Young Germans Ask: Thanks for What?

By NINA BERNSTEIN, The New York Times, March 9, 2003


BERLIN — A few blocks east of the old Checkpoint Charlie, stands a high school once named after Theodor Winter, a German anti-fascist who spent World War II in the Soviet Union.

The school, now renamed for Charles Darwin, survives between glittering new shops and the dour high-rise apartment buildings that still line a boulevard of broken Communist dreams.

Many Americans might think this terrain should be the epicenter of German gratitude to the United States, for its role in getting rid of Nazis and Communists. But the view is quite different at Charles Darwin High School, where 12th-grade students of English, from formerly East German families, were discussing world events in recent days.

Philip, 18, who wants to be a doctor, called for a statute of limitations on gratitude. "I think Germany has been grateful for more than 50 years," he said. "I think after 50 years one can start being independent."

And in an outburst directed at an American visitor, another student, Susie, also 18, opened the floodgates of resentment. "The idea that we have to be grateful to the Americans — why?" she asked. "We have financed the gulf war. Why should we be grateful? Thirty thousand refugees have been bombed out in Dresden, so we have to be grateful? Why?"

It wasn't hard to figure out where she got her information. A recent best seller, "The Fire," by the historian Jörg Friedrich, questions carpet bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians late in World War II. And documentaries shown almost nightly on German television in recent months are part of a lengthy national re-examination of the Allied air war.

Though the documentaries carefully placed the Allied bombings in the context of the Holocaust, the images of Dresden and many other firebombed cities, with smoking ruins and children's corpses, have heightened the emotional pitch of German opposition to a war in Iraq. Most nights, the film clips from World War II are only a click away from news reports about American impatience to bomb Baghdad.

Gabriele Dietze, a professor at the Free University's John F. Kennedy Institute of American Studies, likened the effect on the young to "a shortcut in the brain." The ritual evocation of America's role in World War II, instead of instilling gratitude, may reinforce a stereotype of a trigger-happy United States, she said.

In contrast, a fondly comic view of East Germany is now prevalent in popular culture. The latest box office hit is "Goodbye, Lenin," a bittersweet comedy about a loyal son trying to recreate an East German life for his dying mother, as her society crumbles under a flood of western goods and Deutsche marks.

In the east, teenagers' cynicism is fueled by their parents' disappointment with reunification. In 1990, many economists said the east would be as prosperous as the west within a few years. More than 12 years later, unemployment in the east is still running at 20 percent, double that in the west.

"In my opinion, capitalism didn't win," said Andreas Schutt, 23, a part-time computer programmer, whose 50-year-old father was just laid off. "In my opinion, Communism lost. Now capitalism is failing, too."

In a recent poll, 61 percent of Germans under 30 said President Bush was more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, or equally dangerous. In contrast, only 48 percent of Germans 60 and older had those views.

Yet when asked if they had more positive or more negative associations with "the American way of life," young Germans were two to three times more likely to be positive than Germans over 45, according to the poll, conducted by the Forsa polling institute.

"There is a total disconnect," said Gary Smith, president of the American Academy in Berlin. "They wear jeans and listen to Eminem, but this is not relevant to the America that these students are afraid of. In the end it comes down to America's power in the world."

Zitty, a popular Berlin weekly, recently ran an article titled "Farewell to America?" In the antiwar protests here, the article found evidence of a "new European spirit" impatient with worn-out American reproaches of ingratitude.

"To tell you the truth I've never seen so much anti-Americanism in my life, not in the Vietnam War, never," said the novelist Peter Schneider, 62. "Since Bush is on the stage, he has alienated a whole generation. It's anti-Bushism first, and then it gets mixed up with anti-Americanism."

At least one older German was appalled. "All of Europe owes the U.S. its liberation," Wolf Biermann, a songwriter and poet, wrote in an acerbic essay about the recent antiwar marchers in Der Spiegel, a news magazine. "Many of those who want peace at any price evidently don't want to acknowledge that in an indirect way we owe our release from the Soviet People's Jail of the G.D.R. to nobody so much as to those weapon-crazy Americans."

Mr. Biermann has a special perspective. His father died at Auschwitz, and he was a dissident in the Communist German Democratic Republic, until he was stripped of citizenship in 1976.

Before the 1991 gulf war, some prominent Germans of his generation bucked antiwar sentiment by likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Now, for some young Germans, the comparison that Susie voiced in her English class works better. President Bush is "a second Hitler," she said, and the attack on the World Trade Center was the equivalent of the Reichstag fire.

However outrageous such a link seems to Americans — and the German justice minister was fired last fall for voicing a less virulent version — it evoked little disagreement from Susie's classmates. On the contrary, several chimed in with conspiracy-laced challenges to the official version of events. Of the Sept. 11 attacks, Franzeska, 18, said, "There are a lot of rumors that the Americans did it alone."

A boy named Marian added, "We can't imagine that the C.I.A. didn't know something about this." Then, he asked rhetorically, "Did you think that Americans were really on the moon?"

THIS was not an electronic chat room or the Arab street. These 18-year-olds were in the capital city of a democratic, reunified Germany — the very Germany that President Bush has cited as a model for what military intervention could achieve in a postwar Iraq.

In the old days, students here studied English from Communist textbooks, and built their image of America from a mixture of fear and longing, recalled Herbert Schkutek, the 53-year-old principal.

"It was either a dangerously unknown territory or an earthly paradise," he said. "Now they have more realistic views."

Their views, more outlandish than realistic, were bolstered with selective history. Next, the students were going on a school field trip to learn more about America. They were off to see "Bowling for Columbine," the biting documentary by Michael Moore about paranoid, gun-loving, dangerously manipulated Americans.