I can’t imagine I’ll forget any time soon where I was on the morning of 9th November 2016 when I saw the news: “Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States of America.” The only time I can recall being more shocked and horrified by a piece of news out of America was on 9/11.
(As an aside, what a strange coincidence that the two dates should mirror one another: 9/11, 11/9. Particularly striking, perhaps, for us Brits, for whom 9/11 was always 11/9 anyway.)
For one nation in particular, the date of Donald Trump’s victory will have rung a bell. Not coincidentally, that nation is Germany, the country that progressives worldwide now find themselves turning to for succour. Since Trump’s victory – and Merkel’s dignified response, in stark contrast to our own government’s craven sucking-up – there has been frenzied talk of Germany becoming the last, best hope of liberal democracy.
This is almost certainly nonsensical hyperbole. Merkel shows no signs of wanting to step into the role of global saviour – and little aptitude for the role even if she were willing to take it on. Announcing that she would run for a fourth term as Chancellor, she dismissed the notion that she was the liberal world’s saviour as “grotesque and almost absurd.” She’s a chronic, self-acknowledged hesitator – The Economist recently dubbed her the “iron waffler”. She has no grand vision, no strong ideological mission – though that’s a strength of sorts as well as a weakness.
Still, we should look to Germany as an example in these dark times – but for a different reason. Creating a personality cult centred on Merkel is precisely the wrong response to the advance of Trumpian populism. Instead, we should admire – and learn from – Germany’s historical self-awareness.
Back to dates. The 9th of November has two contrasting meanings in Germany’s national memory. It is, first, the anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. On a single night in 1938, hundreds of Jews were murdered, tens of thousands arrested and sent off to concentration camps, a thousand synagogues burned down, Jewish homes, schools and businesses attacked and ransacked. Nazi thugs armed with sledgehammers smashed windows – hence the name Kristallnacht.
Precisely 51 years later, on the evening of 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall was decisively breached. Many East Berliners burst through the checkpoints to celebrate their newly won freedom of movement. The mood in West Berlin was delirious as Ossis and Wessis drank together long into the night. But the historical resonance of the date was by no means lost on all Germans. A couple hundred kilometres south of Berlin, in the city of Leipzig, a candlelit procession of peaceful protestors marched from the Nikolaikirche – where JS Bach had once been organist – to the site of what had once been the city’s main synagogue, now a memorial to the 14,000 Leipzig Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The synagogue was burned down on 9th November 1938.
The historical self-awareness of those 1989 Leipzigers lives on in Germany today. As the former foreign minister Joschka Fischer put it recently to The Economist, “we are protected by our terrible history. You cannot say, ‘Make Germany Great Again’.”
In the same issue of The Economist, there was a totally unrelated story about Brexit that quoted a Margate taxi driver called Clive: “All the Europeans do is leech off us,” he told the reporter. “They can’t even win their own wars.” I was struck by the contrast and reminded of a comment made by Neil MacGregor – the former British Museum Director and author of a highly-acclaimed book on Germany. At a press conference in Berlin in October, he described Britain’s tendency to focus exclusively on “the sunny side” of its history as “dangerous and regrettable.”
If Britain’s historical self-ignorance is worrying then America’s is downright terrifying. What we are now witnessing is the ghastly, inevitable endgame of a society brought up on the poisonous notion that it is the greatest on earth. The idea of American exceptionalism was initially intended to connote American difference from Europe, but it has been misappropriated into public discourse: too many Americans today believe their country is exceptional in the sense of being better than all others. (See right-hand column in the chart below.)
Attempting to burst America’s bubble of historical self-ignorance seems mostly to be a game played by satirists these days. Witness the two internet memes below (both of which have appeared in my Facebook feed since election day):
And this one a couple of days before Thanksgiving:
Joking aside, let me make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with patriotism. “My country, right or wrong” is a perfectly admirable worldview, so long as you are willing to countenance the fact that your country is frequently wrong. Germany learned this lesson the hard way. Let’s hope that other nations can choose an easier path to enlightenment.