German Arrogance 2017

My colleague and correspondent Doyle Quiggle, who has lived in Germany for many years, has written a lengthy response to my article in the Tablet, which deserves its own post.

This outlandishly sane moral analysis of the European soul is Dr. Landes writing and thinking at his best. He lands well-deserved welting slaps to the souls of those Germans whose response to the Shoah has become preposterously morally disoriented, the kind of slaps Jack Nicholson gives Faye Dunaway in Chinatown to free her from the spell of her own moral mendacity.

However, far many more Germans today are either morally indifferent or morally arrogant (downright hubristic) than morally confused. In this regard, I worry about the rhetorical effectiveness of this piece.

Understanding German arrogance today as a rhetorical problem requires us to first understand that most Germans are devout, radical social constructivists who zealously believe that a human being is the sum total of the society in which he or she was socialized. If you are socialized in a more just society, so runs the enabling premise of their argument, then you are a more just person.

German arrogance today is rooted in a profound sense of their belonging to a social state that is far more superior (in their eyes) than the USA and Israel, and to most other European nations. They sincerely, almost naively believe that Germany has achieved, by dint of its own efforts, an order of magnitude greater social and economic justice than other countries, especially Israel and the United States.

Because they’ve been socialized in the more or less socialist state of a united Germany, they themselves are more just, more moral, certainly more politically correct citizens than Americans, Israelis, and most other Europeans (with the possible exception of Swedes whom Germans tend to revere as the archangels of social justice and egalitarianism). When they do provide a consciously worked-through argument for their moral arrogance today, it is from de facto grounds. Often, that argument goes no further than, “Germans save money, while Greeks and Spaniards and Americans buy everything with credit cards.”

In German, the terms for debt and guilt are cognate and are near homonyms, schuld/schulden. So wealth equates to today’s arrogant German, to moral superiority, or, at least, to lack of guilt. To be debt-free is to be guilt free. Money is the measure of all things, especially among today’s German social constructivists. (This attitude explains the schoolmarm tone that German chancellor Merkel assumes whenever she address Greeks about the continuing but forgotten Euro crisis.)  But the mentality extends way beyond household economics.

Regarding Germans and the Shoah, the rhetorical problem is one of disabusing smug Germans of their moral arrogance. After all, they quickly point to overwhelming and undeniable social evidence in Germany of the superiority of the German social system, from family care to affordable education to health care to unemployment insurance to retirement programs. German arrogance today is rooted in the media-backed perception of their country’s superior social justice as evidenced in clear measures of social quality.

They point to some of the lowest levels of poverty in Europe, to a comparatively just distribution of wealth, to crime statistics that are infinitesimal by comparison to the US or Israel.  And now that they’ve graciously received, housed, cared for millions of Syrian war refugees, where the USA and Israel have, in their eyes, not only not received any refugees but, on the contrary, caused the refugee crisis in the first place, most Germans feel that their nation has exculpated itself once and for all of NAZI crimes against humanity. Even Obama is cited as evidence here, when he failed to stop Assad from using chemical bombs, the famous line in the stand that Obama backed away from.

Factual history teaches us that German prosperity today is not the result of past German effort, per se. It’s chiefly the long-term consequence of the Marshall Plan and the NATO defense umbrella, which, for 70 years has relieved Germany from paying for its own defenses and access to foreign resources (in Africa and the Middle East especially), thereby freeing the government to spend that money on social programs not only during the Cold War but even today, which is why most German politicians do not support Germany upping its NATO payments.

Perversely, the equitable distribution of German prosperity, a key measure of social justice (which is now crumbling like a sugar cookie in milk), is the long-term consequence of WWII, as Walter Scheidel explains in his “Great Leveler Thesis,” in which catastrophes like WWII eliminate elite power-holders in affluent societies, leveling the playing field for following generations. That’s exactly what happened in Germany. Germany’s power-holders, its cliques and official and unofficial Big Money organizations were decimated during WWII. Except for a handful of survivors (whose progeny are currently reasserting themselves, such as Family Wehrhahn in Düsseldorf), Germany’s powerful pre-war oligarchy ceased to exist.

Perhaps today’s Germans should really be feeling guilty about how they have personally profited from the mass bombings of the Allied Forces?

As indicated in a recent study, eighty percent of Germans want the Holocaust past to remain in the past. They no longer see its relevance to today. Germans view any mention of the Shoah today in the context of discussing Israeli politics not only as a cheap shot but as a red herring, as a distraction from the shame and guilt Americans and Israelis ought to be feeling about their own national catastrophes.

Germans today tend to respond with well-studied sardonic smiles to mention of the Shaoh, even outside of political discussions and typically reference the American Indians or Black Lives Matter adjacently to Palestinians whenever the Shoah and Israel are mentioned in the same conversation–knee jerk moral equivocation that proves the enduring wisdom of Alexander Pope’s quip that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

Nation-wide studies have discovered that 80 percent of all Germans under thirty do not even know when, exactly, the Holocaust took place. Around 80 percent believe the USA started and caused WWII, the argument being that US and British imperialism not only bankrupted Germany but made Germans feel threatened about their national security, which left them vulnerable to the rhetorical trickery and socio-psychological ploys of Hitler and Goebbles. This is basically post-colonial theory applied to revise Holocaust history and, thereby, make Germans less guilty for the Shoah. Around 80 percent under age thirty believe that Soviet Russia liberated Jews from the NAZIS. They know almost nothing about Soviet anti-Semitism. Less about Stalin’s psycho-biographical facts.

Among Eastern Germans, I’ve never found guilt about the Holocaust. East Germany never accepted responsibility for the Holocaust; its Marxist ideology blamed western, imperial capitalism for the rise of the NAZI state. That view of the historical past remains unsurprisingly entrenched among East Germans today.  Only among a small minority of highly educated Western German elite — some journalists, some academics, and some politicians, some museum directors — have I ever witnessed personal guilt or shame in today’s under-sixty Germans about the Holocaust, and never among “culture makers,” theatricals, creative writers, musicians–universally, truculently leftist and knee-jerk hostile toward Israel.

The reasons for German moral indifference are varied, ranging from excessive love of personal comfort (consumer-driven hedonism) to sheer terror of the outer world (xenophobia, neo-phobia) and the love of ritual for the sake of daily ritual.

Will Dr. Landes’s extravagantly sane, morally oriented argument fall on deaf ears among most Germans? Yes.

Setting aside the comfort-loving hedonists and focusing only on those very, very few Germans today who ever think about Israel or the Shoah, here’s why: Whenever the Holocaust is brought up here at the street level where Germans are not under an international floodlight, this tired but widely accepted equivocation is almost always immediately adduced as if it were the equation by which the Higgs Bosen is described: The carpet bombing of Dresden + the carpet bombing of North Vietnam + the carpet bombing of Iraq I + Iraq II + Israel “paying back Palestinians for what the Nazis did to their forefathers” = Auschwitz/the Shoah.

And recently, due to the rise of far-right movements like Pegida and the AFD, the ludicrous moral equivocation of Dresden = Auschwitz is tipping over into all new German moral equation of the Shoah in which German victims of WWII are given the more moral weight than Jews or Poles or Roma-Sinti or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Many more Germans gather annually in Dresden and Magdeburg and Leipzig to commemorate the Allied Bombings of Germans than turn out to commemorate the Shoah. During the most recent Holocaust Memorial Day in Magdeburg, a small handful turned out to commemorate, whereas many thousands turned out to commemorate the day of the Allied Bombing.

The first time I heard the Dresden = Auschwitz equivocation I knew that Germans holding to that moral math had become seriously morally and historio-graphically discombobulated, but in all the years I’ve lived and worked among them, I have yet to find a rhetorical tactic capable of disabusing them of their sense of pride in their current moral superiority or their growing collective sense of having been the real victims of WWII, victims of American and British imperialism.  Germans were, according to this latest contortion of the German past, pushed into Nazism by Americans. Never mind the fact that the USA had fewer than 10,000 troops in any kind of uniform in 1941.  

Given what Dr. Landes bravely recommends in his argument here — “Perhaps it could understand that the Jews and Israel are their best allies in the struggle for social justice, and, more to the point, in this battle with triumphalist Islam” — I ask, which demographic in Germany could openly and sincerely reach out to Israel (not Israelis who have childishly run away from their homeland to a purportedly utopian Berlin un-threatened until last winter by Islamic terrorism), but to Israel as a national project, to Israel itself as the best hope for democracy in the Middle East that has ever existed.

I cannot find this demographic in Germany. Only German arms & weapons manufacturers have any vested interest in maintaining close ties to Israel. Most politicians do not want to appear Israel-friendly for fear of alienating their anti-Israel constituencies. Charles Peguy’s quip applies with maximum aptness to Germans today, “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” (Notre Patrie, 1905) Progressive in Germany means being hotly critical of Israel as a neo-fascist state.

Street fact, today’s Syrian refugees are Germany’s “new Jews,” as one German colleague put it, “And they exonerate Germans forever from Holocaust crimes.” That’s Merkel’s greatest moral achievement for the German people, the not-so-secret reason she’s so deeply beloved by so many Germans: She found a way to get Germans off the Holocaust shame and guilt hook, for good.

Although I’m personally very grateful for Dr. Landes’s powerfully articulate parsing of collective guilt and shame, for it helps me refine my thinking about how to work effectively with honor-societies in the grey-zone of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, I doubt that it will reach many Germans.

Too, too many Germans today feel neither guilt nor shame regarding what their grandparents or great grandparents did to the ancestors of today’s Israelis. They view themselves as the morally and politically correct products of a superior and admirably just society, and they view themselves as untouchably morally superior to any nation they view as being less just than Germany.  As long as their media keep feeding their moral egos with daily horror stories about the woeful social, political, economic injustice that plagues the two countries Germans love to hate the most, German self-satisfaction will continue to grow into obesity.

Trump, ‘ell, he’s even tastier ego food for Germans than was Bush. The stupider Trump’s tweets, the smarter and more superior Germans feel to all Americans, to the entire American system, which most Germans now view as an existential threat to world stability and peace. Same goes for negative coverage of Israel/IDF, as Dr. Landes correctly notes in his analysis.

Far too many Germans love to watch Jews in 2017 Israel behaving like NAZIS in 1939 Germany. It is pure moral Schadenfreude. For the scariest exploration of that mentality I know of read Jorge Louis Borges’ short story Deutsches Requiem.

As a former tutor to a grandchild of the first post-war chancellor of Germany (Konrad Adenauer), I learned of Adenauer’s honest, breakfast-table opinion of the formation of the State of Israel in 48/49. Recall, Adenauer’s Germany supported the young Israeli nation with reparation payments–Germany’s first attempt to buy its way out of guilt. My pupil told me that Konrad believed that the Jews would be universally hated within fifty years because of the formation of State of Israel. “They’ve been put into an impossible situation,” my pupil quoted him as saying, “in which the Jews will have to employ NAZI-like tactics simply to survive. That will make them universally hated.”

My pupil never made it clear to me whether Konrad found his own political prophecy saddening or gladdening.

As far as the content of Dr. Landes article goes, it is fantastically level-headed. If rhetoric be truly as George Kennedy defines it — “Rhetoric in the most general sense may perhaps be identified with the energy inherent in communication:  the emotional energy that impels the speaker to speak, the physical energy expanded in the utterance, the energy level coded in the message, and the energy experienced by the recipient in decoding the message” — then this article should win over every German who reads it. Dr. Landes’s rhetorical energy is infectious and honestly serves sound arguments and evidence.

Unfortunately, Germans today live in what Angela Merkel recently called “a post-factual world,” a world in which Robert Heinlein’s infamous quip is more apt than George Kennedy’s: “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.”

Underlying German arrogance today is a deeply entrenched prejudice from yesterday. As former chancellor Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt once noted, “The problem with Germans is that the believe they are better than all other people.” Not even the Holocaust was able to get Germans to revise that opinion of themselves, as Schmidt noted in the 1970s.

What I find most courageous about Dr. Landes article here is that he knows the social-psychological sources of German arrogance and how it blocks them today from honest rhetorical efforts to liberate them from themselves. He, nevertheless, picks up the cudgel, where many of us gave up trying many years ago.

11 Responses to German Arrogance 2017

  1. Iskander says:

    This sort of discussion is really missing over here in Germany. The kind of people Mr Quiggles describes here are the people fond to do so: the leftist, liberal, free-market with social constraints people who are pro USA and Western Civilization in general. And these people (like me) have gone through decades of history, narratives and perceptions, the last decade of which Mr Landes covers here so brilliantly at “augeanstables”. I website I read for some years now with the greatest of respect for its insightfullness.

    It is a very good observation, that the old German elites were largely gone and could be replaced by a new generation of entrepreneus and “ordinary people”. Germany has endured the most changing environments since the Industrial Revolution that sparked the deadly competition of nations, climaxing in German nationalism, one of the early and worst kinds of this ideology. Therefore shame nowadays felt here is transfered to “Zionism” as a matter to process and dispose of the own guilt. This original refusal of guilt acceptance was passed on the next generation, the 60th revolution. Ironically, schemes of the past were mimicked, mirrored and copied. These people of the progressive left, with famous newspeople (even the mentioned Helmut Schmidt was one chief editor of the most mundane liberal weekly Die Zeit) among them. For several decades these papers formed the moral leftist majority mentality Mr Quiggle draws on, and in particular increasing venemous reporting on Israel.
    Actually, this is the most unbelievable thing for you as some young German: why on earth would the righteous German press cut down on the Jews, they must be actually on the side of them and cover up their crimes! This utter delusion fed upon itself in a weird way that needs to be described, but that is the madness of antisemitism. Another thing that has gotten much worse is anti-americanism of the most vicious way, denying “American exceptionalism” which (you guessed it) is paranoically perceived as aggrandizing “over alles”-thing. A disgusting fever of anti-Trumpism in which many statuate pro-western, pro-USA people wrote things like ultra-leftists far before them, attacking the USA and totally misrepresenting it, has unfolded in 2017. It is so very sad.

    The distinction of guilt and shame is basic and central to the problem of historical remembrance. It was only Mr Landes recent essay that made me fully aware of this difference, such a great read!
    People believe too easy, they are not in any way responsible for things not done to them personally. Unfortunatly they also would tend to believe it becomes a matter of “Honor and Shame” then instead. You have no personal liability, it was all a matter of duty and you really did not want to know — such attitudes will prevail in a moral climate of personal guilt. The impersonal guilt was neglected and channeled in mysterious projections, among them the antiisrael antisemitism and anti americanism.

    Germany may be on the brink of being sacked by some aggressive Russia or reemerging Caliphate. Instead of supporting the exhausted USA with weaponery and armies and defending themselves, they demobilitize further. You could call that passive aggressiveness (sort of the social justice warrior-style methods prevailing at some US campuses). Or perhaps they want to pay their “collective guilt”, they actually abhorr, by self-sacrifice being smashed by some enemy. It also is so nicely Christian and matyr-like.

    20 years ago such idea would have appeared most ridiculous to me, but now they may really best describe what is happening. Incredibly, religious tracks have been followed although that was the last thing people wanted.

    Keep on writing please.

    • Goat Roped says:

      Why do so few Germans today know anything at all about the long, glorious history of Jews in Germany?

      Do they know when Jews arrived in what would become “German” territory? Do they know why? Or where they lived in Germany? How old and enduring those communities had been before the Shoah? How they influenced the German language? German culture? German commerce? German education? German science? How Jews in Germany were a vital organ of the German nation until Germans cut them out, like cutting out their own livers?

      Imagine: What if West Germans, since the end of WWII, had been required, in high school, to study Ismar Elbogen’s Die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland? The Jewish-German historian wrote that history on the eve of the Shoah in a last-ditch effort to show his German countrymen how long Jews and Germans had lived together in Germany (since before Germany was Germany, when the Romans settled along the Rhine and Mosel). In that heroically composed, comprehensive history of Jews in Germany, Elbogen tries to remind his German countrymen that SOME Germans had always tried to protect their Jews during the previous 1,000+ of pogroms and anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Germans against their own Jewish populations. Silly Elbogen! He, too, thought he could communicate, rationally, with his too-arrogant-to-listen or read-anything-carefully German compatriots. He thought he could persuade them out of their murderous pride with mere words and historical facts. He thought he could get them to see the value of Jews to Germany and, thereby, prevent the mass slaughter that Elbogen knew was impending.

      Maybe you could write a similar book today on the eve of the first German general elections when a far right party, the AFD, will very likely win major percentage of the German electorate’s vote?

      Imagine if more Germans actually knew the details of the history of Jews in Germany. Imagine if they actually knew what Germany lost when it murdered its Jews. Instead of making these mad and desperate dashes to escape shame (by shifting blame for the Holocaust onto America, France, Britain and by pretending that Germans were the real, true victims of WWII), Germans might begin to feel true sadness and remorse for what was lost forever to Germany. If Germans had any idea at all about how much and how long Jews had enriched and ennobled, “Germany” for well over a thousand years, Germans today might began to regret the lack of a Jewish presence in Germany.

      Curiously, Poles today, especially in Krakow, do experience this sense of regret about the lack of a Jewish presence in Poland. They have learned what Poland lost when Germans murdered their Jews.

      Why is it that Germans can pontificate in detail about the history of American Indians, but know nothing about the history of Jews in Germany? Granted, what most Germans think they know about North American Indians derives from the fantasy novels of Karl May (who was one of Hitler’s favorite authors).

      Perhaps greater awareness of the details of Jewish contributions to German language, culture, politics, economics would make Germans feel less shame and more sadness, more remorse, more regret about the loss of the German Jewry. That would be a giant step toward appropriate guilt, which, in turn, might help German de-disorient themselves, morally and spiritually.

      But imagine, once again, how much arrogance Germans today would have to sacrifice in order to sit down and devote themselves to the study of the history of Jews in Germany?

      In order to perform that kind of study, however, Germans would have to humble themselves before the intellectual, cultural, political, economic vitality and creativity of Jews. They would have to bow before Jewish achievement.

      If Germany be the Christian nation you suggest it is, then Germans should have no problem humbling themselves before the history of Jews in Germany. It was Christ sermonized on the mount, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth.”

  2. Iskander says:

    Another thing, Mr Quiggles: there is one detail that might be wrong:

    “Around 80 percent believe the USA started and caused WWII, the argument being that US and British imperialism not only bankrupted Germany but made Germans feel threatened about their national security, which left them vulnerable to the rhetorical trickery and socio-psychological ploys of Hitler and Goebbles.”

    It is inconceivable that 80 % would believe the US “started and caused WWII”, that is only believed by far-righters. It is certainly true that 80 % would believe that GB/US and French etc imperialism and more so unjust reparation payments set the stage (insofar “causing” it, indirectly).
    This charge was also Nazi propaganda and also German propaganda far beyond the Nazis, by the industrial elites (that of course were the classical warmongers).

    • Goat Roped says:

      80 percent might be somewhat off the mark, but the German Left (not only the extreme left either) ascribe to that post-colonial counternarrative of how WWII got started (by US “imperialism”) as vehemently as do the German Far Right.

      That counternarrative is increasingly being taught in German high schools, especially in the East where that narrative was taught by the Soviet-dominated, Communist regime (the DDR).

      In other words, both the German left and Right are hastily revising the history of WWII and its causes. The US and British “empires” are moved forward as the “causers.”

      Ask any average German today about German imperialism and genocide in Nambia and they will have nary a clue what you’re talking about. Point being: Germany’s imperial ambitions between the wars have STILL not been written into the nation’s collective memory. Again: shift the blame, escape the shame.

    • Richard Landes says:

      In other words, at the time they paid reparations for their deeds in the second half of the thirty-years war (to Israel), rather than (as Quiggle notes) get resentful of the Jews, they might have reconsidered the toxic resentment (and denial) involved in their criminal response to their loss in the first half, thus perpetuating the next round that prolonged the “First World War” and, retrospectively gives us the thirty years of murderous war in the heart of Europe.

      • Goat Roped says:

        Yes, exactly. It’s the arrogance (moral solipsism) that keeps Germans trapped in the deja-vu-all-over-again hamster wheel.

        Were today’s arrogant Germans able to humbly bow before any Jewish achievement, past or present, they might make a step toward appropriate and adequate collective guilt.

        The pinnacle of Jewish achievement in the 20th century was the post-Holocaust gathering and re-organization of what remained of the Jewish people and the founding and repeated successful defending of the only truly democratic nation in the Middle East. Corollary to that miraculous achievement is the resurrection of what had been more or less a “dead” or ritual-only language, Hebrew, and the establishment of a safe-haven for Jewish identity, especially as that is expressed religiously.

        By comparison, what has Germany achieved in the past 75 years that comes anywhere close to the miracle of the State of Israel? Indeed, German arrogance today smacks of compensation, as if, deep down somewhere in the collective German unconscious, they know, despite their myopic social-constructivist dogma, that they really do not have anything about which to be proud in the past 100 years.

        Pride goeth before a fall. We will see what new dispensation may befall Germany in a week, in the social malformation, a sort of political appendix, that is a viciously anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying popular party: the AFD, the Alternative for Deutschland. The alternative they offer is mindless, soulless escape from the ugly facts of the German past. They offer an unearned arrogance based in near-complete alienation from the realities of European and world history. That is how they promise to free this generation of Germans from Holocaust guilt and shame, by denying it. What’s scary is that 80 percent of all Germans are in sympathy with the AFD’s “Holocaust politics”: Germans, by & large, don’t want to learn anything about that past or the remarkable Jewish German past before the “catastrophic” past. (Perhaps they should focus, instead, on the recent history of their national flagship company, Volkswagen? and learn to be proud of VW’S cheating, deception, fraud, and inferior automobile engineering?)

        Until Germans can see Israel for the achievement, the JEWISH achievement, that it is, they will remain mired in moral solipsism and deaf, dumb, and blind to any evidence, any argument, any history that attempts to puncture their bubble of smug arrogance…with the rough beast of Dejavu slouching on the horizon.

  3. […] from the author, because it fits so powerfully into the discussion we’ve been having here and here. […]

  4. Rich Rostrom says:

    This otherwise excellent essay is seriously flawed by a gross factual error:

    “Never mind the fact that the USA had fewer than 10,000 troops in any kind of uniform in 1941.”

    The US enacted conscription and began rapid expansion of its armed forces in 1940. As of 30 June 1941, the US had

    1,462,315 soldiers
    284,247 sailors
    54,359 marines

    But even before the run-up to WW II began, the US had far more than 10,000 men in uniform. As of 30 June 1939, the US had

    189,839 soldiers
    125,202 sailors
    19,432 marines

    The interwar US had a far smaller army than many other nations (but a relatively large navy), but that fact should not be exaggerated.

  5. Goat Roped says:

    I find these numbers here:

    We need to correct Ken Burns’s THE WAR, whom the author may have been citing for US troop levels in 1932.

  6. Goat Roped says:

    In the year in question, US troops levels, combined, were 244,902. In 1939, the year Nazi Germany invaded Poland, they were, 334,473. Compare those numbers to the German troops levels in the 30s.

    However, under 10,000 is WAY too low.

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