Today 80 year ago, German troops attacked Poland, starting World War II, the most horrific slaughter and genocide in European history (I will not be drawn into comparisons with Stalin – “we dealt” with this comparison in the late 1980s during the German “Historikerstreit”). Growing up as German in Germany, I was confronted early on with this horrific legacy. We had furious debates in high school whether Germany lost the war or was liberated from the Nazis by the Allies. I have never had any doubt that it was the latter and that we should be grateful for having lost the war (watching “The Man in the High Castle” these days, it is hard for me understand why anyone in my generation can think otherwise). In later years, I started confronting my personal history, finding out that both my grandfathers had been members of the Nazi party, even though not involved in any of the atrocities of the holocaust or war. There have been vigorous discussions whether Germany is “allowed" to move on from its history, whether it can change the conversation, given the historic distance. And from abroad I could clearly see that German society has taken on a new attitude towards the flag and national anthem. Healthy or risky? In spite of the rise of the AfD, I am generally optimistic. One cannot be careful enough about early dangerous trends, but given how German society has dealt with the recent migration wave, there is not just reason for optimism but even pride! There is a striking difference to what we can see in the US and the UK and what we can see in Germany; an unfortunate reversal of roles.
And one important reason for this optimism is the European Union. No, the European Community and later Union was NEVER a purely economic project. The reason why the European Coal and Steel Community was founded in 1951 was to avoid a future war by regulating and integrating heavy industries across the six founding countries (especially France and Germany). The following trend towards further integration, of which the Single Market is the biggest achievement (more than the euro, I would argue), has created one social, political and economic space, which cherishes national and regional differences and fosters exchange along all possible dimensions. Most importantly, the free movement of people, for travel, study and work, has changed life in Europe. I am part of the Interrail Generation and more than happy to see that it is still around (and would support the proposal to give every young European a free Interrail pass). As Kevin Hjortshøj O'Rourke recently pointed out, part of the success of the EU and the Single Market is that a life without borders is seen as normal (I have personally seen the opposite, traveling from Costa Rica to Guatemala by bus in 1992, crossing through Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, with one hour wait at each border and Nicaraguan citizens being accompanied on the bus by Honduran soldiers on the two hour trip through Honduras before arriving in El Salvador)! There are many good things about European integration, but if there is something I definitely hope we can pass on to the next generations, then it is this absence of borders!
So, on this historic day, we shall not just remember the crimes of the past (and we Germans DO have an obligation to teach future generations across the globe about these events), but I think we can also express gratitude for what came afterwards.
1. Sep, 2019