The Return of the “Ugly German”: Unavoidable?
Europe may fear Germany, but the European project needs it.
September 9, 2015
We live in the age of political correctness. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Try telling a joke about blondes, gays or Jews, or try imitating a Spanish accent or jive for comic effect and you’ll instantly be ostracized in a polite society – rightly so.
This shield doesn’t extend to Europe’s most populous nation and largest economy: Germany.
You can poke fun into “Chermans” all you want and even seriously discuss the many flaws of the German nation, shortcomings of the Teutonic national character – their supposedly humorless thick-headedness, stubbornness and crudeness.
Funny enough, if you indulge in these gross generalizations within the earshot of some Germans – who of course understand and speak English far better than you could ever hope to understand or speak German – they’re likely to express their wholehearted support for your point of view.
Being ridiculed and openly disliked is, in its way, flattering. It is the domain of great nations and powerful people.
We can, thank God, still talk of the snooty Brits, the supercilious French, the slovenly Russians and the ugly Americans – national populations of the world’s declining military powers and economic powerhouses who disproportionately dominated so much of modern history.
More than jokes?
By this logic, perhaps Germans are fair game as well. But dislike of the Germans is stronger and more visceral than those jokes – it’s for real.
There is, of course, Germany’s Nazi past and the atrocities committed by the Nazis practically in every country in Europe.
While every other historical event is being constantly revisited, revised and reassessed, it is hard to find a single mainstream historian making excuses for “national socialism,” German aggression in Europe and its conduct in occupied territories.
On the contrary, the interest in the Holocaust has only grown, with films, novels, witness testimonies and historical assessments proliferating almost daily.
Moreover, the entire German nation has been assigned collective responsibility for anti-Semitism, going back long before Hitler.
Works like Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” continue to sell well nearly two decades after it first came out.
They don’t seem to be made any less credible by more balanced and sober accounts, such as Israeli historian Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933.”
A persisting fear
What overlays this history, however, is a genuine and persistent fear of Germany. After all, two bloody wars were fought in the 20th century to curb German power on the continent.
These left the country ruined, starving, carved up and with its remainder split in half, partially under Soviet occupation.
Even so, West Germany rose to become Europe’s dominant power within two decades after the end of the war. Then, after bearing the huge costs of rebuilding East Germany in the 1990s, the newly unified Germany still came back as the richest economy in Europe.
For seven decades after its defeat in World War II, Germany has been content to foot much of the bill for European integration and to stay in the background politically. Now the situation has changed.
The euro-zone debt crisis has divided Europe into the haves and have-nots.
It has also boosted euro-sceptic sentiments – not only in the United Kingdom, which seems set to try to leave the European Union, but also in countries that previously had been the stalwart supporters of European integration.
The debt crisis has not been played out, as the flaring up of the Greek debacle showed this summer. Now, centrifugal forces have been strengthened by the refugee crisis.
There is no unity in United Europe on what to do with the swelling flood of miserable humanity coming across the Mediterranean. Nor do Europeans have a unified response to renewed Russian aggression.
Germany, alone, to the rescue
Unless one of the large nations in Europe takes the initiative, the European project will probably perish. And, aside from Germany, there is no one to do so.
When the Germans step up to the plate, however, fears flare up in Europe that the ugly, bossy German is back, dominating not just the old Mitteleuropa, but also the entire continent.
Germany is rich, populous, its industries dominate European markets and even its capital has been rebuilt, along with the Reichstag, the destruction of which launched the Third Reich.
After the Greek crisis and ugly accusations against Germany in Greece and elsewhere, many Germans are fed up. They may be inclined to let Europe go to hell.
They must shake off that impulse. The collapse of United Europe will harm everyone – and Germany most of all.
Germany has done exceptionally well out of a unified Europe – a lot better, in fact, than when it was going on its own. But other countries, too, have a lot to lose. Everyone will be poorer, less free and less secure.
Germans are destined to be deemed ugly, whether they work to keep Europe together or go their own way. But in the latter case they will be uglier, and Europe will be a lot uglier, too.
Germans will be called ugly whether they lead the EU or not. But the EU will be uglier without it.
Unless one of Europe’s large nations takes initiative, the EU project will end. Who but Germany will?
The dislike of Germans is stronger and more visceral than jokes about other powerful countries.