It cannot be denied: Germans still bear the scars in their soul for the country's responsibility for the tragedy of Europe in the 20th century. Still this day today, one cannot have a decent conversation with German friends without WWII and the holocaust being evoked at one point. Sooner or later in the course of the discussion, the "past" would come up as a point of departure for what is possible and what is not in today's German and for that matter European politics.
Enough has been said about Germany's role in a European economic recovery. Also, plenty of commentators have made clear, that Germany cannot any longer hide behind the past in terms of taking more, a lot more, responsibility for the security of the Transatlantic community. But it is not just about the economy or security. There is an aspect which is unfortunately rarely discussed.
While the economy and defense is key, at the end of the day, Europe's future is first and foremost about the values and institutions of freedom upon which a stronger European Union can be built. Germany stands out in the defense of human rights at home. It is a leader in efforts to protect the dignity, the rights of those who once were the victims of the Nazi regime: Jews, gays, minorities, those born with disabilities. It has strong institutions, a strong and free press and it has a strong elite, including its political, business and cultural elites. While many east-Europeans volunteer to offer experiences in transition from a command economy to a market economy, from dictatorship to democracy, Germans have some deep experiences of their own to share.
The tragedy of the past is no reason to shy away from a responsibility beyond its territory. On the contrary, it should prompt Germany to act in a determined way. The rise of authoritarian tendencies in some member states of the European Union, the backslide in democracy, the growing trend of populism and antisemitism in its wake, is reason for concern and Germans should know.
It is now the time for Germans to understand that responsibility for the rule of law does not stop at the border. It must assume a stronger role in firmly pushing back populist, antidemocratic attempts in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Including Russia, which enjoys the reluctance by Germany to criticize its dismantling of the checks and balances of democracy. Putin's latest political pet project, his gay bashing is perhaps the most blatant signal thus far which way Russia is heading. Gay bashing is the canary in the coal mine. It is not just about gays. It is about the broader issue of human rights. Having an authoritarian "partner" like that could seriously disrupt the European project and indeed could be a menace to Germany itself. Criticism would not be interference, it would be a display of leadership.
Germany's political parties must show unity and consensus when it comes to defending fundamental values of democracy, tolerance, free speech and democratic institutions on the broader European continent. European party political and electoral considerations must come only second to the strong stance on democracy within the European Union.
Germany must be especially vigilant in Central and Eastern Europe, where putinesque leaders (while in most cases being vehemently anti-Russian) have started to multiply. Here is the reason why Germans bear a huge responsibility for these countries. The weakness of the democratic institutions in Central Europe has a lot to do with the weakness of its middle class. Germany bears much of the historic responsibility for that. Take the case of Hungary. The holocaust was a blow to its formidable middle class. While Hungarians themselves clearly share the blame, the killing of the 600 thousand Hungarians of Jewish origin would not have happened without the German occupation in 1944. The wiping out of a world-class, open-minded and cosmopolitan class of entrepreneurs, bankers, engineers, doctors and artists of all kinds and their offsprings would have been avoided.The terrible revenge on the talented and business minded ethnic German population chased away from Hungary in the aftermath of the war in the name of collective punishment was the next big blow. Of course communism prevented the country from rebuilding a financially and thus existentially independent middle class, the backbone of any democracy. Hungary's middle class has never recovered.
It is not enough to clean up the past at home. Leadership cannot be halfhearted, it cannot be reluctant. The next Chancellor of Germany will have to guide Germans to understand the huge and daunting task of being Europe's de facto leader. The more open and sincere it will be about it, the more acceptable it will be.If Germany is serious about leaving the past behind once and forever, this is the way to do it.
Whether the topic of the responsibility Germany bears for the tragedy of Europe will disappear from conversations for good, depends first and foremost upon Germany itself.