2011/01/28

In the news: Wulff in Auschwitz

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The German Federal president Wulff has held a speech in Auschwitz, Poland, and he did the usual thing: Remind us about what happened and the necessity to remember it and avoid anything similar in the future.

I have to credit him for not falling overtly into the stupid trap of collective guilt, theory but his speech can nevertheless be interpreted as if he did.

The speech was therefore largely a wasted opportunity.

Germans are not significantly different than humans of other nationality by being born as Germans. There's no reason why history should mean a special responsibility for later generations of only one of few nations instead of for all later generations of all nations: The responsibility to learn and adapt.

What that happened in the Third Reich are least likely to be repeated similarly in Germany. A repetition in other countries is much, much more likely. West Germans have spent the 60s and 70s in an effort to immunize themselves against repeating old mistakes, and the late 40's constitution of West Germany contributed to this with a legal basis which was largely defined in order to avoid earlier mistakes.
The efforts went so far that today's youth is already somewhat annoyed by the often-repeated history lessons. If there's any one country that is immune against repeating the old Nazi crap, then it's Germany.

So yes, we have a responsibility. That can and probably should be said. What should be said is that this "we" means mankind. All nationalities have the very same responsibility; they need to see the necessity to avoid such mistakes. Every nation should learn lessons from the global history of mankind, not just from its own history.

The idea that certain problems are somehow nation-specific is foolish - as foolish as a belief in the exceptionalism of the own country, a belief that the own country could not repeat certain mistakes of others. We're all just humans and all human-devised systems can err.

It's utterly self-evident for academics that an experiment or empiric data from one country is relevant world-wide. An economic crash in Malaysia feeds into economic research just as one in the U.S., for example. 

The nationalist view that people are vastly different because of different passports or ancestors and the past of one country should be more important than the past of another one is misleading. Those who restrict their learning from the past to learning about the history of the own country neglect the vast majority of available lessons.

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Wulff should have exploited the opportunity and should have spoken to the whole world, making clear that the lesson of Auschwitz is a lesson for everyone. His "wir" (we) was too ambiguous.

Germans typically fail to learn much from other countries' history. The hyperinflation of 1923 is ingrained into our society's memory, but the modern hyperinflation in Zimbabwe is being ignored. Auschwitz is known by pretty much every adult German, but Pol Pot isn't.

Likewise, it's astonishing how much German military doctrine and thought (the latter behind closed doors) is very specifically and typically "German". This includes myself. I am still utterly unable to disguise as a Commonwealth guy or an American or a Japanese or even as a Russian in discussions about military history or doctrine. I am certainly well-read on the doctrines of half a dozen countries and the military history and past doctrines of more than a dozen countries. I'm still easily identified as one who has been coined by German military thought tradition.

I wonder how much potential for learning is being wasted by this nation-centric view on things.


S O

P.S.: I wrote quite the same in one of the very first blog posts, but readership has multiplied by hundred since then. A repetition won't hurt.
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