Since June 22nd marks the day Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, it’s an appropriate time to consider the question posed by Paul Hockenos, an accomplished journalist and political analyst in Berlin, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?” Unsurprisingly, the answers his interlocutors provide range from “yes” to “no” to “it depends.” The yea-sayers generally argue that the truth is the truth and, if Germans can help promote it, so be it. The naysayers insist that the Germans have no right to preach morality in a region they devastated in two world wars. The it-depends camp says that truth-telling is fine—as long as it’s done with sensitivity and tact. I come down hard in all three camps
The problem is obvious. The German Reich and Austria-Hungary brought World War I to Central and Eastern Europe from 1914 to 1918. Twenty-five years later, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR dismembered Poland. On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler turned on his erstwhile pal and attacked the Soviet Union. In both conflicts, the countries that suffered most from German aggression were Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, and those that died in largest numbers were Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Jews.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a German helping East Central Europe “confront its dark past,” it’s not hard to see why such an effort, however well-intentioned, could easily misfire. Germany and Germans represent power, wealth, and arrogance to Central and Eastern Europe in the same way that America and Americans represent power, wealth, and arrogance to the world. And it doesn’t much matter whether the German or American really is powerful, wealthy, or arrogant. Back in 1976, when I was doing a six-month Eurail pass trip through Europe, I spent a month in Frankfurt and Munich. Almost everyone I met held me personally responsible for the Vietnam War, the arms race, racism, and Watergate. Just how a politically ignorant 22-year-old with a shoestring budget could have had so much influence in Washington didn’t seem to trouble my interlocutors, but they obviously knew that, as an American tourist, I necessarily represented American imperialism.
No one likes to be preached to, especially by people, peoples, or states with less than exemplary moral records. Americans like to pontificate about human rights and democracy, and it’s not too surprising that many people in the world find such preaching hypocritical, especially as American power often appears to undermine the very human rights and democracy Washington claims to be promoting. The image of the “ugly American” hardly does justice to most Americans, but there are indeed American behaviors that warrant the label. So if you’re going to preach, you better make sure that you have a spotless moral record. And if you’re not a saint, you may want to pick your words with extra care. That admonition holds as much for self-righteous Canadian scholars and hot-headed German graduate students as it does for opportunistic French politicians and moralizing American heads of state.
Germans shouldn’t be surprised that, like Greeks responding to Germany’s advice on how to overcome their debt crisis, many East Central Europeans view them with some suspicion. People and countries that preach to others have a moral obligation to practice what they preach. Just how committed has Germany been to democracy, human rights, truth, justice, and the like in East Central Europe? Forget the two world wars and the millions of dead. In 1922, Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with Soviet Russia and subsequently provided strategic assistance to the Soviet economy and military. In 1939 came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by two years of enthusiastic support of Stalin. West Germany’s postwar policy of Ostpolitik was utterly indifferent to the “captive nations” of East Central Europe, so much so that Bonn even turned its back on Poland’s Solidarity movement. Since 1991, Germany has focused all its energies on Russia and Russian gas, prompting former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to call Vladimir Putin a model democrat at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
In all these instances, Germany has pursued a policy of ruthless Realpolitik, very much in the manner of the United States, China, France, and Russia. That is Germany’s right, and, as some might argue, that is also its imperative. But you see the problem. Practitioners of Realpolitik really shouldn’t preach democracy and human rights—especially to countries that they devastated twice. Even the mayor of Luhansk sensed this, when, back in April, he responded to criticism of his city’s treatment of dogs by German animal rights activist Maja von Hohenzollern with the comment that “when they say we’re bad, let them look at themselves and at what they did during the war.”
It gets even more complicated. Before Germany can help East Central Europe confront East Central Europe’s dark past, Germans should first confront their own dark past in East Central Europe. But have they? Commendably, Germans have devoted an enormous amount of energy to understanding the Holocaust. Unfortunately, their focus on the Nazi destruction of Jews has also tended to blind them to their own very dark past in what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands.” With all the research Germans have devoted to World War II, why did it take an American—and before him, an Englishman, Norman Davies—to point out the obvious: that millions of non-Jews also suffered at the hands of the Nazis? How many German museums devote any attention to the Slavic “Untermenschen”? How many Germans still refer to mismanagement and sloppiness as a “polnische Wirtschaft” or a “Polish economy”? How many know anything about Ukraine? How many care to know anything? Ignorance may be a right, but preaching based on ignorance probably is not.
Many years ago I had lunch with a German diplomat and his wife who were going to be posted to Kyiv. He had never heard of Ukraine’s “national poet,” Taras Shevchenko—a faux pas equivalent to a Ukrainian’s never having heard of Goethe—and she thought Kharkiv was Kraków. That lamentable ignorance has changed among diplomats and scholars, but the abysmally small amount of attention devoted by the German media to Ukraine probably means that it continues with full force at the level of the population in general. Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel, The Train Was Punctual, suggests that this ignorance has deeper roots. The novel describes a young German soldier’s return to the front in southern Ukraine. As he travels eastward from his furlough, he traces his route on a map and “visits” various cities, towns, and villages in Ukraine. He speaks of Poles and Jews and Russians in great detail, but doesn’t mention Ukrainians once, even though they formed the vast majority of the country and were the people whose farms he and his comrades probably plundered on a daily basis. That German soldier—and Böll arguably with him—didn’t see Ukrainians even when he looked at them. Imagine a trip through the Jim Crow American South without a single reference to the black population.
To be continued.
Photo Credit: John Oldale