Last week I met friends for a drink in London. Over the course of the evening the conversation turned to Germany, and life in Berlin. Someone asked if the trains really do run on time and – as if on cue – two others jumped off their stools and started goose-stepping around the pub, spouting inanities about Nazism in a mock German accent. As they laughed I stared in disbelief. I had forgotten about this puerile and obsolete aspect of contemporary British culture.
What is it about Britain and the Nazis? Simon Jenkins was asking in the Guardian at the same time. Why do Brits bang on about the Third Reich almost seven decades after the end of the Second World War? Last year 700 new books with Hitler in the title were published in the UK, and every tabloid editor knows that a newspaper’s daily sales can be increased by 10-15% simply by printing the dictator’s name on the front page. ‘Only insecure nations should rely on creating or memorialising “necessary enemies”,’ wrote Jenkins. ‘It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.’
Meanwhile at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the gifted historian Ian Kershaw was speaking of Germany leading ‘the way at facing up to shameful past’. He noted the transformation of German attitudes to the Nazi years, with a new generation grappling with the darkest episode in their history ‘in ways that we (the British) haven’t’. German historians today stress the collective culpability of the German people for the events of the 1930s and 1940s, he explained. They acknowledge that the truth is more complicated, and onerous, than the traditional view – as expressed by Thomas Mann – that the Second World War was ‘a crime committed against the German people by its leaders’.
Kershaw spoke of young Germans – in both age and attitude -- taking a much more critical look at the older generation. ‘It’s very impressive. Have we reached the point where this is history, like the French Revolution or the Reformation?’ he asked the Cheltenham audience. ‘No, we haven’t. It’s still too raw. But at the same time, they have faced up to it. They have grappled with it in ways that we haven’t. I think the Empire to us is a different matter to the Holocaust to them, but nonetheless, they have grappled with it.’
‘What I find really commendable is when you compare it to what’s gone on in other European countries and Japan,’ he went on. ‘In Japan there’s been absolutely no attempt to deal with the crimes of the Japanese in the 1940s. If you look at France and the Vichy regime or Spain and Franco, it’s only now that they are coming to terms with Franco in Spain. The Germans ... have faced up to the past rigorously in a way that few countries have done.’
As I have written before, Germany is open and dynamic today as a direct consequence of taking responsibility for its history. Just up the road from my apartment, next to the Brandenburg Gate, is the Holocaust Memorial, the undulating labyrinth of concrete plinths which commemorates the European Jews murdered during the Second World War. To the south stands Daniel Libeskind’s tortured Jewish Museum. On Genslerstrasse the former Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison chronicles the zeal of the iniquitous Ministry for State Security in controlling and repressing East Germans. I can’t imagine Russians sanctifying a former gulag as a memorial to the millions murdered by Stalin. Or for that matter Americans setting aside five acres of land in central Washington to acknowledge the napalming of civilians during the Vietnam War. Or London raising a monument in Trafalgar Square to the victims of the slave trade.
Modern Germany – in a courageous, humane and moving manner -- is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis. This is a Freudian idea, that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to the light. The insistence on memory – on facing the past -- is anciently Jewish, and now Western: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society its past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing.
As Germans have moved on so now must the British, leaving behind dated lampoons and playground stereotypes, and learning from the past.