What, then, is the specific something that unites us as Germans? It is not a substance that we need to display in its entirety and must keep pure as “Germanness.” It is a shared liability. We are liable for our shared history with its heights and depths, and we are answerable to each other for our common future.
By the heights, I mean our culture. We, the Germans, are obligated to preserve it as a part of the culture of Europe and of mankind, not only for ourselves, but also for others. We can expect this from one another: that we preserve ourselves and our culture for others, while others preserve themselves and their culture for us. Culture comes from colere, which means: to cultivate. By the depths, I mean the historical guilt of the Germans. Some may deny that such a thing even exists: historical guilt. What do I have to do with what my ancestors did? The answer: the descendants of the victims see us as the descendants of the perpetrators. The Jews or the Poles can expect that we will not invoke the dubious blessing of having been born after the fact, as though nothing horrible ever happened in our country. Conversely, we can expect that the Jews or the Poles will not hold us personally responsible for what happened. Being liable for the historical guilt of our ancestors means that in dealing with other nations we acknowledge and take into consideration what happened. Understanding between nations does not come about by following Schiller’s recipe: “Be embraced, millions,” let us erase the past; rather, it only comes about if we acknowledge what happened between the nations and together search for a sensible relationship to what was. And, once again, this much is true: whether we want to be or not, our neighbors tell us, Easterners and Westerners alike, that we are Germans in this regard, too. The reputation that the Germans have among their neighbors is part of the reality of every German, in fact, quite a potent part.
However, we are not only liable to others for German guilt, but are also answerable to each other. That Germany was divided after the Second World War, that Stalin installed Ulbricht in the East and the two German states took such different paths – the reason for this is found in the lost World War that Hitler started, and in the fact that the victorious powers treated their respective zones very differently. That the two German states each got the kind of government and economy that they deserved is sheer nonsense. In 1945, all Germans found themselves in the same misery. Only those who escaped from the Soviet Occupation Zone or the GDR can say that they consciously chose the West – for very different reasons, incidentally. This doesn’t mean that those who remained welcomed or approved of the state of affairs. For the most part, they had reasons for staying in spite of and not because of the situation. Still, there’s a temptation that’s almost impossible to resist: that of not having to find fault in absolutely everything in one’s own country, for that is very exhausting. This, then, gave rise to statements like these: “There’s a lot that’s bad in the GDR, BUT we have no unemployment / no drug problem / we don’t exploit the Third World / with us, the Nazis don’t stand a chance, and so on. It was after the BUT that people became specific, not before. Upon closer inspection, some of what came after the BUT does not hold up, other things after the BUT turn out to be the small plus of a larger minus before the BUT.