englishman abroad, history

German Guilt

On Monday, we were at a good friend’s barbecue and I got talking to her father, who has recently retired. He told me a little about what it was like growing up in post-war Germany and travelling abroad as a German. He was one of the first young Germans who went to France on a trip with the German Boy Scouts. One day he was trekking through rural France on a hot summer’s day when his troop happened upon a farm, they approached and asked the farmer for permission to draw water from their well. What do you think happened next?

If you answered ‘They were chased from the property by vengeful French farmers with pitchforks’ then yes, you are correct. It sounds funny, but this young man was not yet even a teenager. A couple of days prior, I had spoken with a Dutch woman who told me about the day she learned about The Indonesian War of Independence at school, and the bad things that her grandfather had supposedly done during the conflict. Both conversations centred on historical guilt. Both conversations put me in mind of British and American attitudes to history.

Many Americans and Britons are proud of their countries’ role in WW2, despite their respective nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing. America is very proud of its history and its struggle for independence from the British, and Britain is still somewhat fond of its old empire. After all, we still have awards like the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and the history of our royal family is interwoven with empire.

Although there is much to be proud or ashamed of in any country’s history, my own thoughts are more ambivalent. Why do Germans still feel guilty about the Nazis? It wasn’t them! Why do Britons harp on about a non-existent empire? It’s long gone! Look at what is happening to the proud countries now: America elected Trump and Britain is leaving the EU. It seems that both places are living in the past. As for Germany, deeply ashamed of its past, it rebuilt and reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse. Looking forwards, not backwards, seems to be the key.

Next week I am on holiday in Tenerife, so there might not be a blog post. Hopefully I won’t get lost, approach a farmhouse and be chased into the sea by  vengeful French expats.