THE ANNEX BLOG – AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN GREEN – 9.10.14
Moreover, the EU has difficulty speaking with one voice. Indeed, it doesn’t speak with one language. It is 28 member states with more than twenty mother tongues. So there’s an incredible amount of variety in Europe and you might well ask the question: Where is the European identity? I think the answer to that question doesn’t mirror the kind of bland uniformity you find from one end of America to the other. This isn’t what Europe is. But we do have common interests and common values. Its important for us to recognise what those are and it’s important for us to build government structures that enable policy-making to be efficient and responsive to democratic yearnings. So yes, there are plenty of challenges at the moment. People talk a lot about the democratic deficit, for example, and recently we have seen a resurgence of the nationalist right in several member states, including the UK with its strong eurosceptic voice. So there are plenty of challenges.
What I think we all have to discover is our common European identity, for all our continuing national consciousness and local identities. We have to learn to be comfortable with multiple identities. The one country in the whole of Europe which is best at that, for historical reasons, is Germany. For centuries, because of the nature of the Holy Roman Empire, Germans have been used to thinking of themselves as coming from their Heimat and from their Land, as well as being part of the German culture, and then latterly, since the 19th century, having a polity that embodied that culture. For particular historical reasons that polity was fraught. It had a difficult birth from the time of Bismarck onwards and never settled crucial issues such as the position of Austria in the Second Reich and its relationships with the rest of Europe. So it’s been a difficult past. Nevertheless, underlying all of that is a sense of layered identities, which the Germans are deeply used to and which other Europeans – including the British – need to get used to.
The relevance of the German experience to the Russians and the Japanese is that Germany uniquely in the post-war period underwent an incredibly painstaking, painful, slow but nonetheless reasonably complete job of – to use the great German word – Vergangenheitsbewaltignung. This dealing with the past, which didn’t come over night, took probably six decades to work its way through all of the issues. Maybe it is still not complete. Maybe for many individuals it will never be complete. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, it is an extraordinary achievement and has meant that Germany is increasingly comfortable in its own skin, whereas neither Russia nor Japan have done anything like that. Of course, they were in different positions: the Third Reich was unique. Nonetheless there are extraordinary evils that played themselves out in Russia – the purges and the treatment of ethnic minorities. In the case of the Japanese you have another extremely complex national psyche that hasn’t been able to properly address its own past. The result of that is a fractured relationship with China. If you go to Nanjing, where over a quarter of a million people were massacred by Japanese troops in 1937, you will find a memorial dedicated to the victims of this massacre. No Japanese government minister has ever visited that memorial. Compare that with Willy Brandt kneeling at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, for instance, or any number of individual gestures of remorse and reconciliation that you find in German history. The difference is stark and it affects Japanese self-understanding and its relationship with its neighbours to this day. The British experience with Ireland is of a different order, but is another example of a country which has not really come to term with its own past.
It is also relevant how the German experience in the 19th and 20th century fed on a sense of victimisation that was widespread in the German population. That feeling was born out of several centuries of maltreatment, particularly in the Thirty Years War and then later with French depredations under Louis XIV in the Rhineland, and not least under Napoleon. All the way through the 19th century, this resentment, this sense that outsiders had rampaged through Germany and created widespread suffering, was there and it nurtured a determination to fight back – an aggressive-defensive mentality that built up in the Wilhelmine period.
There are, therefore, lessons in all this for others. Some are very specific: 20th century Germany is not the only example of a country whose relationship with neighbours is influ- enced by a sense of past victimisation: to take just one (very large and globally increasingly influential) country, China has some clear parallels with the fast changing and emerging new power that was the Second Reich. It has a distinct sense of having been victimised and patronised by the West and then brutalised by Japan during that terrible century and a half, up to that moment in 1949 when Mao announced on the steps of the Forbidden City that the people of China had at last stood up. And now, just as the Second Reich did in the 19th century, it is taking its rightful place on the world stage. Like 19th century Germany too, it is rediscovering a pride in its ancient culture, having gone through a period when all that was belittled. It would of course be simplistic in the extreme to push the parallel too far; but it is easy to recognise the chal- lenges that a new international power in such a mood can pose – for itself and for others.
Or to take another particularly poignant example – this time of a small but determined and technologically gifted country: Israel has inherited an all too readily understandable sense of victimhood because of what happened in Europe and in the face of the sentiment that prevails in some Arab quar- ters that it should be wiped off the map. It faces the classic risk that aggressive defensiveness (combined with expansionary settlement policies) aggravates the very hostility it is respond- ing to. Is there a faint echo of the East Prussian mentality in this – or of the attitude to France of the Second Reich? Again, it would be provocative nonsense to push the parallel too far. But one thing is for certain: Israel has yet to find peace with its neighbours.