Fear and loathing in the fatherland

Posted: Oct 11, 2004 12:00 AM

BERLIN - Like most Europeans, the Germans have a love-hate relationship with America, psychologically deep and politically shallow. They love our culture, high and low, even as they sneer at "Schicki-Micki" or "Mickey Mouse chic." They imitate the best in avant-garde art, pop culture and middle-class prosperity and deride the boorish and vulgar in American life. (Sometimes they imitate the vulgar and boorish, too.)

The conflicting attitudes are reflections of the conflicted way they see themselves. They're mesmerized by the American presidential campaign, and as they watch - and try to figure out what's going on - naive ambivalence becomes ever more obvious, and ever more hypocritical.

August Hanning, the head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, held a press conference the other day and he ladled out familiar European mush over what's happening in Iraq, noting that the path to security and democracy is "still very rocky." But he conceded that, rocky or not, Germany shares with America a mutual stake in the outcome. "All of us have a common interest, whether we take part in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq," he said. "This country must be stabilized."

Even John Kerry, who says lots of foreign leaders (all unnamed) want Americans to elect him and he's the man who can build a winning coalition of these reluctant allies, now concedes that whoever these mystery nations are, they don't include France and Germany. In something less than felicitous language, he specifically singled out France and Germany as allies who "aren't going to trade their young for our young in body bags."

So we're back to the drawing board. Somebody's got to do the heavy lifting and thank heaven for the United States. Once more with feeling, Europeans are asking themselves what kind of world they would be living in if the Americans, boorish and vulgar as they may be, were not in it. This becomes not an issue of nationalism or chauvinism but about "all of us," and about who wants to destroy "all of us."

This embarrasses many Germans mightily, because the ghost of the Third Reich still hovers over everything here. Even the youngest of the Germans understands history and feels the touch of evil. You can hardly walk anywhere in Berlin without bumping into reminders of the Holocaust. Small bronze plaques mark doorways throughout the city where Jews were taken from their homes and sent to Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. An enormous Holocaust Memorial, with its 2,700 stones commemorating the death of six million Jews, rises above the Brandenburg Gate that is the symbol of German nationhood.

But when you talk to young men and women in Berlin, so acutely sensitive to what Hitler did, they seem utterly unable to comprehend the implications of doing nothing about a man like Saddam Hussein, whose Hitler-like atrocities are documented in the mass graves of the tortured and the damned. Germans simply refuse to see the analogies to Hitler that are so obvious to everyone else, and that modern technology renders an evil tyrant with ambition and means far more dangerous than der Fuehrer ever was. Hitler never had an A-bomb.

Young men and women in their 30s and 40s, hanging out in the coffee shops and cyber cafes, don't want to think about Hitler. Going on endlessly about George Bush as the enemy of the people is much more fun. Contemporary German cultural attitudes suggest clues as to why this is.

From February to September, more than 1.2 million persons attended an exhibition of paintings and sculpture lent by New York's Museum of Modern Art, at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The renowned collection showed some of America's most famous artists along with Europeans, including contemporary Germans. Men and women camped out with sleeping bags and bottles of water to have a place in line when the doors opened each day. The buzz was electric.

German critics saw the show as reflective only of American imperialism and mammon - art that owed more to something stolen from Europe than to anything American. Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, analyzed the split between the waiting line and the critical reviews as a "a tale of two Europes" - of those who love American culture high and low and of those who resent it because it is so seductive.

There's a similar reaction to American political leadership. "It is hard enough to live with a giant that spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined and unleashes its might on places like Afghanistan and Iraq," writes Josef Joffe. "It grates even more to see the Gulliver Unbound dominate European culture from McDonald's to MoMA. The fear and loathing of America will outlive President George W. Bush."

There's a caution here for the senator and his friends, too.