The people of Iraq may want to liberate themselves from their tyrant, but when their country comes under attack a sense of patriotic duty will emerge that will be as clearly defined as that of the invaders. Once the bombs begin to fall, the world is soon polarised into stark opposites: with or against, friend or enemy. Everyone takes sides and blindly retreats into their own sense of nationalism.
That's the thing Tony Blair seems to be forgetting. If American and British bombs kill all your family, you're not exactly going to be dancing in the streets welcoming your liberators.
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Why do Germans have no stomach for war? Perhaps because they know it creates monsters such as Hitler, their own tyrant. We should stop calling them cowards and listen, writes Irish-German author Hugo Hamilton
The Germans know everything about war. They started the two world wars that brought devastation on the 20th century. They were responsible for the Nazi regime that brought war and genocide to a new level, and they also reaped the consequences when the destruction came home to them. They know the seductive triumph of the blitzkrieg as well as they know the deep, droning sound of Lancaster planes overhead, delivering incendiaries into their living rooms. So why do we now call them cowards? Why does it seem so ironic, on the eve of another war, that they have no stomach for it?
One reason is their unique understanding of the past. Germans have learned the ability to put their defeat and suffering in second place to those of their victims. No other nation has ever done this so comprehensively. No other country has ever been so clearly marked as a race of perpetrators, and perhaps it is precisely this collective sense of guilt and atonement that now allows them to offer us the most urgent warning from history.
In many ways, the Germans are best placed to understand the helplessness of living under Saddam's dictatorship today. The people of Iraq may want to liberate themselves from their tyrant, but when their country comes under attack a sense of patriotic duty will emerge that will be as clearly defined as that of the invaders. Once the bombs begin to fall, the world is soon polarised into stark opposites: with or against, friend or enemy. Everyone takes sides and blindly retreats into their own sense of nationalism.
After all, it was the scourge of punitive sanctions that drove Germans into the arms of Hitler after the first World War. It was the second World War that kept him in power and brought out the sense of apocalyptic patriotism in all Germans. Even after the liberation of Germany and the beginning of reconstruction, a poll revealed that most Germans saw the July bomb plot against Hitler as an act of betrayal against Germany.
By now, the Germans have by and large relegated that sense of patriotism to the football field. "Never again" became one of the key post-war phrases in Germany. The small bands of neo-Nazis that occasionally march on Berlin to demonstrate are no more threatening than their counterparts in Britain or France. I've seen them in Berlin, overwhelmed by thousands of policemen in riot gear, like a protected species almost, enduring the shouts of anti-Nazi crowds outside.
Germany is secure enough in its democracy, Günter Grass recently remarked, to allow Mein Kampf to be republished. Newspapers around Europe were alarmed at this statement coming from one of Germany's most respected writers. But as he was quick to add, he has enough confidence in the German people to be able to read such a book and discover what a load of rubbish it was for themselves.
At the same time, it is easy to understand how the post-war anti-German feeling lingers to this day. I recall only too well how, as a child, I had to face mock Nuremberg trials because I was half-German, just as the German people have collectively been on trial ever since the end of the Hitler regime. Like many other Germans, my mother instructed us never to deny our guilt and never to complain about our predicament.
In general, it has been acknowledged that the Germans have faced up to the crimes of their past. From the 1960s onwards, they went through an extraordinary change in which young people began to accuse their parents of Nazi crimes. I have heard of men who were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, Germany's armed forces, at the age of 16, then at the end of the war being called Nazis by their own sons.
Writing around the time of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, who administered the concentration camps, the philosopher Hannah Arendt dismissed the new sense of remorse and shame among young Germans as unimportant. By now, however, that change has been so profound that an entire generation has come to accept Germany's responsibility without any problem. In the 1970s, schoolteachers brought children as young as 13 to visit concentration camps to make sure they would never repeat this in their own lives. Children were routinely exposed to the most shocking portraits of Nazi terror as a kind of collective aversion therapy.
Today that consciousness of holocaust is still taught in schools. It is an essential part of growing up in Germany. But it is perhaps no longer the negative head-hanging shame, either; rather, it is a positive thing that allows them to become a leading force in a global conscience.
This remarkable experience of Germany's guilt gives them the role of a people who have come back from purgatory. What marks them apart from other countries is their understanding of the hierarchy of grief; their ability to erect monuments to the Jewish victims in their cities rather than to their own tragedy; their eagerness to undo those crimes rather than to dwell on their own misfortune. They like to invite survivors back. They have the highest level of immigration in Europe. The Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who now lives in Berlin, recently declared that German had become his home language, his language of rescue.
In contrast, other countries are less keen on sharing their grief. Some years ago, I went to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and saw with my own eyes this moving statement about the futility of war. But the names on the monument are American, and even though the Vietnam War is regarded as a moral failure it remains in public consciousness as a US rather than a Vietnamese tragedy.
Similarly, almost 100 years on, the Poppy Day celebrations for the first World War still honour the deaths only on one side. It is as if we can grieve only for our own people, never for the others. It is as if the war carries on underground, in the graveyards of Ypres and My Lai, as if the fallen people will remain separated from each other and doomed to an eternal combat by the need for national, segregated grief. We require our dead to sustain the myths of our nationhood.
In Germany, this national grief has been subordinated so much that they have been unable, for the past 50 years, even properly to speak about their catastrophe. Two important books appear this spring that redress this. They raised a controversial debate when they were published in Germany. The first, On The Natural History Of Destruction, by the late WG Sebald, revisits the consequence of the Bomber Command campaign intended to break support for Hitler and bring Germany to its knees.
Sebald speaks of the oppressive silence that befell German writers and public alike about the bombing of their cities. The description alone of white phosphor spilling into apartment blocks and the charred remains of corpses shrunken to the size of dolls is enough to act as a warning against all bombing campaigns.
Until now, Germans had almost forgotten that 40,000 civilians died in one night in the firestorm of Hamburg. In one of the most telling details collected by Sebald, he describes how on the morning after the firestorm, a woman in one of the houses that was remarkably left intact was seen cleaning her windows. It is as if they had a duty to carry on and forget instantly.
Sebald also brings out, for the first time, the extent of this industry of destruction. With no hint of accusation or retribution, he describes the planning of such a massive scale of bombing, the perfect combination of blast bombs, or blockbusters as they were known, and incendiary bombs. The first bombs blew the slates off the roofs and allowed the small phosphor bombs to float into the apartments. The cities were most vulnerable from above: they had their bellies to the sky.
And yet newspapers such as Die Zeit are quick to point out where the bombing started, when Hitler attacked Poland. Perhaps it is the common perception that British and US bombs were liberating Europe that makes them good bombs rather than bad bombs. Though the bombing techniques have been refined over the years, this does not mean the suffering is eliminated. The propaganda of liberation may be so convincing that we will never hear about the casualties, that it will take the Iraqis 50 years to write about the coming war.
The other book is the novel Crabwalk, by Grass. In it, he records the flight of the Germans at the end of the war, comparing their situation to the retreat of a crab, going backwards. It describes the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the flagship of the Nazi Kraft durch Freude, or "strength through joy", cruise fleet, which had no class divisions except for the important fact that no Jews were allowed on board, and which sank with the loss of 9,000 German refugees after it was torpedoed by a Russian submarine. In another telling detail, he describes how the children in their oversized life jackets were all bobbing upside down in the icy Baltic waters.
Grass's remarkable novel has brought many issues to the fore that have never been properly dealt with in German writing. At the time of publication in Germany, he was asked why he had never touched on German casualties before. He admitted that it was his mistake as a writer to have left these aspects of German history out of his work. It is the substantial acknowledgment of the Nazi crimes and of the complicity of the German people in this terror that now allows Germans to re-examine these wounds of their own alongside those of their victims.
It is also what allows them to speak to the world about the dangers of entering another war on Iraq. There is a feeling that these two powerful books come at a perfect time, as a warning against the rush to war. Perhaps "old Europe" can still guide us away from a conflict that can only escalate. The Germans simply don't trust the merits of the short blitzkrieg, because there will always be another one to follow until it all comes home to their own children.
Perhaps the most extraordinary confirmation of this recently was the sight of the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, speaking out against Donald Rumsfeld last week, trying to explain why he could not tell people in Germany to support a war if he didn't believe in it himself.
Despite the rift that has opened up between Germany and the Americans in particular, the feeling of gratitude remains strong among German people for the fact that they were liberated by the Allies. The United States remains a great friend, culturally as much as politically. They owe their democracy and post-war reconstruction to the US idea of nation-building.
The willingness to support US and British ambitions in Iraq might be more pronounced if only it wasn't for the profound suspicion around the world that this has less to do with building a democracy in Iraq than it has with old-fashioned plunder and imperial interests. Germans would support any attempt to topple Saddam, but they prefer the consent of the people of Iraq. They understand the view of innocent people on the ground. They also know what Iraq will look like under the governance of a US general after the war. To this day, apparently, anyone wishing to start a radio station in Germany must apply to the Allies for a licence. In post-war Iraq, we can imagine young Iraqis being vetted for their non-terrorist credentials before they can play their music on air.
There are strong similarities between Hitler and Saddam. Nobody with any sense of democratic justice will want the Iraqi dictator to last a day longer, but there are also large differences between the two. There is a huge sense of irony in the fact that Saddam was such a great friend of the United States and Britain until recently. Unlike Hitler, Saddam was given most of the weapons he may still own by the West in order to carry out a spiteful war against Iran.
We have seen Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam. We have seen how war is good for business. Since the first Gulf War, British arms sales around the world have gone up 47 per cent, according to John Pilger. The West has boomed since then, so maybe there are trophies at the end of every war that are far too attractive to let go.
We have also seen this kind of Hitler- or Saddam-style dictatorship more recently in the Balkans. At around the time when NATO began to strike against the former Yugoslavia, the exiled Serbian writer Dragan Velikic wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the actions of the West were making a monster of Slobodan Milosevic. He compared the dictator to Frankenstein and said the people of Belgrade had demonstrated against him on the streets for years with no help from abroad. When they bomb your country, that internal resistance begins to disappear.
Perhaps this is why the Germans have no stomach for war, because it creates monsters like their own tyrant, Hitler. War sets aside all the rules of democracy. It forces people into irretrievable positions of hatred and patriotic self-interest. The Germans know this perhaps better than anyone. For 50 years, the world has been in a state of paranoia about the possibility of Germans reverting to war and taking over the world again. Now that they are among the few nations fully against war, maybe we should listen to them.