Stuart Jeffries

Has Germany finally shaken off its dark past?

‘When it comes to helping others, we are the world champions’, one politician declared in 2015. But Merkel’s welcome to immigrants was pragmatic – and anti-Semitism is on the rise again

Angela Merkel poses with a Syrian refugee in Berlin in 2015. [Getty Images]

In 1982, a board game appeared in West Germany. If you landed on square B9 you were sent to a refugee camp in Hesse where you became ill from loneliness, unfamiliar food and not being allowed to work. Worse still, you had to miss a go and spend the free time thinking about ‘how you would feel in such a situation’. Even if, like me, your childhood was spent crying over lost games of Monopoly, nothing could quite prepare you for the cheerless experience of playing ‘Flight and Expulsion Across the World’. It’s unlikely an updated version has been commissioned for our home secretary, with players assigned counters representing the Bibby Stockholm, inflatable life rafts and Rwanda-bound jets, but you never know.

A group called German Youth Europa launched the game in order to close Germany’s empathy gap. West Germany, critics claimed, was Ubergfremdung (swamped by foreigners). What nonsense, retorted German Youth Europa: Germans made up 93 per cent of the Bundesrepublik’s population, despite having absorbed 12 million expellees after the second world war. Taking in an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese boat people should be no problem. In any case, had not Germans a particular responsibility to care for the world’s most unfortunate to atone for killing six million Jews?

‘When it comes to helping others, we are the world champions,’ Germany’s Green party leader declared in 2015

Across the Elbe at the same time the GDR was boosting its coffers by letting Africans and Asians land at East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, then walk into the western sector where they would claim asylum. The socialist republic, with the blissful disregard for historical responsibility that Politburo-dwelling historical materialists often demonstrate, officially allowed no admissions of guilt or shame for the Holocaust and other evils of the Third Reich.

Frank Trentmann narrates these and other incidents to trouble the Pollyanna tendency whereby Germans have mutated from perpetrators of the greatest crime in history into a nation of Gutmenschen (do-gooders), whose new historical destiny is to teach the rest of us moral invertebrates what it is to be human.

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