erik lundegaard

German Exceptionalism?

George Packer’s excellent profile on Angela Merkel, “The Quiet German,” begins with a dull speech at the Reichstag, whose history is anything but dull:

 ... the Reichstag was reconstructed [in the 1990s] in an earnestly debated, self-consciously symbolic manner that said as much about reunified Germany as its ruin had said about the totalitarian years. The magnificent dome, designed by Norman Foster, suggested transparency and openness. The famous words on the colonnaded entrance, “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“To the German People”)—fabricated out of melted-down French cannons from the Napoleonic Wars and affixed during the First World War—were preserved out of a sense of fidelity to history. But, after parliamentary argument, a German-American artist was commissioned to create a courtyard garden in which the more modest phrase “DER BEVÖLKERUNG”—“To the Populace,” without the nationalistic tone of the older motto—was laid out in white letters amid unruly plantings. During the Reichstag’s reconstruction, workers uncovered graffiti, in Cyrillic script, scrawled by Red Army soldiers on second-floor walls. After another debate, some of these were kept on display as historical reminders: soldiers’ names, “Moscow to Berlin 9/5/45,” even “I fuck Hitler in the ass.”

No other country memorializes its conquerors on the walls of its most important official building. Germany’s crimes were unique, and so is its way of reckoning with the history contained in the Reichstag. By integrating the slogans of victorious Russian soldiers into its parliament building, Germany shows that it has learned essential lessons from its past (ones that the Russians themselves missed). By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history. In Berlin, reminders are all around you. Get on the U-Bahn at Stadtmitte, between the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror Gestapo museum, and glance up at the train’s video news ticker: “80 years ago today PEN Club-Berlin forced into exile.” Like a dedicated analysand, Germany has brought its past to the surface, endlessly discussed it, and accepted it, and this work of many years has freed the patient to lead a successful new life.

This is particularly interesting to anyone who has read Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” since much of that book is about America’s inability to reckon with the worst aspects of its history after Vietnam, Watergate, et al. We bought into, in Perlstein's words, Ronald Reagan’s “cult of optimism,” which includes notions of American exceptionalism and applause lines about America being “the greatest nation in the history of the earth.” We're still buying into that cult. Anyone who deviates from it, in fact, is dismissed as part of the “blame America first” crowd. Thanks to its reckoning, Germany is freer now, while we, reckoning with nothing, are trapped by our optimistic account of everything we've ever done.

Will be interesting to see how the Senate Torture Report, released today, affects these trends. I assume not much.

No tagsPosted at 12:45 PM on Tue. Dec 09, 2014 in category U.S. History  
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