On Yom HaShoah 2017, Israel officially and appropriately had its closing ceremonies at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, a museum established by Holocaust survivors shortly after the war, located in the Western Galilee, Israel. What made this event unique was that for the first time an official from Germany, former President Joachim Gauck, attended this state ceremony accompanying Israel’s President Ruvi Rivlin. What made this even more fascinating was that Germany’s presence was to serve more of a moral lift to the nation of Israel, its remaining survivors who are in the twilight of their years, as well as the world. In the past 70 years, since the end of World War II, Germany transformed itself from being a superpower responsible for committing the worst horror of civilization to becoming the world’s moral superpower of the 21st century. This was not an easy transition for this nation, it took a painful process of seven decades.
Germany recognizes that the world has suddenly changed in the last decades and took the lead not be silent about it. It recognizes there are moral lessons that can be drawn from her heinous crimes and Germany is taking responsibility to address them. This responsibility is both on the governmental level as well as the micro level.
Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany has opened its doors to one million Syrian refugees. This is extremely contra to Germany’s cruel prewar stance of ejecting the destitute “foreign Jew” from the east out of the “Fatherland“as well as today’s xenophobic policies infecting Germany’s neighbors. Angela Merkel, who was once an East German citizen herself internalized united Germany’s history and was able to draw lessons from its past. The citizens of Germany are overall on board with her policy, no matter how painful it is to accept one million human beings who are predominantly Moslem. Cynics will say Merkel had no choice given the negative population growth of the current country and that Germany needs to fill the workforce demands. The truth is that to add an additional 1.25% of “non-western” people to the country’s population is more than an economic choice. Would the United States be willing to accept 4,000,000 refugees today, which also reflects 1.25% of her current population? A resounding no!
Whether it comes to lecturing Trump about the virtues and importance of taking in the refugee or warning President Putin of the perils that can be created in Europe by occupying part of another country, the Chancellor of Germany has invariably become the leader of the world’s current moral superpower. Germany has learned her lessons and it was a decades long process.
Unlike other countries that committed atrocities, such as Russia during the Stalinist period, or Prewar Japan, or Turkey during the Ottoman period, Germany directly confronted her past. My wife, Denise, lived in Germany for 12 years from 1989-2001. She told me that hardly a day went by in Germany that there was not a television show, a news item, that mentions the Holocaust. Walk through any town in Germany, she says, and there are markers showing which houses used to be occupied by former German Jews or which locations used to stand a synagogue. Over the decades, the Germans went through an emotional process, from guilt and denial to doing a real “Cheshbon HaNefesh,” to take an accounting of her deeds and figuring out how and what to do about it, to make a difference: both on the personal level as well on a global level.
This is evident in the way the citizens of Berlin observed Kristallnacht in 2016. The observances coincided on the night Trump won the election. There was a candlelight vigil, but Berliners focused instead on the election results, and openly expressed shock and dismay that the world was once again swinging to the extreme right and the United States, this time, was not immune to this populist wave. This was especially worrisome, since one can argue that up to that historical point of the election, the United States lost its role of being the world’s moral superpower since the end of the War, and that role has been diminishing ever since. There are countries trying to chip at the United States superpower status since the downfall of the Soviet Union, whether it be military, economic, cultural or moral, but up until 2016, the world was comforted in the moral compass that the United States provided. That is up until 2016, when Germany filled the vacuum by default.
Since the end of the cold war, and moreso in the 21st century, Germany is vocal and concerned about the right swing shift going on with the EU countries, the United States, Russia and abroad. She criticizes Israel as to some of her policies, but if one listens carefully, she is taking a position from her experience and not criticizing the legitimacy of the Jewish State, like so many other countries do. Even the right-wing parties in Germany have difficulty in attaining consistent popularity and realize they must take a more moderate stance. Compare this to Germany’s neighbor France, in which Marine Le Pen may be elected the next president of that republic. The possibility of a Le Pen being the new president of the French Republic would have been laughed at five years ago, but Germany is not silent about this (as opposed to the president of the USA who seems to have an affinity for Le Pen as well as other right wing leaders). Finally, Germany is critical of the right-wing shift concerning her neighbor to the west, Poland. However, for the first time in Poland’s modern history, that country is not fearful of a war or retribution on her western front with Germany, but can hear the possible distant beat of war drums from out east, Putin’s Russia.
What is most encouraging about Germany’s transition is the world view of its current generation. As Denise has showed me, today’s young people cannot understand how their parents’ and grandparents’ generation could take their country, which was a superpower, culturally, militarily and economically, and take such an evil path to nearly destroy the world. They are aware of their history and took it to heart. Witness how their tennis team reacted this year when the US Tennis Association played Germany’s anthem during the opening ceremony and disrespectfully included a stanza of the anthem that was sung in pre-World War II Germany. The team was verbally and emotionally outraged. The USTA immediately issued an apology, but that incident affected the team’s play. It makes me wonder if the US team even understands the history behind the US anthem, not to mention knowing its lyrics.
Germany does understand its history, is continuing to come to terms with her past and has become the world’s Moral Superpower. It all started with the vision of Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar Chancellor and continued to Chancellor Willy Brandt’s kniefall on behalf of the victims of the former Warsaw Ghetto in 1970. Germany’s example shows that nations and people are capable of change. A hopeful sign for our planet.