Yom Kippur, Germany and the Moral Do-Over

The most popular nation in the world was once its most reviled. What that tells us about human nature.

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Ina Fassbender / Reuters

Germany has spent the past century being very good at a lot of things, and very, very bad at a few things. It has built a thriving democracy and a sizzling economy and is fully, peacefully integrated into the European Community and the larger world. But as for working and playing nicely with others? Well, it took them a few decades to get the hang of that one.

As a result of its early period of bad behavior, Germany has also gotten very good at the complicated art of atonement. Today is Yom Kippur, the day that the world’s 13 million Jews set aside to repent their sins of the past year, fasting from sunset Friday till sunset Saturday, and attending services for much of that time. The holiday ends with a great meal to break the fast. No doubt, many of the Jews living in Germany today will observe that holiest of  days. There are 119,000 of them. As recently as 1933, that number was much higher—530,000. In 1945 it was just 20,000. How that happened is a matter of historical record.

The past 68 years have thus been a sort of ongoing Yom Kippur for the German nation, and its economic and geopolitical good citizenship has been a big part of that. It’s paid off. In May, the BBC announced the results of an international poll, in which 26,000 people were asked for their favorable or unfavorable opinion of 17 different countries. The U.S. ranked eighth, in the exact middle of the pack, with a 45% approval rating. Iran finished dead last, at 15%. China managed a mediocre 42%. As for Germany? Top of the heap: with a 59% positive score. The BBC’s headline put it as straightforwardly as it could: “Germany Most Popular Country in the World.” For many people, not just Jews, it was hard to know where to begin.

The victorious powers dealt sensibly with Germany after World War II, trying and executing the authors of the Holocaust but rebuilding Germany itself. Versaille had taught the folly of humiliating and bankrupting a defeated nation—though the 45-year partition of Germany from 1945 to 1990 hardly counts as lenient. Still, the relatively gentle treatment the Germans received was only the official reaction. The ad hoc, cultural one would be different—and in some ways more painful. Germany, in the popular mind, would be equal parts punchline, pariah and object of disdain—the party guest with the criminal past who has to get home by 10 PM or his ankle bracelet will go off.

Even for some Germans, that kind of low-grade opprobrium was OK. In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, historian Michael Sontheimer wrote in Spiegel Online about what he saw as a lingering reluctance among German politicians and sociologists to examine the cultural roots of the Holocaust. Instead, he said, the country’s admittedly commendable intolerance of neo-Nazi activity and its outrage when any such nationalism occurs take the place of true self-examination. Sontheimer described how his 11-year old son attended school in London and was sometimes met with taunts of “Heil, Hitler.” Even a child born half a century after Hitler’s death, he wrote, “can’t escape history. That is not something I regret.”  If the country’s political and academic leaders would not ask the tough questions, German innocents would have to pay the price.

But academic leaders elsewhere take a kinder view. “Feelings of anger and desire for retribution evolved from our tribal days, and what works in a group of 30 people doesn’t work in the world,” says psychologist Joshua Greene, director of Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab and author of the upcoming book Moral Tribes. “The functional role of those emotions is to serve as a deterrent to bad behavior. But when you’re dealing with a nation you’re really dealing with individuals, and they can’t be blamed for what their country did.”

“Most of the negative feelings contemporary people have are reflexive, unthinking,” says psychologist Michael Schulman, chair of Columbia University’s seminar on ethics, moral education and society. “There’s a responsibility to remember who contemporary Germans are.”

That isn’t easy, and a lot of people don’t even try. Jon Stewart got a rousing good laugh not long ago when he mentioned that Germany had issued a statement condemning another nation’s actions as immoral. When even the Germans are questioning your morality, he said, you really need to rethink your behavior. Maybe that was fair, maybe it wasn’t, but it’s low-hanging comedic fruit so why not pluck it?

Even people who do try to move on from the past may find it hard. Schulman tells a story of his wife visiting a beer garden in Bavaria and watching as a group of men got up to sing. “She had chills going up her,” he says.  When I was a teenager, my father, who was Jewish, as am I, visited Germany for the first time and reported having a similar experience. But in neither case was this 1938 and the song the men were singing wasn’t about the  rise of the Fatherland. It was just a bunch of men enjoying a German tradition that goes back long before Hitler.

Getting beyond the chills, Schulman says, takes a “cognitive correction,” a willingness to turn the prism slightly and see the other tribe in ways you haven’t before. If a 59% popularity rating means anything, it’s that a lot of people have either made that effort or never needed to in the first place. Holocaust survivors or those who were close to the horror in other, personal ways may never be able to make such a cognitive shift—nor should they ever be asked to. But the vast majority of people in the 21st century world do not fit that description.

Yom Kippur is not about expunging sin as much as it is acknowledging it, regretting it and vowing not to do it again. If countries are just people writ large, then atonement is available to them too. So congratulations on that 59% Germany. The family of nations always has an extra chair when it sits down to break its fast.

19 comments
Michel1988
Michel1988

As any rabbi or priest will tell you, to atone is not to repent. Germany has not repented for the evils it inflicted upon 30 million people who lost their lives due to Germany's WWII whims. It took the Allies 40 years of swatting the dog with the newspaper, until the dog finally learned not to poo on the rug anymore. But the newspaper-swatting has not instilled any sense of morality in the dog. Just look at how the Germans, politicians, media, and even the critical mass of the population who tends to think whatever the chief of the tribe thinks, just look at the sadism and the malevolence with which they treated Greece over the past three years. If the world has learnt one thing from the Greek crisis, that's that Germany will never change. Germany can never become a normal nation. Germany does not want love, it wants FEAR and OBEDIENCE from other peoples. Nothing less can be tolerated. Unless the newspaper starts swatting dog-butts again.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Listening to classical music is one of the joys of my life, but, to this day, I can't enjoy the music of Wagner. The scenes of Nazi ideals being saluted with Wagnerian anthems bring to mind the horrors of WWII, and the atrocities committed against the Jews. Even though I am not Jewish by birth or religion, I think I "feel Jewish" when it comes to Germany. I know that my feelings are irrational, since most Germans alive today are innocent of what their parents and grandparents did, but my feelings are my feelings, and they are deeply seated in my psyche.

MichaelMarinsky
MichaelMarinsky

My dog is Jewish; I gave her a Bark Mitzvah. I tried to explain to her that she should atone for chasing the cat around the apartment, and that she should fast to show she was sorry and not do it again. So what did she do?

She tore open the bag of food. Kids these days.

Carlalberta
Carlalberta

The important thing to note is the that the Jews in Germany are Germans. They always were and they will always be, especially with German surnames that literally mean something in the language ("kluger" means "wiser" in German).  This wedge identity politic that has been forged in the post-WWII period (Germans v Jews) has functioned to create and almost cartoonish stereotype of the entire German people, with really no serious introspection as to the causes and dynamics that gave rise to the atrocities of the war. It has also functioned to absolve the victor countries any moral responsibilities for the horrors that they invoked on the German people. For example it is estimated that 100,000 German were raped in the post WWII period, with 14 million Germans forcefully removed from their traditional lands (3 million of whom died).  The whole notion that one group of people can stand in judgement is absurd, and simply encourages people to be blind to the horrors that they are capable to invoke. Germans are simply in tune with dynamic as they are they are suffered the most (Jewish Germans included). The fact that they are as successful and as prosperous as they are is simply speaks to the beauty and resiliency of the culture and the inherent decency of the people. As the author suggests, this something that we should perhaps pay attention to as evidentially we will have to put the past to rest.

d.macdonald62
d.macdonald62

When I read articles written by Jewish authors (...such as Mr. Kluger) on contemporary Germany, I expect a certain level of one-sided, tendentiousness and this article did not fail to deliver!  Not only was Mr. Kluger completely unaffected by ALL of the events prior to and during WW2, he sits on his moral high stool and tells a nation of 100 million humans essentially that "they have a long way to go".  In a country of 100 million what percentage of the population does he think still exists that perpetrated these events that occurred almost 70 years ago?... An 18 year old in 1945 (when the war ended) would be 87 years old now.  Most people alive there now had did not exist then and for that matter, neither did their parents.  If he feels like he is truly the victims voice, perhaps next week we can have an honest discussion about our collection, internment, and extermination of the Native Americans right here in the U.S. (assuming he is a U.S. citizen)?  If he does, I'll eat my hat.  

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

I have been to Germany many times and I have worked with Germans in and outside of Germany.  If you sit in an air port, and observe Germans and then Danes, who speak a Germanic language, you notice a complete difference in personality.  Danes are comfortable with who they are, Germans are not. I don't think the Germans have come to terms with the meaning of the Holocaust and why Germany went there and what to do about the fact that they did go there.  I think this is less true of those from the East because they had a hard time under the Russians and worked off some of their guilt. My conclusion is that the the problem lies in the fact that as a nation, the Germans really broke though a national barrier in terms of technological prowess but this was not followed by a growth in either morals or ethics.  If you have the world's greatest chemical industry, for instance, why then not use it against one's enemies?  Do I need to mention I.G. Farben?   And I hope the Germans as a nation are addressing this problem and will find the right solution. It will come with time but only after a hard search and much reflection.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DanBruce your sensitive side is showing danny, very nice. you are right the germans alive today are innocent as the white people of america are because they were not around in most cases oppressing blacks.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@MichaelMarinsky My cat did the same thing only he is Italian and catholic so he had to go to confession, were he lied during the confession. And for some reason always hisses at priest, go figure.

Michel1988
Michel1988

@Carlalberta But who started the whole mess? The German individuals had to suffer what they suffered, but a few years ago they were electing Hitler for Chancelor and helping unleash a tremendous catastrophe all over the world. I will save my compassion for the tens of millions of innocent victims of Germany.

Michel1988
Michel1988

@d.macdonald62 Do you think the Germans have REALLY changed? Do you think that a German alive today was not affected by what their parents or grandparents related to them? Have you talked to Nazi veterans? They believe they did Europe a favor by fighting the Bolsheviks.

d.macdonald62
d.macdonald62

@FeebWillis After reading your post, I am certain that you have met every single German alive today and that have personally atoned to you for the behavior of their grandparents. I can tell that you are not comfortable with who you are as we Americans exterminated the Indians in 1800's.  Now I would like you to personally atone to me for the extermination of the Native American race perpetrated by your great-great grandparents.  I'm waiting... 

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

@d.macdonald62 @FeebWillis The extermination of the Indians came more from unlucky genetics than it did from actual and purposeful murder. They were not immune to the diseases we carried.  The greatest extermination of the Indians came from the Spanish who did not make this country.  In addition, it is now known that both the Spanish and Northern European settlers had plenty of help from friendly Native American tribes who wanted to settle scores. Also, the Indians were not passive nice people.  They massacred Europeans when they got the chance and did not spare women or children. In any case,  Race Hatred is not isolated to any one group of humans and genocide does not justify genocide. That people like you REFUSE to take responsibility for what happened during WW II is a kind of sickness and is the reason that Germans remain different than other people. This is the same kind of sick nonsense that Einstein was referring to when he said presciently that Germans were people "of low and weak character".  He grew up in Germany and knew whereof he spoke.   It is nearly 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and the American South is still racist and Right Wing.  Culture outlives people.  The truth is that Germany as a country is very lucky.  Had the Soviets not started the Cold War, those who wanted to literally dismantle Germany and ban the German language entirely would have had their way.  Grow up and shut up.  You are lucky that Jews, unlike the American Indians like the Comanche, are, were and have always been nice people.  Which is precisely what Hitler had against us. The only way Germany returns to the human race entirely is if people like you face what your CULTURE did.  And it did do it and, until the Germany as a culture face up to what you did,  has the potential for doing it again.

Nkurtar
Nkurtar

@FeebWillis @d.macdonald62 When you are gonna realize that the idea of one nation or members of one religion are, were or have been nice has nothing to do with reality? We all are human beings of which all nations, all religions, all civilizations are made up. Does this controversy like Germans did this wrong to Jews, or Americans did the same to Indians or Russians are all good people but Italians are not, etc., make any sense to you? All crimes are committed against a human being by another human being regardless of the uniform they carry or the religion they belong to, or even the goal they are after. Just an example from our daily lives, It's quite unlikely not to come across a news saying one man or woman got shot by another when you try to check out your local news network. The problem does have to do with our nature. Unless we restrain our endless ambition to get as much power as we can to dominate others and murder instinct this misery will never get to an end.               

Carlalberta
Carlalberta

@FeebWillis @d.macdonald62 I would like to know how Germans haven't taken responsibility for the acts of WWII.  They have been paying reparations to Israel (a country that didn't exist at the time of the war) for the past 70 years. Go to Berlin and you with see large monuments to the holocaust it would be very easy for the modern government to take a bulldozer to concentration camps like Daccu.  They don't because they recognise their wrongs and make a concerted effort to make sure they are not forgotten.  Now you want to try and demonize a culture who is pacifist, multicultural, and in large measure the envy of the world. Nice try, but you might want to actually learn German culture before you try and criticize it

The irony is the countries that won the war took no responsibility for any horrors they caused.  Where was the persecution of the Allies who bombed Dresden?  How come the US never arrested and tried the air crew that dropped the nuclear bombs?  How come the UK and the US held the hand of Stalin into war and looked the other way to the 30 million he killed of his own people. Please, if you want to talk about low character I think you might want to refer the history books and Allies leaders of the time. Truman was more than righteous in killing 250,00 with nuclear weapons, and the Churchill had no issue with the Soviets carving out the east. Very little has to be said about Stalin, as many historians say that he was worse than Hitler. 

Finally, as for your Einstein comments, his name literally means "one rock" in German.  He was German (born in Ulm) when he immigrated to the US, and spoke German as his first language. If you are asserting he wasn't German because he is Jewish, then you are essentially espousing the same beliefs of the Nazi party. Funny how your ignorance is somehow justified, and your CULTURE has got you to this point. 

rmartinez
rmartinez

@FeebWillis @d.macdonald62 Have you been to Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia or any other Latin American country Mr. Willis? If you have, you would know that there is a large native population in each of those countries and the many of the others. Just because they have spanish surnames does not mean that they are Spanish.

Where are the native americans in the United States.? The lucky few that are around have been pushed to reservations. I have lived in the northeast for years and traveled to the south and southwest and hardly see any native faces. When I lived in Texas for a while, people would ask me, "You don't look Spanish", because their idea of a "spanish" person is someone that is mostly of native blood (mestizo). I assure you that there are a lot of "Indians" in latin america.