Iraq, oddly enough

Ministry Of Silly Talks

And now for something completely different: Geoff Hoon, the British Defense minister seems to have single-handedly redefined the meaning of British Humour. He’s clearly missed a career in Monty Python’s Flying Circus… Electrolite heard the following on Sky News tv:

“Umm Qasr is a town similar to Southampton,”

UK Defence Minister Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons yesterday.

“He’s either never been to Southampton, or he’s never been to Umm Qasr,” said one British soldier, informed of this while on patrol in Umm Qasr. Another added: “There’s no beer, no prostitutes, and people are shooting at us. It’s more like Portsmouth.”

compulsory reading, Iraq, US Politics

A gruesome In-Between Tuesday.

What a weird day. A day so in-between. Between the announcement of the verdict and its execution. Between the certainty of war and the doubts about its justification.

Watching the media report about the imaginary ultimatum that Bush announced last night was even a bit surreal, especially given Ari Fleischer’s declaration that US forces might enter Iraq even earlier in case Saddam Hussein would clearly state he would not leave Iraq. What does he expect of the Iraqi dictator? A collect call to the White House?

More surreal things have been going on today. Some of the very same EU foreign ministers who met in Brussels to discuss the post-war humanitarian help for Iraq will fly to New York tonight to meet at the Security Council tomorrow in order to discuss the Weapon Inspectors’s disarmament schedule, even though the last weapon inspectors have been flown to Cyprus today. I have to say, this does strike me as slightly shizophrenic.

And it’s risky – imagine the Willing starting to fight during the meeting. Embarrassing doesnt even begin to describe the consequences. But that’s just what might happen if the US should feel the meeting is intended to corner it even further. And what else should it be good for? Oh wait, maybe the Iraq ambassador to the UN, Mohammed A. Aldouri, will use a statement about anthrax-alligations to scare the US forces even further that Iraq could indeed use whatever is left of whatever WMDs it once had. I really can’t see what this meeting is good for. Pictures of sulking foreign ministers in a powerless Security Council will not help anyone, least of all the United Nations. Thus, if war has not started by then, maybe tomorrow will be even more surreal than today.

Earlier, I listened to Tony Blair speak in the Commons. He wasn’t as good as usual, one could literally sense his lack of sleep. But his speech in itself was not all that important. The vote was. And as expected, the British government’s position was confirmed by the House – despite Robin Cook’s applauded resignation. In the end, the rebellion was bigger than last time, but smaller than feared – or hoped for – on either side – 139 Labour MPs dissented. Done. I bet Blair asked Bush to let him get some sleep and see his son before starting the war.

One of the good things of in-between days is that they are a great time to reflect about things. As today was the Iraq-War-In-Between-Day, I thought about the imminent war on Iraq.

My reflections were triggered by a chain email that my good friend Sabina sent me today. It included a link to a site with horrible, gruesome pictures of victims of war. You can find this link at the end of this post.

I am linking to the site because with yet another war looming over our heads and the American forces’ inclination to “shock and awe” their enemies, these pictures are an important reminder of the reality of warfare; of the fact that weapons, however intelligent, are intended to destroy and to kill. They are a stark reminder why there so many people oppposed to any military action, for whichever reason.

I am not one of them. In my opinion, there are instances in which war can be necessary despite the horrors it will inevitably inflict on everybody involved, innocent or guilty, old or young. Sometimes, only horror can end horror, if philosphically just or not. The allied invasion to end the nazi dictatorship in Europe is often cited to illustrate this. The US-led NATO attack on Serbian forces ethnically cleansing Kosovo, however ineffective it was or was not, is another. So what about Iraq?

To state that there are possible cases for war inspite of its horrors implies the necessity to explore any possibilty to avoid armed conflict. Not just to go the last mile of diplomacy, but far beyond. I know that this a problematic statement, given that much of what is going on these days is high-profile game theory, and, of course, sometimes threats have to be executed to remain credible.

A few hours ago, Tony Blair was laughed at in the House of Commons when he he made that point by comparing the current situation to the Munich conference of 1938, when the civilised world thought it had appeased Hitler, while all the effort really signalled that the great powers would not care enough to forcefully oppose him. The problem at hand is that both, Blair and those who laughed at him, are right – and wrong.

Of course, it is historically untenable to compare the question of disarmament/regime change in Iraq to Hitler’s aggressive, ideologically rooted expansionism. But, on the other hand, people still react to the incentives they face. And Saddam Hussein has only been forced into cooperation with UNMOVIC because of the credible threat of a war signalled by almost 300.000 US and British troops prepared to march towards Baghdad and use their Daisy Cutters on the way.

But however important the lessons of history are, they do not really tell us about the future. The latter is, indeed, unknown.

Regime change in Iraq is desirable. And I know that some argue that ‘real’ disarmament is only possible in conjunction with regime change. But given the recent rather positive record of Iraqi cooperation, I believe it was unwise to let the US military calendar determine the political agenda. Even if I accept the possibilty of war as last means, I do not believe that the Weapon Inspector process had arrived at that stage.

However much I agree that Iraq will be better off without the current regime – regardless of the world’s suspicion that the US administration is pursuing a secret agenda of its own – I do not believe that the risks of not fighting this war outweigh the risks of fighting it, especially if one thinks about the days after.

The latter aspect has two finer points. The first one is general – while I believe that it is entirely possible to come to a different conclusion, I don’t believe that violently removing Hussein will jump-start Iraqi democracy. The most promising element of the latter calculation is the demographic srtucture of the middle east: increased alphabetisation and education could indeed have important positive effects. But however young the region may be on average – this is a generational project and so far, no one has offered any convincing reason why ousting Saddam would result in a short cut to modernity for a society in which power is still structured by tribal affiliations, and in which distributional conflicts will in all likelihood result in severe ethnic clashes without strong, and thus likely violent, central control. Moreover, if Iraq is to remain in its current borders (as the US has promised Turkey, which is not too thrilled about the thought of an independent Kurdish state South of the territory inhabited by its own Kurdish minority a majority of which seemed to have at last accepted the idea of living in Turkey, according to one German ARD television correspondent in the area) one opressive regime will likely have to be replaced by another one. But in the end, all that is speculation.

The second finer point I am referring to is of specific nature. Even if I would agree that benevolent ‘colonialism’ and hierarchical modernisation is the right long-term policy, I do not believe that the current US administration is the one to lead the way. Look at Afghanistan. It may be less violent than during the Taliban-Nothern Alliance war, but outside of Kabul, it’s the Warlords’ territory again. Take this and the recent diplomatic record of the Bush administration and it will become very difficult to factually support their policy.

Thus, to cut a long story short, in my personal estimation, all this adds up to the conclusion that this war is not (yet?) necessary.

Even NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman shares this view, but none the less supports the war for he believes in the Western Prometheus, arguing that it is a war of justified choice, albeit not one of necessity. Here, I can’t follow Mr Friedman. Why would anyone choose war if it is not necessary? Even the most adamant hawks would always claim that fighting Saddam is necessary to achieve their argument of the day.

Ironically, Mr Friedman makes this point in order to explain to the American public (and their government) why international support is so important in this case – when he is in fact explaining some of the reasons for the lack thereof. A large part of the global opposition to war believes exactly this – that the Bush administration has chosen a war – without ever really explaining why it is necessary to pay the price, most importantly, in blood.

I believe there’s a lot of moral clarity in this rule of thumb: As long as a war is not really, really necessary, don’t fight it.

And in case anyone is still undecided about the fundamental truth of these last words, check the link my friend Sabina sent me – but I have to warn you with a necessary disclaimer: if you click on this link, be prepared to be shocked to your core by pictures of death inflicted by war. Don’t click on the link if there are kids or any other people looking at your screen who won’t be able to deal with what they will see. I’m *not* kdding here.

compulsory reading, Iraq

Downing Street, Number 1441

Robin Cook, former British Foreign Minister and since June 2001 Leader of the House of Commons [and in this position the immediate ministerial superior of Ben Bradshaw, the MP in whose Parliamentary office I worked in 2001] resigned from the British cabinet as as a consequence of Tony Blair’s apparent decision to send British troops to war solely based on UNSC resolution 1441 – [from Blair’s reply to Cook’s letter of resignation – ]

“The government is staying true to Resolution 1441. Others, in the face of continuing Iraqi non-compliance, are walking away from it.”

I’m sure he wasn’t referring to Cook with that last sentence, as he is clearly not walking away. Quite to the opposite, he literally rose through the ranks of the House to deliver his resignation speech from the back-benches.

If you have 11 minutes, watch his speech. Actually, watch it even if you don’t have 11 minutes.

Cook eloquently lays out the case for more inspections and against warNow! in what the BBC’s political correspondent Andrew Marr claims was –
“[w]ithout doubt one of the most effective brilliant resignation speeches in modern British politics.”

While I am not too sure what his resignation as well as his speech will mean for tomorrow’s Commons vote on Iraq, I am sure it will have some effect. The Parliamentry opposition against warNow! will likely rally around him as he has pointed out that he is very much committed to a continued Blair leadership of the Labour Party.

Recently, it seeemed that Blair supporters have been able to rally back-bench support for the government’s case given that some OldLabour MPs had speculated a bit too publicly about a possible leadership challenge on the day after.

Cook is offering NewLabour back-benchers a convenient way to show their opposition to Blair’s position on Iraq issue without signalling to the remaining OldLabour faction that they would suppport a leadership challenge. This, the BBC online’s Nick Assinder believes, will not help Tony Blair’s sleep tonight –

“The prime minister, who was not in the chamber, may have felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as Mr Cook ended with a call for the Commons to stop the war with its vote on Tuesday night.”

I doubt Blair will lose his case tomorrow, but chances are, a majority will clearly depend on Conservative votes. I guess no explanation is needed as to why it is a huge problem for a PM to be backed by the opposition instead of his own Parliamentary party.

But even in case the rebellion will be less pronounced than commentators expect, and even if the war will take a favourable course – I doubt Blair’s decision to invest almost all his political capital into supporting the US government’s case for regime change will ever pay off. Even without a possible future leadership challenge, Blair will never again be the political star he used to be. Governing will be a lot harder for him in the future than it has been before. There will be too many people wanting to cash in the blank cheques he had to sign for support.

I suppose, the days when flashing a personal invitation to Downing Street was in itself an important political property have passed. Certainly interesting times on Whitehall.

Iraq, US Politics

Tongues Against Terror

Freedom Kissing - Tongues Against Terror

A very European joke I had in mind since I first read about those Congressional “Freedom Fries”… should anyone be interested in a larger version, let me know. I thought it would be a good idea to post it before making fun of the US Supreme Commander would likely make me an enemy combattant and strip me of my human rights. Besides, the next weeks very likely are not going to be too funny, as warNow! will probably begin Tuesday or Wednesday night.

As for those 24 last hours of diplomacy, I still think there’s a slight chance to preserve peace for the time being, peacefully disarm Iraq through UNMOVIC and, most importantly, allow W a face saving withdrawal.

Any second resolution would have to involve a common global threat of military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime – France, Germany, and Russia would have to accept some version of the British bullet point list and commit themselves not only to political support, but also to significant military engagement in a future war, should UNMOVIC not decide at the agreed date that Iraq’s compliance is in the 99th percentile (100% is impossible, as there will always be misunderstandings that could then be used by one party or the other to back their non-agreed-upon actions – recent stories about how the US forged intelligence and how the latest British Iraq dossier has its main origin in a political science paper – don’t get me wrong here, I studied that myself – it’s just that you would assume that MI6 has more resources than a library). Basically, it would involve to credibly back up the European formula of war as last means.

In this case, I believe, it would be hard for Bush and even more so for Blair to renounce this offer. And more time would, first and foremost, allow everyone in the game to reposition themselves and explore new options – apart from Saddam Hussein, given the scrutiny that he is under these days.

So will it happen? I doubt it. Mostly because personal stakes have been now chained so firmly to national positions. Just imagine Schroeder or Chirac trying to explain this to the German or French public. Moreover, if everyone believes that the US would not accept a positive UNMOVIC verdict in the end, US unilateral action would be even worse for global governance than it will be now when everybody can still pretend that resolution 1441 does indeed offer some legal recourse for lonely unilateralists.

So it is very unlikely that tomorrow’s UNSC session will yield something like the strategy I sketched above. But don’t say that diplomacy is dead until it really is.

May the force be with them.


High Noon?

Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit called this week’s main OpEd column “The Showdown” [link in German].

Well, in my opinion, it’s not yet “High Noon”. Hans Blix will get some more time to look for the guys holding smoking guns. He will get at least as long as there will not be a second resolution, or as long as Tony Blair needs to make up his mind whether to go to war without a neither a second resolution nor a proper majority of his own in Parliament. Last Wednesday night, 121 out of 413 Labour MPs told Blair in the House to go back to Downing Street and read some more student papers in order to make a better case for war. And more seem poised to defy their government on this issue.

Given that a government office is the only real political (and financial, too, by the way) payoff for politicians the British political system has to offer, and that these positions are to a large extent Prime ministerial appointments, 121 votes against a government-proposed motion become even more impressive. Labour’s majority in the Commons is 83 seats. You do the math.

On Wednesday, the motion was approved by the British lower house only because it was supported by Members of the opposition.

At least legally, things don’t look too bleak for the British Prime Minister. This is what the Guardian’s news dispatch said –

Labour’s Graham Allen asked: “Under what legal or statutory authority will you commit British forces to war in the Gulf?” Very precise questioning there, and Mr Blair, who is a lawyer, knew exactly what he meant. Under British constitutional law and tradition, what is called the royal prerogative is still used to declare war in this country. It’s one of those untidy hangovers from medieval and early modern Britain. What the king used to do, the prime minister now does, and he doesn’t have to get the permission of parliament or anybody else. Mr Blair was evasive – the words “royal” and “prerogative” did not cross his lips. Instead, he said: “We act on precedent, and whatever we do will be consistent with the constitution and with international law.”

But let’s face it – politically, it would clearly be bizarre and possibly suicidal for Her Majesty’s New Labour Premier, who in his earliers days set out to fundamentally modernise the British political system, to rely on a questionable legal construct called “royal prerogative” to order British troops to fight a war not even a his own Parliamentary party is willing to back. Period.

But as Blair has committed himself so uncompromisingly to the “war now!” camp, he does not have too much space to manoeuver, just as Schröder on the other bank.

However, now the British influence in Washington really shows – I seriously doubt Washington would invade without British backing. The political difference between a war that is fought without proper legal justification by the UN and a war that is literally fought unilaterally is so big even those American hawks whose horizon is the Beltway must be able to see it.

So, in my opinion, it’s not too much of a surprise to hear a bit more conciliatory words from Washington these days. [Link in German]

German Politics, Iraq, oddly enough, US Politics

Axis And Alliance… We’re Soooooooo Willing.

Politicians are such a crazy bunch sometimes. If you read Ari Fleischer’s [White House spokesman] statements regarding Germany at the White House Press Briefing [search for Germany] last Friday you could indeed think that Germany is now part of the “Alliance of the Willing”. I guess he just wants to confuse the German media ;-) – remember, two weeks ago we were on par with Lybia and Cuba, remember the Axis of Weasel?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, take a look — Germany is an example. Germany, we already anticipate, will vote no on any resolution at the Security Council. Yet in the end, Germany played a constructive role in NATO to make certain that our ally, Turkey, could be defended. If you recall, Germany supported the position of the military divisions within NATO, the Defense Planning Committee, to protect Turkey, which indeed is receiving the AWAX and the chemical weapon defenses and other supplies that NATO is now on the ground providing to Turkey. That’s an example of a nation that intends to vote no at the Security Council is still a member of the Alliance and is still helpful in certain regards.

I really wonder what made them change the tune… could it be that Blair’s problems within his parliamentary party are the key? I suppose it’s been a long time since British backbenchers had such a power over war and peace. Maybe W started to count the members of the “Alliance of the Willing” and realised that there aren’t too many that a larger part of the American public would be able to locate on a map should Blair indeed be forced to weasel out, in case the French veto a second resolution.

So the enrollment criteria for the Alliance seem to have become a little more inclusive… Hmm, I wonder what the Schroodle thinks about this development.

oddly enough

The Return of the Jedi

A number you probably won’t need. But a funny one nonetheless. From The Guardian’s news dispatch…

“The UK is home to 390,000 Jedi Knights, according to the results of the 2001 census. Following an internet campaign, 0.7% of the population recorded their religion as “Jedi” on the annual survey. The registrar general for England and Wales, Len Cook, said the Jedis had been lumped in with the atheists. “We have put them among the 7.7 million people who said they had no religion. I suspect this was a decision which will not be challenged greatly,” he said.”

Hmm, I wonder what Master Yoda would say…

almost a diary, Germany

If You Are In London This Week…

why not attend some of the great events organised for this year’s London School of Economics German Symposium by the LSE German Society.

Unfortunately, you have already missed the one hour special performance “Old Europe At Its Best” by Harald Schmidt, Germany’s #1 late night talk-host. Remembering the one time he did a show entirely in French, I am really disappointed I missed this performance in English.

Also, the Foreign Minister, Joscka Fischer, had to cancel his talk with Tony Giddens due to unplanned UN Security Council business on Wednesday.

For everyone in London who is interested in Germany, LSE is the place to be – certainly this week.

almost a diary

Self Help Tip # 1.

I attended the first concert of a friend of a friend tonight. Just one man and his guitar. It was pretty much what you would expect from someone presenting his art on stage for the first time. So it’s not his performance I want to tell you about. Rather, I’d like to tell you about an idea conveyed in a little “self-help song” he sang.

So “When you’re weary, Feeling down, When tears are in your eyes” you might no longer need chemical bridges to cross your troubled waters from now on: Just imagine a sexual act performed by a well known politician of your choice.

While the therapy is certainly unusual and clearly involves some graphic indecent thoughts, I have to say, the song worked wonders for the audience – everybody was in stitches. But it is crucial to choose someone usually considered entirely asexual. Don’t pick George Clooney or Mira Sorvino and then complain to me the therapy did not work for you.

Maybe you should just give it try – next time you feel down, why not think of W in the Oval Office, playing with a Havanna. Or even better – think of him playing with little Talking President Dolls, just like Lord Dark Helmet did in Mel Brook’s Spaceballs.

almost a diary, compulsory reading

Kraut-bashing. Some personal context.

Kraut-bashing is *so* passé. That is at least what the British comedian Frank Skinner tried to tell his countrymen when he publicized his support for the German team before last year’s World Cup final. His arguments have been summarised and endorsed by the BBC but as the article tells us, there was not just enthusiastic support for his stance. The Sun subsequently called Skinner “Franz” and digi-dressed him wearing lederhosen – they had gone Brazil nuts!

No one should have been surprised by this display of journalistic creativity. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids as well as all other specimen of British quality publishing like to spice up dull English headlines with some Tscherman words from time to time. And it is certainly true that a vicious circle of linguistic militarism is fueled by them as well as by those English fans whose choice of words demonstrates that football can be so much more than just a game whenever a match between the old Germanic rivals looms on the playground. Their strange confusion of war and sports is very visible on the famous 1918-1945-1966-T-shirts.

But I suppose to some, T-Shirts and Blitzkrieg-laden headlines are only side effects, as Der Spiegel’s recent suspicion (link in German) that Germans have become “prisoners of history”, at least in Britain, shows. The magazine’s attention had been sparked by an article, published in the Guardian earlier last December, in which the new German ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thomas Matussek, lashed out against the country’s history curriculum –

“I want to see a more modern history curriculum in schools. I was very much surprised when I learned that at A-level one of the three most chosen subjects was the Nazis.”

– alleging that it contributed to an anti-German sentiment responsible not only for hunny headlines but also for physical and psychological violence committed against Germans in the United Kingdom.

“You see in the press headlines like ‘We want to beat you Fritz’. It ceases to be funny the moment when little kids get beaten up…”.

The ambassador’s remarks point to an incident in October last year, when two German schoolbays on an exchange programme were assaulted by a gang of British youth in Morden, south London. According to the Guardian, they were heckled as Nazis before one had his glasses broken and the other was shoved into a bush.

I am terribly sorry for the pupils’ experience. And I think it is entirely appropriate for a German ambassador to demand a more prominent place for the post ’45 “model Germany” in British textbooks. But I don’t believe that those studying the Nazi dictatorship for their A-level exams will become notorious Kraut-bashers – quite to the contrary.

In Britain – as everywhere else – physical violence against Germans for ascriptive reasons is de facto nonexistent and most instances of verbal Kraut-bashing are likely not of malevolent intent. They are simply an element of the usually acclaimed British humour Germans often have a hard time to find funny.

There are plenty of stories like the one a young German Navy officer told me last week. When he went to the UK on NATO business recently, he was greeted with a joyful “Heil Hitler” by his British comrades. However, the British soldiers lifting their right arms in all likelihood did not intend to imply he was actually a Nazi or even seriously insult him. In their eyes, it probably was a joke honouring the tradition of John Cleese’s famous “Don’t mention the war”-episode of Fawlty Towers.

Although the young officer was not amused about the incident, I would like to point out that, yes, even for a Kraut, Kraut-bashing sometimes can be fun. I know I may be generalising a bit here, but people have always made fun about alleged ascriptive characteristics of other people. But only very few are serious about them. Being able to tell the difference is what is important – for both parties involved. Quite a few usually well meaning people in the UK do not seem to understand that there are different kinds and styles of Kraut-bashing. And believe me, I know what I am talking about: I have been Kraut-bashed by Brits, too.

We all know that there are inappropriate derogatory terms for people of all ethnicities and nationalities in all languages. And we all know that the same derogatory words can have a very different, sometimes positive, meaning in a different context. It’s exactly the same with Kraut bashing. My British flatmates in Paris were allowed to Kraut-bash me. Just as I kept joking about the British “cuisine”, the Empire they lost and how their German would be much better now if the US had not saved their country’s ass twice.

The way we talk to a person only depends on the kind of relationship and our mutual respect. What may be in order for a friend is likely entirely inappropriate for a stranger. And I know how much being told you are what you want to be least does hurt, especially if you’re not expecting

My stranger’s name was Julia. She was the friend of a friend of one of my flatmates and in Paris for a night in Summer 1998. So we all met in a bar somewhere in the Marais (for those who know Paris). I have to say that her first attack was as much a surprise for me as it was for my British friends.

I think you get a useful idea of Julia when I tell you that the only thing she wanted (or was able?) to talk about were her freshly pedicured toenails. But being the gentleman that I am I complimented her, just as expected. But her reply was as unexpected as inappropriate – she told me that she wasn’t interested in my bloody Nazi opinion anyway.

You probably remember – the first time does hurt. And it did. I was stunned. I did not know what to say. No one had ever silenced me by telling me I were a Nazi. And she was serious about it. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, I made the fatal mistake of actually trying to explain to her that I was no Nazi, which clearly provided sufficient incentive for her to keep bashing me until she was eventually silenced by my friends.

However much it hurt that day, I now think of the episode as a valuable experience. It helped me realise the difference between those who joke about beating “Fritz” [ or decapitate the Kaiser, for instance ;-) ] and those who actually do beat him. It also taught me how to deal with the very few Julias around.

And there are only very few Julias around. Thus, in my opinion, those trying construct a theory of German victimhood around incidents like the the teenage clash mentioned above or negligeable individual experiences like mine are creating an urban myth rather than a useful representation of reality. In a letter to the publisher, a German exchange student in North England told the magazine last week that she had spent a year in Britain and never experienced anything like the alleged British anti-German sentiment. She felt “stabbed in the heart” by the article, she said.

When I lived in London, I never experienced anything even slightly reminiscent of the Julia-episode. I walked past the “Bomber Harris” memorial almost every day and never cared about it until a British friend told me how embarassed he was when the Queen (of German descent…) unveiled a memorial for a person responsible for WW2 area bombing German cities in the early 1990s.

Another interesting encounter I had with respect to the anti-German sentiment in Britain was one with an older lady, who had clearly survived at least one, if not two world wars, and who explained to me that, yes, the British fought the Germans in two world wars but, after all, they’re decent people, as opposed to those frog-eating French.

While German tourists are still scared by the myth not to speak German in London Buses to avoid trouble, there are literally tens of thousands of Germans working in the City everyday. When you enter any of the fifty Starbucks outlets between Fleet Street and Monument tube station, chances are, you will hear almost as many German conversations as English ones.

The BBC is certainly right to admit that

“British hostility to Germany simply isn’t reciprocated – [and i]t could be that by using outdated stereotypes – the British are saying more about themselves than anyone else.”

But, in my experience, less and less people are seriously thinking in those stereotypes. Kraut-bashing may not be *so* passé yet, but it is definitely passé.

Last November, the American writer, Pulitzer price laureate, and Princeton University literature professor C.K. Williams made a very interesting argument in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit (link in German, about how Germans have become a group no longer defined by what they actually are or what they actually do – but what they stand for. In his opinion, the eyes of the world see Germans, more than anything else, as a symbol of evil – they have become Ze Tschermans.

While my personal experience is largely different, Mr Williams is probably right to some extent – some Tschermans are still out there, on celluloid, in the history books and, most importantly, in the memories of those who suffered unspeakable horrors under the Nazi dictatorship. As long as we define ourselves as German, we have to accept the historic context which we have been handed – just like everybody else. While history does by no means excuse ascriptive prejudices, it can help explain their existence. Time may be a healer, but big wounds heal slowly.

Sometimes it is up to us to explain where we feel things are no longer funny. The young German officer clearly told his British comrades that he did not enjoy their joke. All people but the very few Julias around will not cross that line again.

And Sometimes we should just relax. Julia taught me to no longer care if some stupid person believes I am a Tscherman. Why should I? I know I am not. And those I care about do know that, too.

What else could be important?