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.