tried to adopt Roman forms of government, did become Christian, and in a half civilized manner set out to civilize the non Roman parts of Europe controlled by their brethren.

About a century after Emperor Charlemagne's heirs divided his empire, separating Germans from French forever, Otto the Great's conquering armies established control over all of central Europe, including much of Italy.  Otto then proclaimed what Germans call the First Reich, what almost everyone else calls the Holy Roman Empire.  Ideally, the Holy Roman Empire served as the sword and the shield of Roman Catholicism.  It would defend Catholic Europe against external enemies, such as the Turks, and the internal threat from heresy.  Emperors claimed jurisdiction in some form over the entire world, sparking fear from nearby kings and amusement from other world-emperors in Constantinople and China.  Over time, the civilizing mission faded along with the Empire's power and influence.  The Holy Roman Empire receded from the land of other national groups until it covered mainly Germany.

Voltaire was witty, but wrong, when he said it was not holy, Roman, nor an empire.  It aspired to a mission understood in medieval times, but not the Enlightenment.  Rome and Catholicism meant civilization and the emperors did try to defend and extend those ideals whenever necessary and possible.  What the First Reich bequeathed to Germany was this sense of historical mission beyond that of other nations.  The word "reich" itself has multiple important meanings.  It can mean simply the state.  Reich can also refer to what the nation is and is supposed to be.  It refers to the country's exceptional nature and national mission.  The American word "country" has shades of meanings similar to what the Germans once meant by "reich."  The patriotic song "My Country "Tis of Thee" embodies it perfectly in shared meaning and vague definition.

The German people inherited this collective ideal from centuries under the Empire.

But there was no Germany until 1871.

Two major states had emerged as the Holy Roman Empire faded into history before its 1806 end.  Prussia, growing in the flat, featureless plains to the northeast, lay between different threatening powers and had a militarized society.  Its farmland produced poorly, its men fought well, and its culture emphasized the discipline underlying both pursuits.  More so than any of the other German states, Prussians tolerated religious differences.  The Calvinist Hohenzollern ruling family typically did not

Austria took over the imperial mantle.  Its Catholic Hapsburg family had served as emperors of the old empire for centuries and had extended control over a large number of non German subjects. Its focus lay on leading the German states.

Bavaria, Saxony, and a number of other smaller states emerged from the Napoleonic Wars intact, but incapable on influencing events in what was then called the German Confederation.

Starting in the 1860s, by planning or luck depending on who explains it, Otto von Bismarck created the Second Reich.  Most called it simply the German Empire.  Austria was excluded from the state, which centered on Prussia.  Under Bismarck, the German Empire served as a keystone country that kept other European rivalries in check without allowing them to combine against it.  Any clash of powers could cause a war that would destroy Germany; Bismarck worked to keep them from happening.

The Second Reich stood for stability above all else.  Many call Bismarck a conservative, but this simplifies his complex nature.  Bismarck believed in holding the political and international system in place and would do anything necessary to preserve it, including adopting radical (at the time) social prescriptions like social security and workman's compensation. When looking for the original ideas that helped to spawn the 20th century welfare state, Otto von Bismarck deserves credit for helping to father it.

They don't make reichs like they used to.  Kaiser Wilhelm II turned Bismarck's quest for stability into a crusade for "a place in the sun."  For many reasons, some of them stemming from deep personal angst against his British royal cousins, Wilhelm pushed hard to challenge the Royal Navy and British Empire.  Wilhelm was no bringer of demonic evil, but he did act as a classic bully.  He tried to intimidate other nations until the actual war came to him, then tried to back away from its horrific consequences.

Germany has a well ingrained sense of a national mission with roots in Roman civic mythology and Christian tradition.  These once defined how to bring and maintain order in civitas mundi.  In an imperfect world, the Germans could be counted on to guard orderly systems.

Of course, Germans can also be the prime mover in destroying orderly systems.

Wilhelm upset the European system while playing, for the most part, by European Great Power rules.  Hitler tossed the rulebook aside in his determination to found his own terrible version of reich.  He took the German national sense of mission, a half baked mythology invented in the 1800s, latent anti-Semtic prejudice, and the deconstruction of the German interwar world to create his own Leviathan.

Hitler could not have done it without a significant part of the German people, but that Germany is gone.  A wiser Germany has replaced it.

Germany has re-emerged as an arbiter of affairs.  In recent years, Chancellor Angela Merkel has positioned the country as the 21st century "honest broker" image that Bismarck liked so much.  He arbitrated exchanges of territory while Merkel has tried to keep the economic fabric from unraveling.  At times, Germany has poised itself to financially bail out many of Europe's problem areas.  The unspoken point, however, lies in the fact that accepting German backing means accepting German planning.  Countries such as Greece remember German occupation and fear the rise of German influence, even benevolent power.

And that is actually a legitimate question.  How far should sovereign states go to surrender control when unable to handle their own affairs.  Admittedly there is a difference between submitting to European Union control and a European Union facade masking a mostly German run core of influence,  Unless, however, the EU makes the unlikely move of admitting Russia, Germany's continued growth will continue to outstrip other traditional European powers.  Unlike the American bankroll of the United Nations, if Germany must contribute more to the project and shoulder more of the risks, it will ask for more say.  And who is to say that they would not deserve it?

In terms of dealing with the moral limbo imposed upon it since the war, Japan has offered a path that Germans themselves could follow.  Collectively and politely, but firmly, it has sent the message that enough time has passed and it can now morally rejoin the community of nations. Few would argue that the vast majority of Japanese people of today bear the burden of shameful actions in the past.

Whether other countries, or even German pundits themselves, like it or not, the country will return to prominence in the 21st century as something besides the shield bearer of the United States.  As a nation, it paid a penance for the horrors it inflicted on the world.  It repressed its own national history, both the vile and the virtuous, lest its people feel any unhealthy pride.

Those years have passed.  Germany has done its time. The malefactors themselves are nearly dead and only the lunatic fringe wants to bring back the bad old days. The World Cup win should not be an occasion on which Germans should lower their eyes in supplication, but should allow the people of that country to rejoice in the centuries of history before and after the war that made it truly great.

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