Friday, August 24, 2007

German Memory and Why It Can't be Easy

I'm in the midst of writing an article for a German publication dealing with the morality of waging war. Here is the first page of it, and the reason I'm posting it is because Timothy Garton Ash has an interesting review at the New York Review of Books which deals, from a very different angle, with the same topic: how complicated it is to live in the context of German memory.

Here's my take:
Earlier this year I had occasion to do a lecture tour in Germany. As usual on such a tour, I never spent more than a day or two in any single place, almost every evening meeting a new group of strangers in an unfamiliar lecture hall, perhaps in a town I’d never seen before. The strangers all had in common that they could be induced to spend an hour of a cold evening listening to a stranger from Israel present his ideas about why his country isn’t really as bad as what their media tells them. Other than that, there didn’t seem much in common to the audiences. Some were young, others less so, some dressed more radically, others looked perfectly b├╝rgerlich. There were university students and some professors, flagrant atheists, a few priests, true believers of Marx. One young woman introduced herself as an Iraqi, though upon investigation she was a Kurd from Iraq. Some Jews, though fewer than you might expect if you expected Jews in Saarbruecken or Rostock. A few came with the purpose of being antagonistic, though not as many as I’d feared. Even fewer – but there were some – brought their personal recollections from the Nazi period into the discussion. Some of the younger students had so little knowledge about that past that it took my breath away (one was quite flummoxed by the possibility that the war might have damaged buildings in his home town of Bonn).

Ah, and there was one additional common denominator. With perhaps two individual exceptions, everyone agreed that the subtitle of my book – “A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars” – was unacceptable. Wars are always, by definition, evil. Perhaps, at a pinch, necessary evils, but certainly never morally defensible. Never. Inconceivable.

I admit that once I understood the dynamic, it brought me the more entertaining parts of the evening. Someone would stand and pose the question, a variation on “much of what you have told us this evening has been interesting, some of it is even plausible, but why did you have to be so provocative with that awful subtitle” (general murmur of consent). In a number of places the question was posed at the very beginning of the evening by whoever was introducing me. My studied and pre-prepared response was to put a look of befuddlement on my face and ask: “But what about World War II? (very ominous silence). Surely that was a moral war if ever there was one? (deathly silence, pin drop and so on). From the perspective of the Allies, I mean”.

Someday, someone is going to have to write about how the Germans, too, not only the Jews, are still mortally traumatized by Nazism in this seventh decade after it’s demise, and will continue to be so for quite some time.

UPDATE: The full article is posted here.

No comments: