Germany Struggles with Its History

November, 2014

Berlin -- Germany still struggles with its history, and not just the Nazizeit.

The state of Thüringen, after recent elections, is trying to put together a red-red-green governing coalition; that is, two parties of the left (SPD and Die Linke) along with the Greens (die Grünen). But to some it is unthinkable that the leader of the government might be a member of Die Linke, in that he has ties to the old East German state, the DDR. The president of the entire federal republic, Joachim Gauck, is weighing in, saying it is going to be hard for those of his generation to agree to seeing such a person come to power. The SPD in Thüringen is polling its membership to see if it will accept being in a coalition with a member of Die Linke as its head.

Others, including a friend of mine in Berlin with impeccable credentials on the left, say there was an election and Die Linke should be allowed, in a democracy, to take leadership. I tend to agree; there's nothing like having to take responsibility for governing in a coalition to make people and parties face real issues rather than forever carping from the ideological sidelines. It can also be a good way to clean up a tainted past.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Berlin a new palace is rising, a reconstruction of the palace of the Kaisers. It is a huge edifice and will soon be the talk of the world. What is Germany trying to do, bring back the Prussia of Frederick the Great? Indeed, the palace is just down the street from the benevolent gaze of a statue of Frederick that dominates Unter den Linden boulevard. I remember in the 1990s when the new palace was proposed. The building on the site at that time was the former East German Palast der Republik, the parliament and cultural center of the DDR. It had to go, not just for symbolism but because it was riddled with asbestos. The new palace was just to be a reconstruction of the palace that was torn down by the Soviets in the 1950s, a nice tourist attraction if nothing else.

Technically, the new palace project is called the Humboldt Forum. The building will serve as a scientific and educational conference center, named for the Humboldt brothers (after whom nearby Humboldt University is also named). Inescapably, it will also glorify German science. With such a colossal building, it is going to be tempting for the German government to use it for diplomatic goals as well as educational and historical purposes. This may all be for the better. Germany has been a responsible world power now for several decades, but the country must be ready for raised eyebrows as attention starts to be drawn to the completion of a splendid new palace of the Kaisers.

Now if only a few Euros could trickle down from the palace to complete the construction work around Kottbusser Tor, in my neighborhood, which has been a mess for years and years. This is where the world meets: Turks, Germans, Britons, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans, Africans.... Finishing up the project would signal that Berlin also cares about the diplomacy of the street.