BERLIN - Horst Koehler, the newly installed president of Germany, is not a clone of Gerhard Schroeder. Herr Koehler wants Germans to be more like Americans, to be "optimistic" and "open-minded." He's talking jobs.
Herr Koehler admires the way Americans who lose jobs take the initiative to find new work. Germans rely on the nanny state to take care of everyone, beginning with generous unemployment benefits: "We must explain to the public why we need to cut social costs to save jobs," he told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He sounds like a tax-cut Republican.
Because his role is mainly ceremonial, Koehler doesn't have a lot of constitutional clout. But because he's an economist, and because he spent the last four years as director of the International Monetary Fund and has bluntly argued that he wants Germany "to fight for its position in the world in the 21st century," many Germans are listening.
But it's not easy to preach optimism to a country where the unemployment rate is bumping 10 percent. Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the world as well, and it gets even worse. The population is aging, too. Demographers suggest that the German workforce will decline from 41 million now to 26 million by mid-century.
Proposed immigration legislation could - the operative word here is "could" - begin to turn things around. Immigration reform would encourage foreigners with skills and capital to invest here in the expectation of making Germany their permanent home. Otto Schily, Germany's interior minister, tells the New York Times that the legislation could be a "historical turning point."
The historical turn is radical because it requires Germany to embrace diversity over German-ness, requiring a multi-ethnic society. This, for obvious reasons, won't be easy.
To its credit, Germany has genuinely sought to expiate the enormous sins of the Third Reich, whose goal was to purify the German "race" to an Aryan ideal. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is not yet finished, testifies to the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust. The site covers five acres near the Brandenburg Gate within sight of the Reichstag. The grounds will be covered with 2,751 stones of varying heights, placed on uneven ground to suggest a cemetery in a world created off-balance. The memorial cries for sorrowful reflection on the silence of death confronting inexplicable evil, fusing tragic loss with searing memory. An underground museum will tell personal stories about the European Jews mourned by the memorial.
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