Virtually since the end of World War II foreign writers have been discovering and reporting on the New Germany in books usually with that term (or the New Germans ) in the title. One of the most recent, in 1996, was The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany, by the New Yorker's Jane Kramer, but there have been many others in preceding decades by equally notable writers, such as Alistair Horne, John Dornberg, and David Marsh.
You'd think after more than a half-century the topic, not to mention the country and its inhabitants, would have put on a few years. But no, all three are evergreen, and newer Germans keep coming along to be discovered by people like Frederick Kempe, whose Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany is a worthy successor to all those searches for now-not-so-new Germanys.
Kempe, who is the editor and associate publisher of the Wall Street Journal Europe and founding editor of the Central European Economic Review and has covered German affairs as a journalist for 20 years, has, as his title and subtitle indicate, a stake beyond the professional in this. This personal element helps make Father/Land immensely readable. Both his mother and father were German immigrants, and in his search for the new Germany he unearths some old family skeletons.
In going through papers after the death of his father, a World War II U.
S. Army veteran who had come to the United States in 1927, the author discovers strong evidence that he was an admirer of Hitler, an anti-Semite, and a racist. A Jewish friend tells him not to magnify the significance of this, that it is little more than what was standard at the time. However, he also learns of another family member's actions whose significance is beyond magnification.
This man, a great-uncle who remained in Germany after the war, had long been the subject of family rumors. No one knew the enormity of his monstrous acts until Kempe, by diligent poring through German archives, learned he was a vicious, sadistic Nazi thug and very probably a murderer of the Jews who came under his control. The man was never prosecuted, and he died a pious worker for the Mormon Church to which most Kempe family members belonged.
These revelations add a personal strand to what is the central thread of this book, as of all the earlier books on New Germany: the burden of guilt the country carries for the Holocaust. For various reasons Kempe believes the current generation is dealing with this burden better than their parents and grandparents did (or indeed could). He also provides a useful perspective on it by examining the position of Germany's Turkish population.
Most thinking Germans realize that in killing its Jews, Germany killed a big part of itself. Pre-war Jews were proud of being German, fought for their country, and added distinction to its literary, musical, and scientific reputation out of proportion to their numbers. It is ironic, and not exactly nice, that some Germans now yearn for their Jews, given the Turks.
Because the Turks, who at 2.5 million far outnumber the Jews at their height, are not assimilating the way Jews did (or wanted to do). Moreover, many look for their identity not to Germany or even Turkey, but to Islam. Ironies abound: what with the touchy relationship between Islam and Jews, this leads Germans to fear that, should this Islamic trend intensify, the Jews in Germany will again not feel secure, and leave.
Overall, though, Kempe is enthusiastic and optimistic about the country's present and future. It has adopted the American economic model, which is clearly no sin in the eyes of a writer connected with the Wall Street Journal organization, albeit most Germans prefer more of a Sozialstaat (social welfare state). It has adopted American-style democracy, though Germans fret over the stability of a borrowed political system.
And it has unquestionably adopted American ways. Unlike the French, Germans readily incorporate American English into their language. They cannot seem to get enough of American pop culture. This has gone so far as a rip-off of David Letterman's TV show, Late Night with Harald Schmidt, right down to loony street conversations and mocking of the audience.
In other words, the Germans are becoming less German. Whether their becoming more American is as good a thing as the author seems to believe is a matter for each reader to decide.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.