My Germany, my burden

I am tired and ashamed. I am tired of the never-ending flow of reports from my country about a people insecure of who they are and who they want to be. I am ashamed of the country where a black man from Africa was beaten to death because he was a black man from Africa. Seeing the dateline "Germany" in the newspaper has begun to make me nervous. Whom have they chased down the street now? What Jewish cemetery have they desecrated now?

This is my country. This is my burden.

I never realized how much fear, how much suspicion my country still evokes, until I came to America five years ago. Fifty years after a decade of darkness is not a long time. I knew that. And yet it often left me confounded to read how my country was perceived. I started clipping stories from the papers. I have a thick folder labeled "German" now. There is not a single article about my country in it that does not include the words "Nazis," "past," "guilt," "uneasy," "anti-Semitic," "troubling," "disturbed," or "alarm." Most of the stories "evoke the past" or "raise troubling questions" about my country.

I got used to it. My Jewish girlfriend didn't. After a while, it was she who became incensed by the way my people were portrayed.

For many years, I believed there was a strong bias in the United States media against my country, and often I still do. But my anger has shifted over time - it is now my own people who unleash my wrath: The politicians who ramble in inflammatory language about a German leitkultur - or guiding culture - greedy for the votes of the far right, and the ordinary Germans who let them get away with it.

There are few countries that have faced their past as vigorously as Germany. We have acknowledged our crimes and our guilt. We have asked for forgiveness and not expected to receive it. We had a chancellor, Willy Brandt, who fell to his knees in Warsaw, asking the Polish people for forgiveness. We had a president, Richard von Weizsacker, who said that May 8, 1945, the day that Germany capitulated, was a day of redemption, not defeat. We had a chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who said that Germany's destiny lay in Europe.

Now we have a mayor in Berlin, of all places, who tells the Muslims living in Germany that they must recognize the cultural values of Christianity. We have a premier in the state of Hesse who came to power campaigning against giving immigrants' children born in Germany the right to German citizenship. We have a secretary general in the Christian Democratic Party who says that he "is proud to be a German," knowing all too well that this is the chant of skinheads marching, right arms raised, through "liberated zones" in eastern Germany. We have an industry that profited handsomely from forced labor and then bargained for less compensation while the victims were dying. We have a Catholic Church that wasn't sure if it should compensate its forced laborers at all.

It was Helmut Kohl who once awkwardly spoke of the "mercy of being born late." This "mercy" feels more and more like a burden to me.

Mr. Kohl's party, the Christian Democrats, recently presented a new policy paper on immigration, an issue certain to be central in next year's election. Now that the German birth rate is low and my country is running out of workers, the idea of admitting foreigners has become appealing to the party. Yet it insists that all foreigners must adhere to "the values of our Christian culture." What enrages me is that these are the very people who claim to have the moral high ground in my country. These are the people who like to speak of "values," of "pride," of "fatherland." These are the people who pretend to speak for my people.

When I think of ordinary Germans, I think of my parents. They have lived all their lives in a staunchly conservative small town. They have forever voted conservative. I have brought a few girlfriends to their house. One was a Muslim. One was a Jew. One came from a drug-infested country called Colombia. My parents embraced them with a kindness that exceeded hospitality. It didn't matter to them where these women were born and if and how they worshiped a god. The neighbors waved and smiled.

After five years in America, I am still struggling with this country. I am struggling with its racism, its hubris, its wastefulness, its short memory. This country has often reminded me that I am a son of Germany, the country where the blood of millions of murdered Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals, and retarded seeped into the soil. They were murdered in my country, by my people, because they were different. Because they somehow didn't fit in the tortured concept of a German leitkultur.

I was born decades after these crimes were committed. I don't mind carrying the burden that flows from them. I just wish that more of my people would carry this burden, so it wouldn't weigh so heavily on each one of us.

It is painful when I sit next to a young Jewish woman who tells me that she has visited almost every country in Europe except Germany. It is painful when the Indian CEO of an Internet company tells me that my people would probably perceive him as a welfare collector when he's not wearing a suit. It is painful when my black Cuban friend tells me she would be afraid to walk the streets in Germany at night.

I always defend my country. I tell them that all the extreme right-wing parties together have never garnered more than insignificant fractions of the national vote since 1945. I tell them that in Germany it is a punishable crime to deny the Holocaust publicly. I tell them that the 7 million foreigners living in Germany today cannot all be wrong. I tell them, almost proudly, that Jews are slowly returning to Berlin, the very city where their extinction once was planned. And then I wonder if I make it worse. I wonder if I am defending the very things that sadden me about my people. And then I feel tired and ashamed.

It was the saddest of moments when in 1999, Ignatz Bubis, head of the Council of Jews in Germany, died and we learned his last wish. The man who had proudly called himself "a German citizen of Jewish faith," the man who was once considered for president, didn't want to be buried in Germany. He didn't want to rest under a tombstone soiled with swastikas. Our president attended the funeral in Jerusalem. I wish our chancellor had gone, too, if only to whisper, "We heard you, Ignatz. You didn't plead in vain."

My country has been kind to me. It gave me a decent education. It showered me with scholarships to explore the world, from the townships of South Africa to the jungles of Chiapas. It taught me not to be afraid. It taught me to listen and embrace. I always felt I owed my country. I always wanted to return one day and show my appreciation. But now, for the first time in my life, I am at a loss. I wonder if it is time for me to go back or if it is time to stay away.

Mario Kaiser is a freelance writer in New York.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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