The Germans Stumble Along the Road Back: Behind Reawakened German Nationalism
In the first months after the collapse of the Third Reich, Allied and neutral journalists often reported a sentiment voiced by the Germans or written on the walls of ruined cities: “It is a disgrace to be German!” This statement, seemingly so unambiguous, is a master key to the ambiguities of postwar Germany. Spoken by Germans, among Germans, in sincere horror of what had been done in their name, it contained the promise of a new beginning. But uttered by a German before a representative of the victors, before a journalist itching to report it, before occupation authorities in search of “good Germans” to whom to assign jobs, licenses, and the advantages of “collaboration,” it became a suspect and repugnant self-abasement as well as an easy opportunity for guilty persons to wash themselves in a great bath of collective guilt. And finally, when this statement was repeated by the victors in smug consciousness of their superiority to this accursed nation, it became the expression of that self-same national arrogance, that selfsame racist stupidity, conscious or unconscious, for which one reproached the Germans. It is the old parable of the self-righteous man and the publican—with the decisive difference that the publican this time could not confess in front of the self-righteous man. In consequence of all these factors, the theme altered. It was not a “disgrace,” but a “misfortune” to be a German.
So much for German guilt: for some, a subject for profound reflection, scarcely suited for exhibition in the public square; a bad alibi for others—among these, the victors in a war of annihilation which they had waged “totally” with saturation bombing and burning phosphorus; they were behaving as victors have always behaved, annexing and bartering the shreds of the conquered land, tearing away a fourth of Germany, expelling a dozen million Germans who had lived there from generation to generation since the Middle Ages. What was to become of these expellees, no one asked—death would be just what they deserved. So the rump of a devastated Germany was filled with millions of refugees, uprooted, declassed, hopeless, to the unanimous applause of a united, just, and democratic world—in which the Soviet Union claimed full membership. It is somewhat difficult today to recall the atmosphere of general hypocrisy about “democratic war aims,” of reiterated lies about “our great Russian ally,” the murky smoke screen to retain a while longer the illusion of “the unity of the free world”—on which anti-fascism foundered on the very day of victory. All the slovenly solutions which have subsequently cost us so dear, beginning with the formula of “unconditional surrender,” served only to keep up this illusion, the falsity of which was nowhere more clearly visible than in Germany.
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