Ian Buruma is a Dutch-born historian, writer and cultural commentator (my review of his new book on the murder of Theo van Gogh is in an upcoming in NRODT ), and while I might not always agree with what he has to say, his insights rarely fail to fascinate. Here he is, writing in the New Yorker on Gunter Grass’ admission that, as a teenager, he briefly served in the Waffen-SS towards the end of the war. Buruma’s calm, measured and critical piece is a welcome corrective to some of the commentary that followed Grass’ confession, and is well worth reading. This passage however struck me as relevant in the context of the current debate over the mistakes made in the early days of the Iraq occupation, specifically the extent of de-Baathification:
The tensions between Günter Grass and the historian Joachim Fest are not simply political, even though Grass is a loyal Social Democrat and Fest is a conservative. They have something to do with social class, and are anchored in the early postwar period, when Konrad Adenauer, a conservative Catholic who had been opposed to the Nazis, was chancellor. Fest, from an anti-Nazi Catholic middle-class background rather like Adenauer’s, has always tried to salvage German pride by depicting Hitler as a vulgar freak, who managed to seduce many Germans but not all. A core of educated, well-bred Germans resisted the Nazi temptation and, the thinking went, should be the bedrock of postwar German democracy. In fact, many educated, well-bred Germans did not resist the temptation. But Adenauer believed that the transformation of Nazi Germany into a democratic republic could not succeed without the support of the solid German bourgeoisie: the bureaucrats, diplomats, and university professors; the doctors, lawyers, and industrialists, many of whom were far more tainted by the recent past than a relatively blameless youngster like Günter Grass. The United States, which needed West Germany as a dependable ally in the Cold War, was with Adenauer. This meant not only that the Nuremberg trials were swiftly wrapped up but that Adenauer refused to ratify the verdicts. Many prominent Nazis were released from prison. Attempts to weed out former Nazis from public office were either stopped or turned into a farce. The documents testifying, often falsely, to a person’s innocence were named for a well-known washing detergent called Persil. It was an unedifying, morally disturbing compromise. But it worked. The Federal Republic of Germany did become democratic, pro-American, and embedded in the liberal Western order. Nazi revanchists were marginalized. There was no “stab in the back” legend, such as crippled the Weimar Republic in the nineteen-twenties. Yet Grass, from a petit-bourgeois background, a convert to democracy, ashamed of his own youthful moral obtuseness, viewed Adenauer’s Germany as an outrageous betrayal.
The notion that Germans fell smoothly into democracy’s embrace was always a myth, and one that may have contributed to the mistakes in Iraq. As Andy McCarthy is right to point out, the notion that freedom is the universal desire of mankind is, quite simply, an illusion. I wish that were not the case, but there we are. Even after the total military defeat of Nazism ensuring its permanent eradication took murky, dirty, disreputable compromise, but as Buruma notes, “it worked”. And that’s what counts.