May 31, 2003

I PULL THE STRINGS

To believe that we can end tyranny by self-improvement and restraint (Amity Shlaes, Jewish World Review)
This past winter I returned to Berlin to find the locals pessimistic. My friends and I chatted about different things, but our conversations always ended up at a single place: Iraq. At dinners in the new Berlin Mitte (yesterday's news to them, but still amazing to me) one Berliner or another shouted about the "impossibility" of the Iraqi project. My friends seemed to believe that the best thing they could do was to retreat to that 1950s nuclear freeze motto, ohne mich, "without me".

They seemed to assume that the more modest, the smaller Germany made itself, the safer it and the rest of the world would be. On the sixth week of my visit, 500,000 Berliners protested against the war in Iraq, lining streets from Alexanderplatz into the west. If only we can mount a demonstration big enough, they seemed to be saying, we can improve life the globe over. To many of us - British and Americans - this attitude was irritating.

Where was all the good will our governments had earned through aid and restraint? Where was the lesson of Yugoslavia, which showed that blue helmets alone could not prevent massacres, and that regime change was necessary? But the real problem with this view was that it seemed a fallacy. Germany might want to pretend it is Switzerland. But this is as pointless as an elephant hiding behind a slender palm. For there is, alas, no such thing as a big neutral country. As much as Germany wishes not to take sides, it is, in effect, taking sides no matter what it does.

And no matter how much one disapproved of the Bush administration, one could not help but see that Saddam Hussein was emboldened by his discovery that there was a gap to be exploited between the US and its allies. In this context the mid-war discovery that Russian generals had helped Saddam did not come as a complete surprise. But where did this experience leave me and my friends? For the first time in my long relationship with Germany, the differences began to feel serious.

For me and for many American and British people, the second world war seemed a legitimate and powerful argument for the war in Iraq. For Berliners, it was not. The arguments of my friend Karin were, as usual, the clearest. Hardly a a day went by, she said, that she did not think of "it" - "it" being the second world war of her childhood. She had believed the crumbling of the wall to be the end of that war; now we, the Americans and British, were starting just such a war again. Pondering all this, I cycled one morning to Glienicke. There, for the first time, I noticed a plaque commemorating the return of the bridge to everyday life after so many years. "Glienicke Bridge," it read, "open as a result of the peaceable revolution in the GDR." How wonderful it must be, I thought without irony, to believe that by self-improvement and restraint, we can end tyranny. Would that it were so.

We noted earlier in the week that this notion, though it appears to be grounded in powerlessness, is actually a claim of extravagant power over the behavior of others. The idea in this case is that Germans can control the behavior of others towards them by modifying their own behavior. If only they stay out of the rest of the world's business, the world will leave them alone. Not only is this a dangerous form of egomania and a denial of reality, it is also put to the lie by their own recent history, when much of the West tried to convince itself that if the Germans were left alone they'd leave others alone. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2003 9:54 PM
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