When the words Germany or German are uttered, the mind is deluged with powerful and contradictory images. It doesn't matter if you are a student of German history or not, or even if your only impressions of the Deutsche are from TV and the movies.
Bismarck, the Kaiser, Hitler and the Holocaust. The Nuremberg trials. The Wall and the police state of East Germany. But also Goethe, Hesse and Mann, Wagner, Mozart and Bach, Schweitzer, Kant and Hegel, Von Braun, Guttenberg and Einstein.
Also, soaring Gothic cathedrals, Octoberfest, beer and the Volkswagen. The list goes on. Is there any other people or state that evokes so many ideas and images of evil and beauty, destruction and accomplishment?
So entrenched was the idea of the bad German, however, that when reunification occurred 20 years ago, then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president François Mitterand were secretly opposed. They feared it wouldn't be long before a united Germany would flex its biceps and threaten the peace once again.
That, of course, hasn't happened. In fact, the opposite is true. The Germans have become peaceniks, the spiked helmet replaced with progressive internationalism. It's a fascinating evolution, and it's not over yet.
Naturally, therefore, there was a great deal of anticipation when the editorial board of the Free Press met this week with Germany's ambassador to Canada, Georg Witschel, and Sabine Sparwasser, the German consul general in Toronto.
Despite our best intentions, the subject of war did come up, but it wasn't THAT war.
Germany has been criticized internationally for its antipathy to making war. It stayed out of Libya and its forces have been quartered in the relatively safer areas of northern Afghanistan, drawing heat from its NATO partners that it wasn't pulling its weight. Some observers even lamented, half-heartedly, the demise of the Prussian martial spirit.
Our German guests, however, said Germany has lost 60 soldiers in Afghanistan and its contribution is the second-largest, after the United States. On Libya, the Germans stressed the need for peaceful resolution of the conflict and warned against the unintended consequences of armed intervention, reasonable positions at the time, but unfortunately on the wrong side of history today, at least so far. Witschel added Germany was not neutral in the conflict and it is making major contributions to rebuilding the shattered country. The country also has troops in the Balkans.
But Witschel went further in explaining Germans today are revolted by war. After two world wars and the Holocaust, how could they not be? They were the perpetrators of the most ghastly conflicts in world history, the people who turned Europe into a dark continent for most of the 20th century and caused some victims to wonder if poetry would ever be possible again. Other people lost their faith, saying a good God would never have allowed so much suffering.
"Our appetite for war is low," Witschel said.
Germany is leading the rescue effort of the euro and Greece today, Witschel said, not because it wants to dominate Europe or merely because it wants to protect its own parochial interests, but because it genuinely believes in the concept of a peaceful, prosperous and co-operative Europe.
"If we lose the euro," Witschel said, "we could lose Europe. We don't want that to happen. We love Europe."
He said Europe will have to become more integrated in the future, which means every country in the collective would have to give up still more of its sovereignty for the common good.
"We believe in a European Germany, not a German Europe," he said.
With the exceptions of the seal hunt and dirty oil, Germany has no issues with Canada. In fact, it is learning a lot from us on the subject of multiculturalism.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said "multiculturalism (in Germany) has been a failure," but she did not mean that the concept was wrong, just that Germans did not understand how to implement it.
When Turkish workers were imported to fill labour shortages in the 1960s, they were called "guest workers," not new Germans, and it was assumed they would return home at some time. But they stayed and raised families without any state-sponsored support to ensure they integrated. Subsequent waves of immigrants were tolerated, but ignored, resulting in the creation of ethnic suburbs and social tensions.
"We created parallel societies," Sparwasser said. "Children often paid the price because even though they were born here, they didn't speak the language (and) that created problems in school and in the workforce."
As a result, German officials have been visiting Canada to learn from our experience at welcoming newcomers, who receive language and job training, and other supports to help them succeed. Everyone has a right to follow their own religion and customs, but they are also treated as equals in a society where everyone, except aboriginals, is a descendant of immigrants.
We may not have reached the end of history, but Germany has shown societies can transcend history and purge their malevolent strains.