Dear Germany: Have you learned anything?

Posted: Apr 08, 2003 12:00 AM

I grew up, as many Americans and nearly all Jews did, with a deep anger at your country. But as a young man, I began to rethink my views of Germans. Against the wishes of almost everyone I knew -- most of whom would not even buy a German product -- I decided to go to Germany. My visit in 1968, at the age of 20, was the first of at least a dozen trips to your country.

In fact, I became a defender of yours.

I argued that it was wrong to hold any German who had been younger than 13 years old during the war morally responsible for your country's horrific crimes. I chose the age of 13 because in Judaism, that is the age of moral culpability. I argued in 1968 that every German then under the age of 40 must be regarded as blameless, and we should not assume the worst of every German over 40.

I argued that because Volkswagen and Mercedes defied the Arab boycott and did business with Israel, Jews should not boycott German products.

I argued that you were our staunch ally in the Cold War in confronting Soviet Communism.

I argued, most important of all, that Germans were ashamed of their Nazi past and had learned great moral lessons from it.

The last argument, I now realize, was more hope than fact. There is no question that the vast majority of Germans are ashamed of Nazism and the Holocaust. But I am now as certain as I am sad that you learned nothing about good and evil from it, and that you are as confused morally today as you were when you supported Hitler. Not because you are evil, but because you cannot recognize evil.

This is stunning. Unlike the Japanese, who have ignored their atrocities against the Chinese and Koreans, you confronted your evil. You taught the next generations of Germans about Nazism and about the Holocaust.

It is therefore incredible that all that education about evil has produced a generation that shies away from judging, let alone confronting, evil. It boggles the mind that a nation that was liberated from Nazism solely by armies waging war should embrace pacifism, that a nation that saw what appeasement of evil leads to now embraces it.

I was sure that some German leaders would stand up and say, "My fellow Germans, we know a Hitler when we see one, and Saddam Hussein is one." But no German stood up to say this. Instead one of your leaders compared the American president to Hitler.

I was sure that some German leaders would stand up and say, "My fellow Germans, we know genocidal anti-Semitism when we see it, and we see it in the Arab world." But no German leader stood up to say this either.

Few of us expected anything from the French. From the Jacobins and the guillotine, to the Dreyfus trial, to the Vichy regime, to de Gaulle's withdrawal from anti-Communist NATO, France, with rare exceptions, has done little that is moral and nothing that is courageous. So the disdain that many Americans have long felt for France has merely been reinforced.

But I think that I speak in the name of many Americans in saying that we expected more of you. Because of what we did for you after World War II and during the Cold War. Because you, of all people, know that Americans are a decent people. And especially because of your experience with evil. How could you have produced a Hitler and not recognize another one just one generation later? How could you know firsthand about torture chambers and children's screams and not ache to end them in another country? How could you side with amoral France against your friend America?

There is, it would seem, only one answer. Nazism taught you nothing. Instead of learning that evil must be fought, you learned that fighting is evil.

But thanks for Bach.