Years ago, I was told the joke about a boy who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy on the basis of being an orphan. Today, a new version is circulating across Germany.
It tells of a father who organizes a complex and comprehensive plan to murder all his children. Some of them manage to escape to a distant land, only to discover years later that their father is now bragging to the world about those very children, suggesting that their success in life is a byproduct of the home in which they were raised. It would almost be funny if the “joke” were not part of a sophisticated multimillion dollar advertising campaign endorsed by the government of Germany.
On television, on billboards and in print, a leading German advertising firm has produced a new campaign called “You are Germany,” designed to lift the country’s mood and restore the nation’s pride. Using pictures of both famous and less famous Germans, the campaign suggests that each German is like the individuals in the ads and that all together they are Germany. Shockingly, one of the images employed is that of Albert Einstein.
While today’s Germans should not bear the guilt of their parents and grandparents in perpetrating the Holocaust, neither should they abuse history and decency as their new “You are Germany” campaign does. This has little to do with the revelation, made after the ad campaign was rolled out, that the same slogan was employed during the 1930s at Nazi rallies. Quite simply, portraying Einstein as a paragon of German national culture should offend all people. Were it not for the safe haven that Einstein found in the United States, he, like most of Europe’s Jews, would likely have been murdered in the German-led Holocaust.
Taking pride in Einstein’s achievements without acknowledging that fact distorts the truth and sets a dangerous precedent. Furthermore, having gay and handicapped citizens speak from amid the pillars of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial — as they do in another ad, while failing to include someone Jewish — adds insult to injury. One wonders why, in rightfully claiming all that is good about Germany, this campaign perpetuates some of what has been the worst about it.
While there is never a single way to tell a story or reconstruct the experiences of a person’s life or that of any historical event, we always must be cautious about cherry-picking the past for only those facts and figures that provide evidence for that which we want to believe. Such selective retelling leads away from moral responsibility and from the possibility of learning from past mistakes.
Whatever good feelings are created by this process will ultimately sour. The sad truth is that in attempting to generate national pride, most nations do skip those portions of their national story of which they are not proud. Ironically, in so doing they fail to create the kind of deep pride for which they yearn. Instead, they create a short-term ethnocentric nationalism that is usually followed by a longer-term collapse in any form of national pride or commitment.
There is no problem with Germans trying to resuscitate their national pride. Actually, it is a critical step in Germany playing a maximally constructive role in the world. The idea that all nationalism, especially German nationalism, is always dangerous is ridiculous.
In fact, it is precisely those nations with histories of abusing their national pride that should be encouraged to develop new and healthier ways to celebrate it. But naively ignoring past bad acts is surely not the way to do that. One hopes that all those who seek to raise the spirits of any nation will figure that out sooner rather than later.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.