On a sunny winter day of 1985 or 86, I was waiting in the entrance of the Nuremberg train station when an elderly gentlemen with an Austrian accent addressed me: “When I see how beautifully Nuremberg has been rebuild, I feel encouraged that one day our Germany will be united again too.”
That was an extraordinary thing to say in 1986, especially to a perfect stranger. Clearly, the gentleman had been a supporter of the Nazi regime and yet I couldn’t hold the sentiment against him. He was so sincere, full of awe, hope, and humility.
I knew right away that he must have been associated with the Nazis because he was an Austrian and yet so devoted to Germany and his words had paid special tribute to Nuremberg, the city of the Nazi conventions. His words also betrayed that he had not shed his old loyalties completely.
I asked him if he had visited Nuremberg before the war, perhaps, for the Reichsparteitag. He said yes, then and on other occasions.
At the time, I was a Mormon missionary. Perhaps, the gentleman felt encouraged to share confidences because I wore a suit and tie. Perhaps, he sensed some kinship because, having grown up in the armed forces, I carried myself with military bearing.
Whatever might have been the case, the need to share his feelings, to give a testimonial had overwhelmed him.
The old man was extraordinary, too. He was unusually open and had the ability to connect with strangers immediately. Today, we might refer to him as a natural community organizer. In his time, that skill set was associated with the more ominous label of leader, a man who reaches out to others and gets them to contribute to a cause greater than themselves, in his case, of course, a cause that would destroy not only Europe but Germany, the cause he loved.
I doubt if that gentleman ever recognized all the sins of National Socialism but his words conveyed a sense of regret.
That’s why he needed to talk to me. Experiencing the sunlight flooding the rebuild train station and witnessing beautiful Nuremberg that had only been a pile of rubble in 1945 left him with a quiet sense of awe. In many important ways, the consequences of failure and defeat had been reversed and that left him with a sense of peace.
1986 was only three years before the wall would fall. But back then, German unification was only a dream that seemed to be out of reach. Most of my friends shared the belief that Germany would not be united during our life time. Nobody could predict that Gorbachev would fumble the reforms of the Soviet Union.
I do not know if the Austrian gentleman was still alive on November 9, 1989 when the wall fell and on October 3, 1990 when Germany became one country again. Perhaps, Willy Brandt spoke best for this generation: “Now grows together, what belongs together.”
Unlike my Austrian acquaintance, Willy Brandt had fought the Nazis, first in the labor movement then in the Norwegian army. Later, Brandt became not only the first Social Democratic chancellor of Germany but he won a Nobel peace price for his efforts to reconcile Germany with her eastern neighbors. He had been mayor of Berlin when the Soviets raised the wall and was the city’s voice appealing to the world’s conscience.
Although Willy Brandt had always been an outspoken patriot, the German right, be they conservatives or extremists, had always been uncomfortable with him.
The moment the wall fell and the German border dissolved, was the moment when Willy Brandt spoke for all Germans. Despite the rise of xenophobia and Nazi misbehavior on the fringes of society, German patriotism would be transformed.
Mainstream lefties are no longer ashamed of Germany. Mainstream conservatives are no longer defiantly asserting their patriotism. Instead we all don clown costumes in black, red, and gold for national football games.
That is the synthesis that Willy Brandt’s and the Austrian gentleman’s generation have bequeathed us twenty years after German reunification.
As for myself, having unwittingly served causes that turned out to be less than honorable, I have become a lot less judgmental of my grandparents’ generation. I have found some solace in the advice of the Scottish enlightenment philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume who emphasized the importance of pursuing our self-interest instead of losing ourselves in one cause or another.
Perhaps, nobody analyzed the plight of that generation better than Adam Smith who observed: “Virtue is more to be feared than vice for its excesses are not subject to the regulation by the conscience.”
It is probably no accident that Britain’s greatest contributions to the enlightenment did not evolve at the centers of power in London, Cambridge and Oxford but in Glasgow, Scottland where money mattered a lot and jingoism mattered little. It is certainly no accident that neither French nor Germans have taken well to the philosophy of self-interest. Exposed to the ravages continental power politics, solidarity was too important to let individualism and self-interest flower.
Thanks to the European Union, that plague is no longer with us. Just as Germans could come together with each other, today, we can be friends with all our neighbors. It will be the measure of European unity when Germans appreciate Poland as much as France.
In light of David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s lessons, I take pleasure in the displays of patriotic clowneries on German streets these days. It sure beats goose stepping and might just do the trick if you have to live in the heart of Europe. But most importantly, Germans can finally celebrate together undisturbed by geographic and ideological borders.