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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 08:43 GMT
The Trouble with Germans: Part Two

The BBC's Matt Frei reports in the concuding part of a Radio 4 programme on Germans' relationship with their fellow Europeans.

Click here to read the first part of Matt Frei's report

Adolf Hitler had a lot to answer for but I never thought I would end up blaming him for the leaking pipes and faulty wiring in my flat.

Let me explain. In 1992 I bought a flat in Notting Hill, when that neck of the woods was a lot less fashionable and expensive than it is today. The property had just been converted and since a lot of work needed to be done I inherited a group of three Polish builders who had been employed by the developer: Lazlo, Tadeausz and Tomas, citizens of the city of Lodz now resident in Tuffnel Park.

They were master craftsmen. Tadeuz wasn't just a carpenter. He fancied himself as a sculptor. When I asked him to make me a wooden box to hide the fuse switches, he suggested making something fit for a cathedral with a Madonna and child: "Just like in Lodz cathedral," he said. "No", I replied. "Keep it simple."

Lazlo, who was an electrician by training but a theatre director by delusion, wanted to wire up a galaxy of fairy lights and halogen lamps that would have turned my small flat into an airport runway. In the end Lazlo even had problems putting in a socket.

Tomas, the plumber's real ambition was to irrigate the hanging gardens of Babylon, not fix my drainage pipe. The truth is that all three were as charming as they were incompetent. The fuses kept blowing, the sinks never stopped leaking and the drainage pipe irrigated my neighbour's conservatory.

"I'm going to sack all three!" I told my mother, who had come over from Germany to supervise the work.

"No, you're not!" she replied sharply. "We owe these people a favour. After all that Hitler and we Germans did to Poland during the war."

Lazlo, who was an electrician by training but a theatre director by delusion, wanted to wire up a galaxy of fairy lights and halogen lamps that would have turned my small flat into an airport runway.
I was astonished. Had my mother been the daughter of Martin Borman or Albert Speer, or Heinrich Himmler I would have understood. But Anita Frei, born Matz, was eight years old in 1945, too young to even join the League of German Maidens, Hitler's Brownies. Her father was a music teacher who loathed the Nazis and her mother once compared Hitler's moustache to a "Rotznase", a runny nose, at ladies' coffee morning, a flagrant act of resistance under the circumstances.

What is more my mother's family had lived in that part of the Reich that was bequeathed to Poland by the Allies after the War. Together with 16m other Germans they became refugees and part of the biggest forced migration of people in history, bigger even than the exodus after Indian partition. My mother and her family lost everything.

'Collective guilt'

The suffering of her family is of course trivial when compared to the suffering of millions of Jews, Poles and gypsies. Considering her innocence it was probably enough to let her off the hook on the guilt front. But Lazlo, Tomas and Tadeuz continued to wreck my flat, the unwitting beneficiaries of the convulsions of 20th century Europe.

Since World War II, the Germans have become experts at collective guilt. It has been drummed into us over and over again by politicians, authors and religious leaders that we the Germans have a collective responsibility for what happened half a century ago.

It has been drummed into us over and over again by politicians, authors and religious leaders that we the Germans have a collective responsibility for what happened half a century ago.
Some like my mother take their guilt seriously. Most people bear it lightly, as if they were tossing coins into a beggar's hat. And some like the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, now of course deeply mired in scandal, want to shrug it off.

Herr Kohl struck a popular cord when he declared that the younger generation of Germans, including himself, should benefit from the grace of a late birth. In other words: please stop labouring us with a past, for which we cannot be held responsible.

Berlin's Reichstag building Berlin's new Reichstag building is a break with the past
But the past continues to dominate. And nowhere more so than in Berlin, a city which is busy reinventing itself. Pity the famous Reichstag. Sir Norman Foster has filled the old burnt out cavity with elegant glass and steel like a master dentist. You can see the new debating chamber from the steps outside. It is light and airy, a cathedral of democracy. But even here nothing is straightforward and Guenther, my guide on a recent visit looked perplexed.

"Sir Norman Foster wanted dark grey benches for the deputies. But we decided that this colour was too fascistic," sighed Guenther who must have been in his late twenties and displayed the angry complexion of someone suffering perhaps from too much collective guilt. No blond blue-eyed Neo-warrior was he.

"We chose a more democratic colour," he continued, without even a flicker of irony. "We call this colour Reichstag blue."

'Political correctness'

The colour of German democracy is a garish purple blue that looks completely out of place in the Armani earth tones of the Reichstag. I began to worry. If the future of German democracy hinges on the colour of the deputy's seats how stable can that democracy be? Fifty-five years after the end of Fascism, Germany still takes nothing for granted.

"Then there was the argument about the eagle," Guenther continued, by now almost on the verge of tears.

The debating chamber is dominated by a giant eagle, Germany's national emblem, which hangs precariously above the Speaker's podium. The eagle has reflected the various stages of German history. Pre-war versions looked as if they were about to swoop down on some unfortunate prey. By contrast the West German eagle, which hung in the Bonn parliament for four decades was flat, grey and innocuous, like one of those splayed ducks in the window of a Chinese restaurant.

Norman Foster had designed a new eagle. But the elders of the parliament deemed it too unfriendly. So they commissioned a rival eagle, also flat and made of grey metal but this time with an expression that can best be described as dead pan.

"But we couldn't get rid of the Foster eagle", Guenther intoned. "It would have been unfair."

Both eagles now hang back to back above the speaker's podium as if engaged in some strange mating ritual. Having spent most of the last century offending just about everyone, we Germans are today bending over backwards to be nice.

Re-inventing a city

The city planners who are re-inventing Berlin are treading ever so carefully around the eggshells of German history. There are so many ghosts that need to be appeased: the Jews, the gypsies, the "Aussies", the Russians, the Poles - the list is endless. At the same time there is so much history that must not be denied, or bricked over: Imperial Germany, the Nazis, the East German Communist. The prime inspiration for redesigning Berlin is not grandeur, patriotic pride or economic success but guilt.

Virtually every major building has triggered an agonising historical debate. For instance the new German Finance Ministry will be housed in the monolithic Airforce Ministry built by Hermann Goering for Hitler's Luftwaffe. It would have been cheaper to knock the building down and start from scratch. But that would have amounted to an act of denial.

Virtually every major building has triggered an agonising historical debate.
So the original structure, massive and ugly as it is, has been preserved. A new West-facing facade has been added to provide a friendlier look and of course the government made sure that Goering's ministry was occupied by the Labour Department, not Defence.

The so-called "Palace of the Republic" is another case in point. This hideous perspex and chrome monstrosity, which is infested with asbestos, was the rubber stamp parliament of Communist East Germany. The obvious thing would have been to tear it down like the former East German foreign ministry that was demolished at great cost for purely aesthetic reasons.

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has to grapple with Germany's past
But the Palace of the Republic will stay -for reasons of politically correct nostalgia. This building was a curious combination of parliament, Communist shopping mall and entertainment complex, including an ice rink and a bowling alley - one of the few places where East Germans went to have what they thought was "fun".

The rest of East Germany may have been trampled over by those arrogant Wessies but the Palace of the Republic has become a treasured fig leaf of respect for our poor cousins in the East. People like my Uncle Wolfgang.

An electrician by trade who was responsible for some dubious electrical fittings in the era of the Stasi, Wolfgang greeted the liberation of his country from the yoke of dictatorship with a fearful cringe and prolonged constipation. He and his three children and pallid wife Irmgard had spent the first two days holed up in their bungalow on the outskirts of Berlin.

"We are scared! What's going to happen to our country, our currency, my allotment?" Wolfgang whined when I went to see him to offer my congratulations that a member of the Frei family had finally taken part in one of Europe's great peaceful revolutions. He was depressed. I was disappointed.

Wolfgang and his family sat in front of the TV waiting to be told by the government what to do next. But there were no instructions. The East German government was too pre-occupied with self-preservation. The country was beginning to implode.

For two days Wolfgang twitched the curtains and watched his neighbours cram into their spluttering Trabis and head West. Finally he and my cousins also put on their duffel coats and went to have a peak at liberty and its forbidden fruits. East Germany suffered from the typical lack of fresh fruit that was stipulated nowhere in Marx's Kapital but that seemed to afflict every Communist country. When they got to West Berlin Wolfgang and the children binged on bananas. Hence the constipation.

All this was a far cry from the joke made by a Dutch colleague ten years ago. "German unification", he said "is great. It's just like the Beatles getting together again. Let's just hope they don't go on another World Tour." I can assure you world domination was not on my uncle's mind.

Japanese 'proud' of history

Contrast Germany's behaviour with Japan's. Not only has Japan been grudging in its apologies, it has allowed the ghosts of the past to cavort at will. Last year I went to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine where the souls of Japan's warriors reside.

The equivalent in Germany would have been an SS reunion in the middle of Berlin.
The shrine was bedecked with lurid posters and paintings celebrating the heroic exploits of the Japanese army during World War II. There were hundreds of veterans and right-wing nuts dressed in full battle gear singing the Imperial anthem and marching to some unsavoury old songs.

Celebration of Japan's war-dead at Yasukuni shrine, Tokyo Japan honours its World War II soldiers
The equivalent in Germany would have been an SS reunion in the middle of Berlin. Japan's remembrance ceremony was not only held in public it was also attended by no fewer than eight cabinet ministers. And yet this gathering didn't even raise a single eyebrow in the Japanese press.

"Why do they keep picking on us? Why not the Japanese or the Italians?" I can still remember my grandmother's lament at Christmas get-togethers.

She was missing the point. In the same way that the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust has been singled out as a unique act of genocide, the atrocities committed by the Nazis are seen by many as unrivalled. Both victim and aggressor are exceptional. And this is not about numbers. Stalin may have killed 10m more than Hitler. But Hitler concocted the complete perversion of Western civilisation. He turned the sophistication of modern industrialised society upside down to create factories of death.

Family history

I am still haunted by questions about my own family. Did my grandfather, a bureaucrat in the German railways, the Reichsbahn in Upper Silesia know about the Special Trains to the camps? Auschwitz was no more than 50 miles from where my father grew up.

We are prisoners of a past which most of us had nothing to do with.
Why did my grandmother do nothing when her Jewish neighbours were forced to wear a Yellow Star one day? Would people in Britain also have been mesmerised by a man with a funny little moustache? Whether we like it or not, the Holocaust still defines who we Germans are just as it defines the Israelis. We are prisoners of a past which most of us had nothing to do with.

So many institutions, exhibitions, laws, articles and school books are designed to prevent the extremism of the past from re-emerging. Lest anyone should forget, the magazine "Der Spiegel" still hammers home the horrors of the Third Reich in a special section every week - 55 years after the end of the war. Germany's state broadcasting network is still split up into a costly and inefficient network of regional stations to prevent the rebirth of a centralised propaganda machine. Labour legislation is designed to prevent mass unemployment. There is a lingering distrust of the Anglo Saxon Free Market, where you sink or swim. The obsession with consensus is inspired by the fear of extremism.

Henry Kissinger once famously called the Federal Republic an economic giant and a political dwarf." Ever since the end of the War Germany has struggled to become normal. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and German unification were important milestones on the road to normality.

But what is normal for a nation of 82m citizens with a terrible past and the world's third largest economy?

You can see the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder struggling with this question on an almost daily basis. His Social Democratic Party wants to sell German tanks to Turkey, and the Greens threaten to topple the ruling coalition. When German soldiers were sent to Kosovo last year it was the first time since the War that a German uniform had been deployed in anger anywhere in Europe. The coalition strained, saved only by the political skills of Germany's foreign minister Joshka Fisher.

These ructions are a symptom of growing assertiveness. Today Germany is not just coughing up money, it is taking on more and more responsibility in the international arena, as indeed it should do.

Having spent the first half of the last century bent on antagonising its neighbours, Germany spent the second half desperate to be loved by them. As Winston Churchill put it: "The Germans have either been at our feet or at our throats."

In this century Germany's highest ambition is to be at neither.

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22 Feb 00 |  Europe
The Trouble with Germans: Part One
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