The Magazine

Mythmaking in Berlin

Germany has a lot of history to forget.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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THE ASPEN INSTITUTE of Berlin celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with a conference in the German capital at the end of September. As one of the speakers, I found that a German audience will listen politely to criticism of the thinking behind the International Criminal Court.

What Germans find hard to accept is that the United States will continue to reject this project--and that, on this issue at least, Germany has parted company with the perspective and priorities of its longtime ally. Two officials from the Foreign Ministry took turns trying to explain to me that it was all a misunderstanding because the Court was a project for universal values, and America could not be opposed to universal values.

It's hard for Germans to pick a side. The conference happened to coincide with the eve of the anniversary of the reunification treaty of 1990, celebrated as the Day of German Unity. On the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, the government organized a celebration. Crowds listened politely to American pop bands, alternating with recordings of music from Latin America. On the other side of the gate, in the former East Berlin, the occasion was marked by a protest march organized by the Party of Democratic Socialism, successor to the East German Communist Party. It was better attended than the "unity" celebrations in the former West Berlin. The protesters denounced plans to cut unemployment benefits and carried signs insisting that it was wrong to pose a choice between justice and economic progress. Some protesters denounced "globalization"--in the name of "humanity."

Not many people stopped to look at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, only two blocks from the Gate. There isn't much to look at, even though construction on this project is nearing completion. It consists of concrete boxes, many hundreds of them, spread over a field that is two or three square blocks. Perhaps the architects imagined the effect would be suggestive of a cemetery. In fact, the place looks like nothing so much as a vast loading dock, filled with shipping crates. People who, in life, had contributed so much to the commercial energy and intellectual vitality of their nations are memorialized here as inert freight. There is nothing to indicate who murdered them or why. It is a memorial that conveys a general mood of regret, while managing to avoid evoking any particular memory of any particular history. Germans have learned to distrust historical memory, which is always so particular.

At the Deutsches Historisches Museum, a visitor could learn that all nations have evaded their own past. The "Myths of Nations" exhibit opened at the start of the festival of German Unity, but was only incidentally about German history. Selections from films, books, and posters of the postwar era called attention to the self-serving ways in which governments around Europe had encouraged or insisted upon a self-serving view of the past.

In West Germany, as the exhibit documents, the story was that SS units had committed horrible crimes but the German army as a whole had had nothing to do with such atrocities. In Eastern Europe, the Red Army was always depicted as a "liberator," even in countries which had chosen to ally with Germany at the beginning of the war. In the West, nations obscured the scale of collaboration with German occupation and chose to remember themselves united in wartime resistance. France told itself it was one of the victors, and Britain told itself it was still a great power.

And Americans told themselves they had "brought democracy and freedom to the world" in a "master narrative" that was "renewed again and again in the context of the Vietnam war in the 1960s and after September 11, 2001." The exhibit is coy about whether the American "master narrative" should be regarded as equivalent to the delusions or the propaganda claims of other nations. But it does assert that the "myths of the postwar period appeared first in the ranks of the victorious Allied powers." Everybody tells stories, so here, too, Germany is now at one with all nations.

A few blocks beyond the history museum are various art museums on the so-called Museum Island. One of the bridges to the island is decorated with an artistic representation: an image of Europe superimposed on satellite images of Los Angeles and Beijing "symbolizing," as an official plaque explains, "opposing social concepts out of which an integrated European vision emerges."