I know many Germans. Many are friends. One is more than a friend—my wife—and three are my children. I love and admire the German nation and people. Its constitutional court is perhaps the best in the world. Its work to advance justice in its own land is remarkable. It has been an important force of justice across the world.
But if you ever get to know a German of a sufficiently reflective sort, you’ll see a certain crumple in their soul. Not guilt, necessarily, but discomfort, certainly. As one friend put it to me once, “we did this”—where “this” referred to the Holocaust and to the crimes of the Nazi regime, and where “we” meant not him specifically (he wasn’t alive during World War II) but “we,” as in Germany.
It is a striking fact about the German people that so many feel this crumple so continuously. There’s plenty that “we” Americans might feel similarly troubled about—slavery, the wilful attempted annihilation of native Americans—but most of us don’t. Maybe those wrongs are too far away, temporally. Maybe WWII is just close enough. Yet regardless, they live with a certain recognition of responsibility, or maybe just regret, even if they were never themselves individually responsible.
We will live this responsibility too.
When I was a teen, I traveled to Germany. I met many Berliners who told me about the Marshall plan, and the Berlin airlift, when America literally fed a Berlin blockaded by the Soviets and starving. “We” were that nation; I enjoyed the benefits of my grandparents' good deeds. No doubt, for my contemporaries, the meaning of America was Vietnam or race riots; but for many, “we” were that decent and good people: “America.”
My children (Americans as well as Germans) will know a different “we.” We will be that nation that held children as hostages—hostages in a stupid political battle about literally the dumbest idea in American politics. “We” will be that people that let that wrong happen. “We” will be the people who let our “leaders” let “our insane leader” drive us to that wrong. That wrong will be on us.
Look around, and see how such things happen. Most of us are not so bad. Few of us want this wrong to happen. Too many of us are too busy to even understand what the wrong is or why it is happening. “We” just let it go — as they did then. Cass Sunstein has a brilliant essay filling this idea out: “It Can Happen Here.” Can? It—not Nazism but injustice allowed—already did.
“Play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis”: who are “we”?
See also: Who Are We