The “Blonde Beasts” and the Meaning of Europe

The Italo-German dispute continues (last covered in EuroSavant here), with calls throughout Europe (but especially from Germany) for Italian minister for economy and tourism Stefano Stefani’s resignation, and German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder’s bold and steely determination to vacation this summer anywhere else than in Italy.

But that’s just the wrong attitude to take, Michael Naumann argues in his treatment of this whole controversy in the latest Die Zeit (entitled Die blonden Bestien – “The Blonde Beasts,” itself a sufficient shorthand for Stefani’s recent characterization of Italy’s summer German tourists).

Naumann’s analysis is frankly surprising as a twenty-first century piece of German prose. That is because, with the turn of the millenium, you would think that the page could also finally be turned on the Nazi crimes of the 1930s and 40s, which after all occurred 50 years ago, going on 60 – that’s a lifetime/two generations ago. Granted, the things that happened then should never be forgotten – particularly the attempt to hunt down and annihilate the entire Jewish race – but you could hope that contemporary Germany, and Germans, might finally be allowed to emerge from under this shadow.

It seems not. Just last week we had Silvio Berlusconi’s public casting suggestion for German MEP Martin Schulz (although I have argued here that this should not have been taken so seriously), followed by Minister Stefani’s remarks about the “supernationalistic blondes” who “invade our beaches” every summer – a reference (if only unconscious) to German invasions of the Second World War.

Naumann dismisses Stefani’s words as rhetoric of “approximately 1914 vintage.” But he has bad news for his fellow countrymen: it will be a long time before that sort of blather fades away, for the Angst-Bild “Deutschland” – i.e. the image of Germany as a dangerous threat – is likely an “eternal precondition for a united Europe.”

It certainly was an initial precondition for a united Europe. It is a well-known fact that, for all the grand rhetoric about reconciliation and cooperation that attended the beginnings of European integration in the 1950s (the European Coal and Steel Community, Euratom, culminating in the establishment of the EEC with the 1957 Treaty of Rome), the deadly-serious motivation behind it all was the determination of Germany’s neighbors – particularly France – to bring these “blond beasts” under such extensive institutional control that nothing like the First or Second World Wars could ever be possible again. For these neighbors – for all of Europe, in fact – Germany meant, as Naumann catalogs it, “the genocide of the Jews, the grey ones, the German soldier who brought the Gestapo and the SS throughout Europe between 1938 and 1945.”

For those same countries, he writes, Germany means that still. “It is the stigma of our nation.” British tabloids still regularly write of “Krauts” and “Huns” and smear a German finance minister as a “Gauleiter.” And, supposedly, “verdeckte Hinweise auf das ‘Dritte Reich’” (“half-hidden references to the Third Reich”) still play a role in political conflict within the EU. Now, in the recent spate of unguarded comments from Italians, these have merely broken briefly above the surface for everyone to see.

That things are still this way, Naumann makes clear, is surely unfortunate, but nothing can be done directly about this false mental picture of Germany. Indeed, it can rather be of considerable use as an indicator of just how far “Europe” has truly come. “[Europe’s] better future is not contained in a common currency, neither in a constitution that can regulate the coexistence of nations according to the standards of freedom and justice, but rather in the overcoming of the prejudice-laden internal conversations of the European peoples.” (“die Uberwindung von vorurteilsbelasteten Selbstgesprächen der europäischen Völker“)

Although it will have to take decades, an important means to this goal, writes Naumann, has to be the awakening of curiosity about neighboring states – about their own historical self-views, and about their own cultural treasurers. Gerhard Schröder therefore belongs in Italy during his summer holidays, visiting museums, attending operas, and generally leading his fellow citizens along the way to eventual German-Italian (and indeed, pan-European) post-World War II understanding.

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