German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at Dachau last week was a real demonstration of German leadership at a difficult time in Jewish-Europe relations.  But I imagine many Germans would be averse to admitting that.  Why?  Because the German word for “leader” is Fuhrer.

I am always interested in the way that history shapes contemporary culture, so I learned something noteworthy on my recent trip to Berlin.  Namely, that the terminology surrounding the word “leader” both exemplifies and reflects modern Germany’s great discomfort with its contemporary stance at the top of the European power hierarchy.  Germany is in a position to exert great influence – from the euro crisis to attitudes towards minorities in Europe – but, owing to its history, is often quite reticent.

Germans can get taken aback when you use the word “leader”.  Where the Holocaust ingrained certain attitudes in the modern DNA of its victims, so, too, did its perpetrators develop a particular mindset.  Modern Germany is deeply reluctant about the use of power.  As power – in its political, economic, and, especially, military context – involves some extent of coercion and force, modern Germany has instead interpreted its history as precluding most such actions.  The German commitment to “never again” speaks to an unwillingness to ever again become perpetrators.  And so where Fuhrung (“leadership”) intersects with the necessary use of power, it becomes a notion fraught with slippery-slope perils.

But there are ways in which German influence can be used for good, and where German leadership can model the kind of attitudes we wish other nations and European societies would take up.

I’ve been reading (and re-reading) Michel Gurfinkiel’s compelling, yet deeply pessimistic, Mosaic magazine article “You Only Live Twice”.  In his view, the postwar Golden Age of Jewish life in Europe is declining towards inevitable extinction at the hands of modern anti-Semitism, and now is the time for Europe’s Jews to confront the same question as their 1930s ancestors: do I leave now or try to wait it out?  Mostly using France as an example, Gurfinkiel points to anti-Israel hostility, economic stagnation, and the Islamic demographic challenge as inevitable harbingers of the end of Jewish acceptance in Europe.

This article fascinates me in part because it contrasts so sharply with my (admittedly limited) experience in Germany earlier this summer.  Although I, too, see the trifecta of anti-Semitism, economic hardship, and rising Islamism across various swaths of Europe, I also see that Europe’s most powerful country has constructed a society in a way that would seem to mitigate those factors.  From foreign policy to architecture, education to the use of language noted above, German society today seems to ooze tolerance, inclusion, and reconciliation at every level.

In this way German leadership can be about modeling behavior, not coercing it.  Merkel’s speech at Dachau – in which she not only acknowledged German “shame” for perpetuating the Holocaust but also addressed the contemporary rise of right-wing extremism across Europe – seems to be a good use of German Fuhrung.

Some have dismissed her speech as a campaign stunt.  Look, I wrote speeches for a politician, so I get that there is a rhetorical element at work.  But speeches are also symbolic.  At a time of some anxiety for European Jewry – especially in places like France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, etc – that Merkel became the first sitting chancellor to visit Dachau provides a certain amount of Verwandtschaft (“kinship“): here is a country that gets it.

I maintain that the Germans are our natural allies.  They understand where we are coming from when we say “never again” because they have come to the same conclusion.  No strangers to extremism, Germany takes concrete steps to combat simmering right-wing hatred, not least of all having Europe’s most important leader stand up at a concentration camp and declare “we know this is wrong.”

Germany’s ability to, say, combat the anti-Semitism of France’s Islamist immigrants may well be limited.  But there is the pull of gravity.  If Americanization can bring fast food and Hollywood to Europe, cannot Germanization bring toleration and inclusion?  By demonstrating that a prosperous, inclusive society that integrates the lessons learned from history can thrive, Germany offers other European societies a roadmap to forestall Gurfinkiel’s dire predictions.  If Germany can use its contemporary power in Europe, with a dose of Fuhrung, to prevent the difficulties of today from turning into the disasters of tomorrow, then the Golden Age of postwar Jewish Europe will not only survive, but carry on with greater confidence.

Of course, that’s a big If.