As a German teacher, I’ve watched with interest from afar as Germany has evolved after the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. The nation’s prevalent can-do attitude has made it an economic powerhouse and a true positive world leader.
While certain individuals tried to shirk responsibility for the Holocaust, Germany as a nation never did. Perpetrators of genocide almost always deny their crimes, but Germany has made Holocaust denial a crime. The Holocaust is taught in schools and always seems to be on the mind of Germans.
The remodelled parliament building in Berlin has a glass dome and a walkway with mirrors pointing down so that citizens can see into their legislative assembly. But transparency in government is far more than symbolic in Germany. Freedom of the press, one of the first freedoms destroyed by the Nazis, is now sacred.
For years, Germany has been one of the pillars of the European Union. The nation was a key force in bringing the union together and it has made tremendous financial sacrifices to hold the union together through numerous crises.
Today, it’s amazing to see a continent where border crossings are all but insignificant, especially considering where the region was a few generations ago.
In addition, perhaps no other nation felt the separation of the Cold War as deeply as Germany. The country was split in two by a wall. Germans always hoped to be reunited and in November 1989, their will as a people finally tore down the barrier and reunited the country.
We often forget, however, that reunification came with significant cost. West Germans paid heavily through taxation. In addition, 40 years as two economic and social ideologies as different as a Mercedes is from a Trabant (an unreliable, plastic East German cars) created an invisible wall. It has taken years for East and West Germans to come together as one people, and perhaps it has not yet been fully accomplished.
The greatest indication of how far Germany has progressed, however, can be seen in its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Guardian newspaper calls her “The world’s most powerful woman.” Cast in a role typically held by men, she is also a former East German leading a traditionally West German political party.
Merkel is rare indeed – and clearly courageous. She has put her political future on the line repeatedly by bringing forward controversial policies, including allowing one million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. Today, one in 80 German residents is a recent refugee. The cost of helping this many people resettle is astounding.
These newcomers were not screened as thoroughly as refugees entering most other countries, so Germany has more than its share of problem immigrants. Some – who may well be IS supporters – have committed crimes and created fear.
Immigration, then, has caused significant problems.
Yet Merkel’s government sees the big picture. Germany’s birthrate remains very low, despite some of the most generous parental benefits in the world. If its economy is going to continue to grow and support an aging population, Germany needs workers.
Whether Merkel’s government wins the next federal election in October 2017 is highly uncertain. What is certain, however, is the prevailing national attitude, as expressed by Merkel: “We can do this.”
Germany will work through the immigration crisis as it has worked through every other challenge it has faced in recent history.
It will become a better, stronger and more compassionate country, and hopefully continue to show the rest of the world what real leadership looks like.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.