“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”—Otto von Bismarck
The Germans. Always a problem.
Under the Celts, Europe was one country. Under the Romans, under the Church, under Napoleon, under Hitler, Europe was one country. And now, under Merkel, Europe is, for the moment, one country.
When the Celts had it, it stretched from Ireland to what is now Turkey, and it’s still basically Celtic. The Germans—Angles, Saxons, Franks, Lombards, Goths, etc.—later settled on the Celts as ruling classes, and gene-testing is revealing that the “English,” for example, are mostly Celts, as the "French" have always believed themselves. This is in addition to the pockets of more or less “pure” Celts that survive in the British Isles, Brittany, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Venice, which is not an exhaustive list.
The Romans brought North Africa and the Middle East into the mix, as later did Napoleon and Hitler. But the Romans excluded Ireland, the Picts—and Germany. Stay on your side of the Rhine, they told the Germans, and when they raided into Gaul the Romans retaliated by raiding into Germania (with a hard “G”), which was as far as the Romans cared, or dared, to go.
AttilaThe Germans were never Romanized. That’s why they’re like that. And when they (or rather we—see My Racial Profile) got the upper hand, it all fell apart.
Charlemagne almost put it back together, and he did push into Germania. But to be legitimate he had to be crowned in Rome by Pope Leo, who used him like a rook on a chess board, and influenced politics from Britain to Constantinople. That's where the power lay, and where it stayed: seven centuries later Vasari tells us that Michelangelo “spoke to the Pope as the King of France would not have dared to speak to the Pope.”
Germania became a collection of principalities, and it is remarkable, to me at least, that this brilliant people produced no literary masterpiece for so much of the modern period. Martin Luther was a model of German prose (“Sin bravely,” he said; I have that on a T-shirt), but he died in 1546, and until Goethe nothing literary happened, at least nothing exportable. There had been Winckelmann, but Goethe had to tell me about Winckelmann; I’d never have known.
Meanwhile, of course, they were writing the world’s music, if I may take the liberty of including Austria in Germania, as Charlemagne did. Austria had been Romanized; maybe that explains something.
They are a wonderfully clean people, Germans. In Duck You Sucker, Sergio Leone introduces a German military advisor in Mexico by showing him in his seat on a train brushing his teeth. Exactly. In bed with a German you can, and do, go anywhere; in bed with a French or a British person you must proceed with caution.
They do not, however, queue up. If you’re in line for the ski lift and one or more Germans come down the slope they’ll butt right in at the front and have to shouted at and waved away. When, in Casablanca, Carl tells Rick that he gave the Germans the best table, “knowing they would take it anyway,” he’s not making rah-rah war talk, he's referring to this tendency of theirs to arrogate.
Here’s a better example: when the Nazis were advancing on Paris Clare Boothe Luce was staying at the Ritz, and as they approached, the hotel emptied out. But she, intrepid reporter (she invented Life magazine), stayed on till she was the last one, and the concierge came up and told her to leave: “The Germans are coming!” he said. She got out her notepad: “How do you know?” “They have reservations!”
Ah, but now it gets heavy. Now we must touch The Subject. When I was a film professor a German colleague said, “Do you think the world will ever forgive the Germans?”
I didn’t have to ask for what. I treated this as thinking out loud, and ignored it. When he persisted I said, “No,” as curtly as I could.
“For four reasons,” I said, trying to scare him off.
Didn’t work. He wanted to suffer. “What's the first?”
“Morality,” I said. “So vague. What we did to the Indians, what we did to Dresden, what we did to the Italian villages we bombed—Churchill said if we lose this war they’ll try us for war crimes. But there was a case for it. You could argue for it. You could discuss it. The truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that we were experimenting to see what the effects would be on human flesh. Harry Truman said we did it to shorten the war and save lives, but we could have done that by blowing up Mount Fujiyama or giving them a show in Tokyo Bay. Still, there was a case for it. You could argue for it. But with the camps you gave us clarity, a relief from the ambiguity we waffle around in, something black and white. We're not likely to let that go.”
I trusted that would suffice. But no. “What’s the second reason?” he said.
“It was a terrible thing you did,” I shrugged. “Why should we forgive you?” (“You,” notice. I knew he was standing in for his people.)
He nodded. “The third?”
“You’ll never forgive yourselves. Why should we forgive you?”
On the surface he was digesting all this. “And the fourth?”
“Well, when you say the world, you don’t mean Asia or Africa. They’re not interested—they’ve got their own histories. You mean us—the Germanic peoples, including the blond Visigothic aristocracies lording it over the Indians in “Latin” America. We’re Germans. You embarrassed the family. And in family life there’s no forgiving or forgetting.”
Now he was depressed. I felt bad. “On the other hand,” I said, “one of the great achievements of humankind was landing on the moon, and that was accomplished by a former SS man.”
Another German friend (I know a lot of Germans; they’re going to love this piece) is a painter, an Expressionist. (Most German artists are Expressionists; it has something to do with horror.) He was middle-aged before he went to his father and said, “How could you do that?” I don’t know what the answer was. Maybe there was none. Maybe it was unrepeatable. What could it be? But the sense of a curse lingers, on the people and on the land.
And Angela Merkel works under that curse. When France and Germany conceived the Euro-dream in 1951 it was to make sure Germany wouldn’t attack France again. Simple as that. The aim of the Union is to put an end to war in Europe, which a glance at history will show is continual here. Simple as that. But once again, Germany dominates.
The trouble is, Europeans can’t do anything. It's endemic. British incompetence is as monumental as it is dignified, from the top down. A Canadian woman who transferred to the London branch of her company confessed to me, “You just want to push them!”
A Frenchwoman, lounging topless by the Greek sea, said to me, “You Americans [for her I was willing to be an American], you act [inviting me, as it were, to action]; we French are dreamers.” Quite right. Don’t ever try to get anything done in France.
When Portugal and Spain and France and England were young barbaric countries they conquered empires. Those war lords Ferdinand and Isabella were burning down university towns in the suave Muslim civilization of the time, even as they were sending Columbus off to augment their holdings. But that was then. These days it takes a Napoleon or a Hitler to actually do something, and of course the results aren’t always ideal.
A friend of mine—actually he’s not a friend of mine, I’m not even speaking to the son-of-a-bitch—anyway, he’s a yacht skipper. You rent your yacht for a vacation and he brings the crew and sails it where you want to go, and when you’re out there and something goes wrong, he fixes it with tape and a coat hanger and gets on with it. But the German clients are standing there with the manual in their hands. “Yah, but zis iss not za right vay! Ziss is not—” They’re by-the-book people, Germans, and they’re trying to force their considerable will on the anarchic non-work-ethic Greeks. The Greeks have never heard of the book. (See Greece versus the Puritans.)
One of the problems with Merkel—one, I say, of the problems with Merkel— is that she grew up in East Germany, resisting Soviet thoughts, yes yes, I know, but the eastward look was her horizon. The Euro-dream is a West-German dream, not a Merkel dream. She has not explained to her voters that if they break the Mediterranean countries there’ll be no market for what they make, and the Greeks, as a matter of patriotism, are already refusing to buy anything made in Germany. Nor has she mentioned that if they don’t pump their precious money into those countries their own euros won’t be worth much anymore.
M'ma!The Greeks suspect the Germans, who, it must be conceded, rarely do anything without a plan, of forcing them to privatize their companies and sell them cheap so Germans can buy them; and to cut salaries so the new owners will have a low-rate labor force.
And the Greeks, rather than ruin themselves at German command, are playing for time—one of the things they do best. “Wait,” they love to say. “I don’t want to wait,” shouts the Nordic, and the German in me sympathizes. “Wait,” they say.
Now they will lean their chins in their hands and watch the German economy crumble. Then we’ll see where we are.