The moral do-over
Germany is very good at a lot of things: it has a thriving democracy and a powerful economy and is fully, peacefully integrated into the modern world. It's also gotten very skilled at the complicated art of atonement, that is, making amends for its past sins. Sept. 13 was Yom Kippur, the day the world's 13 million Jews set aside to repent their sins of the past year through prayer and a 24-hour fast. The holiday ends with a great meal. No doubt, many of the Jews living in Germany observed what is Judaism's holiest day. There are 219,000 of them. As recently as 1933, that number was about 530,000. In 1945, it was fewer than 30,000. How that happened is a matter of historical record.
The past 70-odd years have been a sort of ongoing Yom Kippur for the German nation, and its geopolitical good citizenship has been a big part of that. It's paid off. In May, the BBC announced the results of an international popularity poll, in which people were asked for their opinion of 16 different countries and the EU. The U.S. ranked eighth, in the middle of the pack, with a 45% approval rating. Iran finished last, at 15%. And Germany? Top of the heap, with 59%.
The victorious powers dealt sensibly with Germany after World War II, trying and executing the authors of the Holocaust but rebuilding the country. Still, that relatively gentle treatment was only the official reaction. The cultural one was harsher. Germany, in the popular mind, would be equal parts parolee and outcast—the party guest with the criminal past who has to get home by 10 p.m. or his ankle bracelet will go off.
Even for some Germans, such low-grade public disgrace was O.K. On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, historian Michael Sontheimer lamented online that the hard look Germany took at itself in the decades after the Holocaust may give way to some politicians portraying Germans as equal victims of World War II. The firebombing of Dresden, for example, is being used to universalize the suffering that resulted from a war begun by German aggression. He described how, when his 11-year-old son attended school in London, he was sometimes met with taunts of "Heil, Hitler." Even a child, Sontheimer wrote, "can't escape history. That is not something I regret." If the country's leaders do not remain vigilant, German innocents pay the price.
But is that price fair? Should the crimes of the fathers be visited upon the sons and the daughters—and, in turn, the modern nation they inhabit? "Such negative feelings like anger and desire for revenge evolved from our tribal day, and what works in a group of 30 people doesn't work in the world," says Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene. "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 dealing with individuals."
Treating a single nation under a single flag as 82 million separate people isn't easy, and not everyone bothers trying. Comedian Ion Stewart got a rousing laugh recently 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 not, but it was familiar. Even people who do try to move on may find it hard. Psychologist Michael Schulman, chair of Columbia University's seminar on ethics, tells a story about his wife visiting a beer garden in Bavaria and watching as a group of men got up to sing—a reminder of the days when the songs were about the rise of the fatherland. "She had chills going up her," he says.
Getting beyond the chills takes a "cognitive correction," Schulman explains, a willingness to turn the prism slightly and see the other tribe clearly, without prejudgment. A 59% popularity rating means that a lot of people have made that effort. Holocaust survivors or those who were close to the horror in other ways may never be able to make such a shift—nor should they be asked to.
Yom Kippur is not about getting rid of sin as much as it is about acknowledging it, regretting it and vowing not to commit it again. If countries are the sum of their many individuals, then atonement is available to them too. So congratulations on that 59%. The family of nations always has an extra chair when it sits down to break its fast.