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Can the Germans now teach us?

David Aaronovitch writes from the Bavarian Alps on the lessons we could learn from Europe's history

    I am writing this in the early morning, with the sun on the peaks of the Bavarian alps. Yesterday we went walking with a group of middle-aged Germans up the flank of a mountain called the Karwendel. When we had breath we talked. They all — from the Catholic hospital chaplain to the former tank commander in the Bundeswehr— expressed a polite and bewildered sadness at Brexit. Had not those great men, Churchill and Adenauer (said the chaplain) argued the case for European unity following the war?

    If we have to generalise, then there are few peoples I would rather spend my time with than 21st-century Germans. It is a cliché to say that they, forced to come to terms with their own history, are the keenest exponents of peace and human rights. But it is true all the same. They seem on the whole thoughtful and scrupulous. Not paragons of unselfishness to be sure, but with a confidence in their ability to do the sensible and difficult thing.

    Like a person who has been through years of good therapy, they appear to know themselves, whereas we and the Americans have forgotten who we are and where we came from.

    Britons, for example, only remember 1940, and it has slipped our minds altogether that for centuries we were an imperial power. This has created a fantasy of separation that has served the Brexiteers well.

    The day before I had run slowly up to the little lake behind the hotel. When I jog or walk the dog, I listen to audio books — usually thrillers — on the iPod. This time it was one of Philip Kerr’s later Bernie Gunther novels, most of which are set during the Second World War, the hero being a tough, humane detective forced to live and work under the Nazi dictatorship.

    In this one, Bernie has returned to Berlin from an assignment on the Eastern front in which he has witnessed mass murders of Jewish families, to be told that it is now partly his responsibility to oversee the new law requiring German Jews to wear the yellow star.

    In the same country, nearly three generations earlier, the Omas and Opas of my charming hosts fashioned a hell for our zaydes and bubbes, believing that they were devils. Or, as Bernie recalls the historian Von Treitschke’s often repeated words, they thought: “The Jews are our misfortune”.

    “Year after year,” von Treitschke also wrote, “out of the inexhaustible Polish cradle there streams over our eastern border a host of hustling, pants-peddling youths, whose children and children’s children will one day command Germany’s stock exchanges and newspapers.” Sixty years after Treitschke, we had Kristallnacht and the yellow star.

    Last week I gave a short opening to a seminar held by Rene Cassin, the Jewish Human Rights advocacy group named after a great Jewish jurist of the 20th century. It was a serious gathering and the tone, though committed, was pessimistic. Next year sees the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a great business but, as we reminded ourselves, an elite endeavour. It had passed no referendums, no post-war Farages had been enabled to speak against it, no electorates consulted in its construction.

    So now, possibly, in the populist era, it felt vulnerable. Was it still relevant? Were not economic rights — the rights to decent food and decent shelter, to not living in combustible tower blocks, now more salient and concrete than the less material rights to freedom of speech, expression, political assembly and for minorities? Was there now a need (and here I paraphrase) for a shift of focus?

    But as one of us also pointed out, in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell Tower almost the first response of the Opposition leader was to suggest the requisitioning of empty private property. There was no need at all to do it; the area has plenty of hotels and volunteered accommodation that could be (and was) hired to put up burned-out families. And the law still protects the property of private citizens, even unpopular ones.

    But the punitive impulse was upon us even as the first shock at the event passed. And that to me was the problem.

    Modern dictatorships never have any problem with promising rights to food, shelter and efficient transport to their peoples. Their special peoples. It’s who supposedly has to get it in the neck to allow this to come about: the foreigners, the treacherous elites, the naysaying scribblers and enemies within. The most important human right of all, it often seems to me, is the right not to be made a scapegoat.

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