The German Predicament: Memory and Power in the New Europe

By Andrei S. Markovits; Simon Reich | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Optimists and Pessimists

The division of Germany, although often pronounced unnatural, provided for a
good night's sleep during the past 40 years.

-- Unnamed Dutchman, quoted in NRC/Handelshlad, December 27, 1989

The phenomenon, aftermath and likely consequences of German unification kept observers and politicians busy since 1989. We divide reactions 'to German unification and the new Germany's role into two categories. The first is optimistic: basically, unification and Germany's new role are a boon to Germany, Europe, and the world. The second is pessimistic: a united Germany may not actually repeat the mistakes of its past, but it will certainly prove to be a problem. Both voices have, in fact, been responding, at least implicitly, to the legacy of Auschwitz.

For the optimists, the collective memory of Auschwitz was so decisive in shaping the political culture of the Bonn Republic that it reliably inoculates the world against renewed German arrogance of power. In the optimists' assessment, the country has attained a perfect mixture, just the right amount of voice to be an effective but not overbearing leader, just the right amount of loyalty to play on the European team without surrendering its own autonomy. The exit option, according to the optimists, has been exorcised once and for all. Sonderwege are neither wanted nor feasible in today's Germany.

In contrast, the pessimists believe that the collective memory of Auschwitz has had a completely different effect. Auschwitz, for the pessimists, has never been exorcised. The Germans themselves would never have renounced Auschwitz had Allied armies not forced them to confront their past. Because the Germans' coming to terms with the past was involuntary, the pessimists believe that the Bundesrepublik's values -- albeit wonderful and commendable -- still await their true test. Once the shame of Auschwitz disappears, moreover, the collective memory of National Socialism may become more positive. The pessimists fear that Germany's voice could easily command the rest of Europe; they worry that Germany's loyalty to the European Union and to the West might prove ephemeral, and that the Germans will uphold it only as long as it suits their interests. Finally, the pessimists do not exclude the possibility of a German exit, though such an exit is unlikely as long as Germany derives all it needs from current arrangements.

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