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In the summer of 1989, my friend David Brooks–now known to the world as a superb columnist for the New York Times–was working as an editor at the Wall Street Journal’s European edition.
At some heady moment–maybe when the Hungarians opened their borders to the West, I forget exactly–he got a worried phone call from his grandmother. “David–you should come home. You have a wife, she may be pregnant, it’s too dangerous.”
“Bubbie,” he said, “really there’s nothing to worry about, we live in Brussels.”
“I know that,” she answered. “But what if the rebellions spread?”
The woman had a point. The rebellions did spread–and by the time they were done, people were dancing atop the ugliest scar upon postwar Europe, the Berlin Wall.
An important new book on the German economy in the Second World War, Adam Tootz’s Wages of Destruction, opens with these chilling words:
“[T]wo themes have dominated Germany’s history. On the one hand, there is the pursuit of economic and technological progress, which for much of the century made Germany, along with the United States and latterly Japan, China and India, one of the largest economies in the world. On the other hand there is the pursuit of warfare on a hitherto unimagined scale.”
That second theme came to an abrupt halt in 1945, and despite some whispered doubts 20 years ago, it has never resumed. Contemporary Germany has evolved into a nation that will not wage war.
A year ago, I visited a German post in northern Afghanistan, near the city of Kunduz. The post housed a “provincial reconstruction team,” a joint military and civilian operation. The German post was the most pleasant place I’d visited in Afghanistan. The headquarters was built around two courtyards filled with saplings and flowers. The conference table was pitched in one of the courtyards under a tent. In the corner stood a refrigerator filled with beer.
As we talked, I heard a small bang. Somebody had fired a badly aimed rocket toward the base. The commandant shrugged off the attack. What could he do? Unless he detected an assailant in the act, any use of firepower had to be authorized by Berlin–and if that authorization arrived at all, it would arrive to late. The mission of the forces in Kunduz was to provide security to German aid workers, not to fight Taliban.
I later told the story to a German friend. “Don’t complain,” he grinned. “It was your idea for us to become pacifists!”
For half a century after 1945, the central front of world conflict ran through the middle of Berlin. Those days of crisis have faded into memory. Normality has been restored. No American president will ever again declare, ” Ich bein ein Berliner.” President Obama could not even be bothered to attend this week’s anniversary ceremonies.
But it’s not only the cessation of conflict that has edged Germany away from the centre of world history. The Germanborn historian Fritz Stern tells this story in his memoirs. He is invited in 1981 to a lavishly funded conference on the past and future of German science. “It was soon apparent that the conclave was meant to ponder why Germans were no longer at the top of the scientific heap.”
Fritz was amazed by his fellow conferees’ bafflement.
“Couldn’t the Germans see the one quite obvious cause of their nation’s decline? … Perhaps the subject was too embarrassing to mention, the point too obvious to make?”
Perhaps the point is obvious, and yet it still needs to be said. Nov. 9 is not only the anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. It is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht,the organized attack upon German Jews in 1938, and of Hitler’s Beer Hall putsch in 1923.
Some kind dispensation of fate has arranged for this grim anniversary now to be tinctured with the joy of 1989. Yet there is a reason that the new reunified German state has chosen to set its national day not on Nov. 9, but on Oct. 3: the anniversary of the formal merger of the two Germanies in 1990.
Nov. 9 is the more momentous date, but like so many German dates, it is perhaps too momentous to be remembered in full.
On this particular Nov. 9, the Germans will want to remember only what is joyous. Even the day’s anthem is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Let’s join with them. They have built a good society and a solid democracy. They have earned the right to a little forgetting.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.
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