Travelling from Leeds to London by train recently, I had the misfortune to sit near a group of men who were loudly barracking a German colleague. The line from the old Fawlty Towers sketch - "Don't mention the war" - was repeated five, 10, 15 times, missing the point of Cleese's satire entirely. From time to time, this refrain was varied with cries of: "Sense of humour. Sense of humour."
That comedy sketch first appeared on British television some 30 years ago; the historical events to which it referred are now 60 years old. And yet even the youngest generation of Germans - whose grandparents were scarcely born at the time - lives in their shadow. As the former German President Gustav Heinemann observed: "There are difficult fatherlands: Germany is one of them."
A former foreign correspondent for The Independent and now London director of Human Rights Watch, Steve Crawshaw has drawn on deep experience of the country beyond the political villages of Bonn and Berlin - of its popular culture, its literature, films, and above all life on the street - to write a concise, humane and perceptive account of how the nation is coming to terms with its unbearable past.
Germany, he writes, remained in deep denial for 25 years or more. Former Nazis held senior posts in government and industry; schoolbooks emphasised the sufferings of Germans while relegating German crimes to a footnote; the imperative was to work hard, rebuild, and not to rock the boat.
In the late 1960s, a new generation started asking painful questions that divided families and exploded in the violence of the Baader-Meinhof years. Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi, was replaced as Chancellor by Willy Brandt, who expressed contrition for the Holocaust and embarked on detente with East Germany. A new consensus emerged: painstakingly liberal and careful not to harbour global ambitions. This was the Germany that Henry Kissinger described as "an economic giant but a political dwarf". Along with a greater openness came a new denial of the real sufferings of the millions of Germans ethnically cleansed from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union at the end of the war. For a criminal nation to complain of the hardships it brought upon itself would be in poor taste, to put it mildly.
Another dramatic turn came with the unexpected collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. With bewildering speed, a new Germany came into being, a Germany with more immediate problems than picking the scabs of the past: how to cope with mass unemployment; how to accommodate equitably the descendants of Turks and other "guest workers" who underpinned the West's "economic miracle"; and how to respond to the eastward expansion of the EU.
Crawshaw sees grounds for cautious optimism in this. The country is united and democratic, and its far-right - though capable of mounting vicious attacks - has failed to make electoral inroads. On the international stage, Germany now has the confidence to send troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan but also to refuse to support the invasion of Iraq.
Crawshaw rejects a uniquely German propensity for genocide, the result of what Martha Gellhorn called a "loose gene". Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo's experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, in which US students were easily induced to commit acts of torture, revealed the dangerous complacency of this idea; events in Bosnia and Rwanda have shattered it.
Easier Fatherland is a compassionate and wryly humorous assessment of how far Germany has progressed on its long, painful crabwalk back to normality. Perhaps they should distribute it on InterCity trains.
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