For those of us who are committed to creating a better world how do we respond to the evil and heinous acts of our violent past? I just got back from Germany where, being Jewish, I always find this question to be particularly relevant.
I was born into a secular Jewish family fifty-seven years ago. We practiced no religious rituals or observances whatsoever. I was not even Bar Mitzvah’d, so my sense of being Jewish was more ethnic than spiritual. But the one thing I did know was that in the ancient past Jews were slaves and in the recent past we were burned en masse in Hitler’s ovens. Over the last quarter century I have been to Germany many times in my role as a spiritual teacher and lecturer. And while I have come to know many Germans intimately, and developed deep and close friendships among them, I have found it impossible to ever forget what happened there only seventy years ago.
“How does a population of many millions face and take responsibility for an act of technologically engineered mass genocide that is unprecedented in human history?”
Some people would say that it’s time to forgive and forget. Often we hear from those who are considered to be most enlightened a plea for compassion and new beginnings. After all, the generation that perpetuated or enabled those atrocities has largely passed on. I know that over the years Germany has paid countless billions in war reparations. They have also built the most extraordinary Holocaust Memorial right near the Reichstag in the center of Berlin. I also know they are tired of feeling guilty. That may be understandable after seventy years. Why can’t we all just move on?
On an individual level, when one strives to take responsibility for one’s own transgressions, the spiritual solution is simple, but enormously challenging: face the painful truth about yourself stoically and without resistance, then do whatever needs to be done to repair the damage. For most of us, this is far easier said than done.
But what would this mean for an entire culture? How does a population of many millions face and take responsibility for an act of technologically engineered mass genocide that is unprecedented in human history?
A few days ago, while I was in Frankfurt giving a lecture and leading a spiritual retreat, I had a conversation late one night over a delicious German beer with an Austrian philosopher, Tom Steininger, who is a close friend and student of mine. He shared with me an extraordinary idea he had in response to the challenge I’ve described above. It went something like this:
“What if the Germans made a soul-level decision to take responsibility for the recovery of the entire European Union?”
In spite of being bombed almost back to the stone age by the Allies at the end of WWII, Germany has since bounced back to become the richest and most powerful country in the EU today. This was due to the support she received initially from the American Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe, and then simply as a result of her own extraordinary resourcefulness and industrial prowess.
As my Austrian friend (who now lives in Germany) recounted to me, these days Germans are frustrated by the European economic crisis. They tend to feel burdened and irritated by what they feel are the unrealistic expectations of the EU’s less disciplined and more economically challenged countries, like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and maybe even eventually France. The refrain goes something like: “Why does it have to be our responsibility to bail them out over and over again when they seem incapable of implementing and sticking to the austerity measures necessary for long-term economic recovery?”
But Tom then boldly suggested: “What if the Germans made a soul-level decision to take responsibility for the recovery of the entire European Union? What if, because of our culture’s enormous debt to humanity, we were willing to extend ourselves way beyond our comfort zone? What if, instead of being so concerned with protecting our high standard of living, we were willing to make serious sacrifices for the sake of Europe as a whole?”
“What if,” he said taking a deep breath and raising his voice slightly, “this became our national agenda?”
“Can you imagine the impact it would have on the entire world if the German people…took responsibility for…their cultural past by endeavoring to ensure the future wellbeing of Europe as a whole . . . and succeeded?”
Ever since the war, he went on to explain, Germans have been hesitant to stick their necks out and take major responsibility for any world problems outside of their own borders. And their justification for this, understandably, has always been, “Look what happened when we extended ourselves beyond our own borders in the recent past. It unleashed the devil in us.” But what if now, for the first time in seventy years, the German people decided to regain their cultural self-confidence through sticking their necks out like never before in recent history? What if they boldly faced and took responsibility for their own demons by wholeheartedly endeavoring to help the EU become economically sustainable as if it were their own personal duty?
This means far more than writing a check. The economic burden of the EU is bigger than Germany can carry on her own anyway. But what if she embraced a kind of leadership that she has been hesitant to step up to? And what if, through doing so, she became a beacon for what human beings are capable of when they rally together for the highest reasons? What would this do to the memory of her crimes against all of humanity?
What we were discussing late that night over one of Germany’s finest products is obviously very far-fetched, and not likely to happen any time soon, to say the least. But can you imagine the impact it would have on the entire world if the German people decided to become true heroes and took responsibility for the unfathomable evil of their cultural past by endeavoring to ensure the future wellbeing of Europe as a whole . . . and succeeded?
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