A sad case of schadenfreude
Andrew Gimson says Gerhard SchrOder has unleashed and exploited his country's latent anti-Americanism, long suppressed by postwar German leaders
-I _ 4 ast Sunday I attended a very
odd and unpleasant meeting at the Tempodrom in Berlin. The several hundred people who were present believe the American government is to blame for the attack on the World Trade Center, which it either carried out itself, or else allowed others to carry out, in order to have an excuse to invade Iraq and establish world domination. Michael Meacher has recently argued in our own dear Guardian that Washington deliberately failed to stop the attacks, and a number of American conspiracy theorists had come to Berlin to peddle this line. Many people in this milieu — though not, one can be certain, Mr Meacher — further believe that the American government is in turn controlled by a Jewish world conspiracy, and that Mossad is behind the suicide bombings in Israel.
Any number of variations on these wild themes could be heard at the Tempodrom, and any amount of dubious detail was advanced about why the American authorities failed to send fighters to shoot down the airliners after these had left their permitted courses. One speaker described at length how the airliners had been controlled by propeller-driven aircraft that appeared in the sky near them. A British student from East Anglia University, who had started to find out about these conspiracy theories on the Internet and had helped to put up posters for the conference, said in tones in which one might describe a religious conversion, 'This stuff is the truth, the real world.' Nobody found my suggestion that the Americans were taken by surprise on 9/11 the slightest bit convincing.
The conference organisers, who were drawn from the extreme Left, were anxious to exclude their rivals from the neoNazi Right, and had announced that they would resist all attempts to exploit the 9/11 story 'by the purveyors of propaganda, paranoia, racism, mystification, proselytisation or advertising'. This solemn warning against 'advertising' did not prevent the speakers from advertising their own ludicrous books, which were selling briskly at the back of the hall. Nor had the heavies on the door managed to stop Gerd Walther, an office holder in the extreme-right NPD (the National Democratic party of Germany) from infiltrating the conference and trying to bend the ear of anyone who would listen about the true state of affairs in Germany, which he regards as an occupied country run by a class of collaborator politicians who are themselves controlled — surprise. surprise — by the Jews and the Americans: 'But the German people will have its [sic] freedom. On 8 May 1945 the German Wehrmacht capitulated, but the German Reich did not go under. It's just not capable of acting at the moment, but we're waiting to restore its capacity to act.
We believe the Jewish–American occupying power is heading for defeat. The Jewish power in America will fall.'
It seemed to me that if one started to take this kind of thing seriously, one would addle one's mind. Der Spiegel magazine has this week devoted 16 pages to debunking the conspiracy theorists, but even to plough through that feels like a sort of contamination. These people are utterly disreputable, and perhaps we can still afford to ignore them for most of the time.
It would not, however, be wise to ignore the conditions in which such noxious beliefs can flourish. The Germans are becoming more receptive to all forms of anti-Americanism. A year ago 68 per cent of them still regarded a leading role for the
Americans in foreign affairs as desirable, with only 27 per cent against: now 50 per cent of them reject such a role for the Americans, with only 45 per cent in favour. A venomous stream of anti-American and anti-Semitic resentment has burst forth in Germany during the Iraq crisis. A recent survey in Die Zeit showed that no fewer than 19 per cent of Germans are prepared to believe that the American government could be behind 9/11. Dr Jeffrey Gedmin, an American foreign policy expert who has often appeared on German television to argue the case for the invasion of Iraq, was amazed by the volume and bitterness of the hate mail he has received. 'You Jew son of a whore, you are not welcome in this country, you and that nigger hyena Condoleezza Rice,' was the sort of message sent to him by many of his correspondents. Dr Gedmin happens, incidentally, to be a Roman Catholic.
It is quite possible to be a severe critic of the policies pursued by George Bush and Arid l Sharon without being either anti-American or anti-Semitic, and many Germans have achieved that feat. It would also be grotesquely unfair to imply that just because someone is antiAmerican, he or she must be antiSemitic. A growing majority of Germans are anti-American in some shape or form, but no more than a minority of that majority are anti-Semitic too. Yet in a certain kind of semi-educated person who feels somehow under threat, and who finds the conventional explanations for his predicament unconvincing, the leap from anti-Americanism to antiSemitism is dangerously easy.
In Germany one finds a spectrum of opinion, ranging from perfectly respectable objections to American policy through to evil and demented ravings. Dr Gedmin, who is director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, estimates that about 10 per cent of his correspondents have actually thanked him for making the strategic case for what the Americans have done in Iraq — a case which few other people have had the temerity to express on German television. He reckons that a further 60 per cent of correspondents have attacked his views, but have done so in
reasonably civil terms. Only about 30 per cent have descended to the rabidly antiSemitic form of anti-Americanism.
Another American who works in an office full of educated Germans said, 'With every American soldier that dies the schaderifreude is immense, Every day people come by my desk and say, "Isn't it great, Bush is coming crawling to Schrader now. Schrader won't get an invitation to the ranch at Crawford — George Bush is going to beg him to go there,"' With every reverse, or seeming reverse, that the Americans suffer in Iraq, the schadenfreude in Germany reaches new heights, or depths. The Germans hope the Americans will fail in Iraq. They expected them to lose the war, and now they expect them to lose the peace. Such views are not, of course, unknown in Britain, but are far more widespread in Germany. They are accompanied by an astonishingly low estimate of the Americans' abilities, lower even than the BBC sometimes conveys.
Whenever I visit Berlin I try to see my friend Dr Tilman Fichter, a veteran Social Democrat. We usually walk round the gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg, which are looking more and more beautiful, for they are being restored to their 18th-century form. Dr Fichter on this occasion excelled himself. He is full of acute insights into German politics, but considers the American armed forces to be of no value whatever. As he himself put it, 'Even a British Boy Scout troop is a more military formation than the American army today.' He believes the Germans would be prepared to serve in Iraq as long as a British general was in charge of the country.
Blank-faced young women with flat stomachs jogged past us as I struggled to cope with these compliments. The Americans, I remarked, got to Baghdad in an extraordinarily short period of time. But Dr Fichter was unshakeable. He maintained that the American armed forces cannot now be any good, because the old East Coast elite no longer serve in them and they recruit entirely from the ghetto and from Cuba. He lamented the defeat in American politics of the East Coast by the mid-West and the South, and recalled with a shudder a visit he once made to Phoenix, Arizona.
President Bush is dismissed by most Germans as a cowboy and a hick, and there is no desire to admit that many of those around him are able people with long experience of foreign policy who were strong supporters of German reunification in 1990, as was the President's father. An American journalist of my acquaintance recently had occasion to visit the office of Chancellor Gerhard Schrader, and found the Chancellor's staff giggling about Mr Bush in front of another American reporter.
Such juvenile, and breathtakingly unprofessional, behaviour dismays what is left of Germany's old Atlanticist estab
lishment. Ever since the war there has been a strong vein of anti-American feeling in Germany. To have your country defeated, occupied and then defended by a foreign power is humiliating. Conservative Germans deplored the Americanisation of German culture, while the rebellious generation of 1968 regarded the Vietnam war as a crime comparable to Auschwitz, and demonstrated with ostentatious moral fervour in favour of peace and against the nuclear missiles that Nato wanted to station on German soil. But Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl stood firm for Nato, and the great debt West Germany owed to its American protectors was never forgotten by West Germany's leaders. The West German orthodoxy was that the Germans could only ever prove they were worthy once more of the Free World's trust if they were true to the Atlantic alliance.
Mr Schrader tore up that doctrine, which might indeed be regarded as superfluous once the Cold War was over and Germany was reunited. His record since coming into power in 1998 is appalling — he tinkers helplessly as the economy stagnates, with unemployment over four million and rising — but in the autumn of last year he won a second term by playing the anti-American card. He and Jacques Chirac unleashed and exploited the profound anti-American resentments that have festered ever since the war in Germany and France. By using this rancid anti-Americanism to win re-election, Mr SchrOder gave his blessing as Chancellor to it. One of the routed German Atlanticists, an eminent member of what used to be the foreign policy establishment, remarked to me on Monday that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, would have been proud to unleash such hatred of America.
The period of good behaviour by subservient Germans has ended, to be followed by a period of bad behaviour which can only be understood as a kind of belated adolescent rebellion against the long and humili ating tutelage of Washington. The Germans want to be taken seriously. They want to be treated equally, and any hint that they are not equal is more than they can bear.
Friends of Germany, among whom I count myself, must hope that the present outpouring of anti-American resentment will be a brief and purifying phase, from which Germany will emerge as a mature and sovereign nation. But certain difficul ties stand in the way of such a happy outcome. The Germans consider the Americans to be a backward people with a primitive economic system in which dog eats dog and the state fails lamentably in its duty to direct, protect and organise the life of the people. Yet for some mysterious reason the Americans appear to be a rich, strong, confident, secure, relaxed and patri otic nation. What is more, Germany will only recover its economic dynamism when its dopey political class, among whom the pursuit of consensus long ago degenerated into listless moral cowardice, introduces reforms which give the German economy some of the flexibility and spontaneity found in America. This is a bitter pill to swallow, and the Germans as yet show no sign of finding the stomach for it.
Mr Schroder is a gifted and ruthless opportunist, with an acute ear for the mood of his fellow Germans. But the anti Americanism which he has helped to promote may prove a force that even he can not control. There will be official attempts at fence-mending: the Germans are already offering some sort of help in Iraq and will try for a time to avoid making as much of a fuss as they might about Iran, North Korea and genetically modified crops. But there is now such deep and bit ter suspicion on both sides, in Washington as well as in Berlin, that it is impossible to imagine a true meeting of minds. The German opinion polls show rapidly increasing support for the idea of a European superpower, to act as a check to American ambitions: 70 per cent of Germans now favour that idea, compared with only 48 per cent a year ago. No matter that they are not prepared to spend the money which alone could give substance to that project. The Germans are going the way of the French, intent on a kind of European Gaullism that puts every possi ble obstacle in Washington's way. Unable to bear the reality of American power, they have opted instead to live in a world of illusions.
Andrew Gimson is foreign editor of The Spectator.