Kohl’s Germany: The Beginning of the End?

Taking a break from Germany’s rather boring election campaign, I dropped in to the fine new museums that have recently been opened in Bonn. Right at the beginning of the permanent exhibition in the splendid new Museum of the History of the Federal Republic I found a strange black pavilion with, inside, pictures from the Nazi extermination camps. A young German guide was just explaining to a group of visitors that there had been a vigorous debate about whether to show these horrifying pictures. The conclusion, he said, was that “a German museum could not afford not to show these pictures.”

At the towering new exhibition hall just down the road there was a fine show of the central and east European avant-garde in the twentieth century. One section was entitled “The Presence of Jewry.” Here another young German guide stood before Chagall’s 1914 picture The Feast Day, showing a rabbi with a miniature rabbi on his head, pointing in the opposite direction. Trying to explain the figure of the miniature rabbi, the guide, a woman in her early twenties, said: “I myself have no direct experience with Jewish people, so I can’t really judge, but from what I’ve read, this spirit of contradiction, this capacity to make fun of yourself, is characteristic of Jewry.”

Yes, the past—that past—is still here. Whenever you come to Germany you are sure to stumble across it, one way or another. It won’t pass away. Yet as the naive comments of the young German guides suggest, it is almost astronomically remote from the life experience of younger Germans today. Painful innocence, not guilt or even repressed guilt, speaks from those comments.

For me, these flashbacks to a hell made in Germany serve above all as a reminder of the fantastic distance that Germany has traveled over the last half-century: the distance to civility, legality, modernity, democracy. The very fact that, after four years of traumatic change in an only painfully uniting Germany, the election campaign can be boring is itself a measure of that progress. The village pub where I go for lunch with friends turns out also to be a polling station. As we chew our schnitzels, we can watch the civil, genial, utterly matter-of-fact business of voting. In the evening, the “election parties” in the headquarters of the main political parties are even more hot and crowded than at previous elections, with everyone trying to judge everyone else’s Stimmung as the beer (SPD) and wine (CDU) flow.

An element of drama is given by the closeness of the result, with estimates of the current coalition’s new parliamentary majority sinking to as low as a single seat during the evening, before rising again in the small hours to the eventual ten. But the whole nation is hardly biting its nails in suspense. On another television channel there is a comedy show, with a comedian from Paderborn giving a wonderful imitation of the petit-bourgeois Hauswart type, obsessed with cleanliness and order. The audience…

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