Ask a young American what being an American means and you will most likely receive a clear and confident reply. Ask a young West German and the answer will be at best unclear, at worst an embarrassed refusal, more likely than not confusing patriotism with assertive nationalism.
The reason lies in the fact that one of the two successor states to the Third Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany, was forbidden and disqualified from developing any emotional identification with Germany's past. West Germany has been left stranded, neither fish nor fowl, a wealthy, orderly society with a midlife identity crisis and a youth many of whom feel little if any identification with the society they live in.
What does being West German mean? Who are its heroes? What is the Federal Republic's history?
Merely to ask the questions is to strike a jarring note and to suggest one of the underlying causes for the rise of the peace movement which so often sounds as though it had forgotten recent history. For how can a young German think his country worth defending when he or she is discouraged from the normal feelings of emotional and cultural attachment with its past? It is surely no accident that so many young Germans would like to emigrate, preferably as far away as possible, with Australia a favorite choice.
In part, the fault, however understand-able, lies with the Federal Republic itself. Many parents blame themselves and their parents for failing to educate today's youngsters about the past, whether out of shame or calculation. Not only do young Germans not know about the postwar division of Germany, but they fail to realize that today's Federal Republic is the most democratic state and society in modern German history.
It doesn't help that the Federal Republic is still a ''provisional'' state, with a provisional capital and institutions, officially waiting to become something else. Paradoxically, the problem is made worse by the official doctrine of eventual reunification, which merely postpones the day when West Germans must face up to the fact that they are a separate and permanent state which must get down to nation-building.
The terrible scar left by Nazism obviously complicates matters. Nazism penetrated to the core of Germany's being, leaving a black hole in the country's history that neither parents nor teachers have managed to fill.
But we in the West also are to blame for creating a generation of Germans without a homeland. While former Nazis were still in positions of responsibility in postwar Germany, it was proper to be vigilant. But this has now given way to a ghoulish and un-healthy obsession with the perversions of the Third Reich and an unnatural sensitivity to the merest hint of German national interests or a renascent German patriotism.
The West has allowed the Federal Republic to be portrayed as the successor state to the Third Reich, while the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, somehow has been able to confiscate all that is positive in Germany's history and to emerge unsullied from the Third Reich.
There comes a time when the past has to be forgiven, if not forgotten, and wounds, however dreadful, allowed to heal. Should today's young Germans be made to bear the sins of their grandfathers and denied the right to a past? Shouldn't they be encouraged to develop an emotional identification with their German state? Refusal to allow this natural process to begin will only further encourage apathy, neutralism, and, maybe, a resentful nationalism that would be detrimental to the West's security.
The decision is not Germany's alone. It is we in the West who must make a conscious effort to give today's Germans back their past and develop their own patriotism.