Having spent the last two or three millennia uncompromisingly slaughtering one another, we Europeans now live as one. There is perpetual peace in what Mr. Gorbachev, rising as near to poetry as any member of the nomenklatura ever did, once called “our common European home.” Never again will the dogs of war be unleashed upon our immemorially blood-soaked soil. From now until the end of time, it’s love our neighbor as ourselves.
Alas, the human heart does not always follow the human head. Underneath the surface expression of noble sentiment, the old visceral hatreds and antagonisms still bubble away, waiting to erupt. When Signor Berlusconi grumbled in the European Parliament that Herr Schulz of the German Social Democrats would make an excellent Kapo in a film about a Nazi concentration camp, he set off a row that demonstrates that national sentiment on the old continent remains alive—and not entirely harmonious.
Signor Stefani, the Italian Minister of Tourism (38 percent of Italy’s tourist revenues come from Germany), weighed in with the opinion that German tourists were hyper-nationalistic blonds who loudly invaded Italy’s beaches and, through indoctrination, believed they should be top of the class, whatever the situation. To prove that he wasn’t over-generalizing, he added that German Chancellor Schröder was not too bad—for a German.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Herr Schröder cancelled his holiday in Italy and decided to stay at home in Hanover, upon learning which Signor Berlusconi replied that he felt sorry for Herr Schröder: a sentiment that anyone who has ever spent time in Hanover will fully understand.
There’s no doubt that, more that half a century on, we haven’t overcome the legacy of the Second World War, at least where our feelings are concerned. Not long ago in Germany, I went to dinner with a man in his thirties who ran a forestry company. In order to explain how difficult it was even now to be a German, he described how a meeting in his company to decide on a company slogan dragged on for hours because someone suggested as a possibility “Holz mit Stolz”—Wood with Pride. Was it, everyone wondered, the beginning of the slippery slope to Auschwitz? This week planks, next week planes, the week after that world conquest. After long debate, they decided that no pride was permissible for Germans in any form.
Fairly or not, rationally or irrationally, many Europeans still feel that the Germans are but a gestalt switch away from their old ways. The French fear the Germans and the Germans fear themselves: hence the Franco-German alliance. I was reminded how deep-seated are the old fears and feelings, and how even a few decades of official friendship have not assuaged them, by what happened not long ago to my mother-in-law, who had grown up in Paris during the Occupation.
She helped a lady even older than herself, burdened with several shopping bags, onto a bus. They fell to talking, and the older lady asked my mother-in-law where she lived. She told her the apartment block, and the old lady asked what number. My mother-in-law told her, and the older lady began to cry. It was there that she, who was Jewish, had hidden throughout the war years, keeping away from the windows. The windows of the apartment overlook the commissariat de police that during the war was the local Kommandatur. Even now, the old lady could not pass it without a frisson of fear.
Oddly enough, ever since I heard the story, I have not been able to look at the commissariat in quite the same way either, though I was born after the end of the war. We inherit the ghosts of the past—even the ghosts of the ghosts.