A time for courage
HAMBURG, Germany — It being the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth, the image has been much present in Germany: the former chancellor on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto in the silent act that defined German shame for the Holocaust. As Brandt later said, “Carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.”
Such symbolic acts carry enormous importance. They enter the realm of myth by connecting with a human place beyond and before words. The image from 1970 is riveting, a German driven by emotion and conviction to a spontaneous personal gesture toward slaughtered Jews. Other such moments come to mind: Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, addressing the Knesset in 1977; François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the French and German leaders, holding hands at Verdun in 1984 in the place where hundreds of thousands of their countrymen died fighting each other in 1916; the enough-of-blood-and-tears handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 — before more blood was spilled between Israelis and Palestinians (and among them).
And then, as if in the image of that failure, a blank comes. Our age is not rich in such solemn, iconic moments of conciliation or contrition. Perhaps it is that calculation and spin have trumped conviction and so buried the spontaneous in public life. Perhaps it is the obsession with control — and multiplication of means to ensure it — that have made politics more arid. Perhaps it is the postmodern death of political idealism. Or perhaps it is the sheer volume of images that makes it difficult for a single one to define historical shift. The most powerful image of the 21st century remains the planes-turned-missiles hitting the Twin Towers in 2001. Far-flung wars since then have produced no hands outreached in peace, no consolation or resolution. Barack Obama, focus of dreams, has proved a tiptoeing president.
Thinking of Brandt, I came here to see his fellow Social Democrat and near-contemporary, Helmut Schmidt, who became chancellor in 1974, not long after Brandt’s resignation. Schmidt is 94. During a two-hour conversation, he smoked continuously. He’s a three-pack-a-day guy, has been since he was 15. That would be 60 cigarettes a day for almost 80 years. Rules require exceptions, or life would be unlivable.
Schmidt was a strong leader who says he was always sure German unification would happen but did not expect it so soon.
“We have Gorbachev and Baker to thank above all,” he said, citing the former Soviet leader and U.S. secretary of state. “Mitterrand and Thatcher were clearly against it.”
I asked Schmidt, who still works as publisher of the Die Zeit weekly, about Chancellor Angela Merkel and the euro crisis.
“Merkel does not feel the European Union in her heart,” he said. “With her rational mind, yes, she understands its importance. But she lacks helpfulness, sympathy and solidarity. There is a lack of solidarity. With a 240 billion euro surplus in its current account, Germany has to show more solidarity.”
He continued: “She grew up in East Germany, and East German people were looking for freedom not for Europe. And that meant America, as for the Poles and Czechs. Freedom trumped Europe. In fact, Europe is one step higher than freedom. I tend to think she has stronger feelings about the United States than she does about Europe.”
Schmidt was adamant.
“Germans have to change approach,” he said. “We have the largest current account surplus in the world, more than China. In the end, Germany will have to respond to pressure and spend more. This huge surplus brings a moral necessity.”
Debt will have to be forgiven and long-term credits made to help spur Greece and Spain into recovery.
“This is comparable to the forgiveness of German debt in the 1950s,” he said.
The words came through a cloud of smoke accompanied by a glint in his luminous gray-blue eyes — a declarative, on-the-record throwback to a time when leaders did not mince words, when they were individuals rather than managed commodities. Brandt and Schmidt, like Adenauer and Kohl, were towering figures compared with today’s European pygmies.
I wonder if individual courage in leadership can make a comeback. It is needed. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has just invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to go and speak in the Knesset and said he is ready to go to Ramallah. From a supreme short-term tactician, the invitation felt manipulative, but still Netanyahu is right. Peace will demand a grand gesture, something solemn and symbolic and unspun.
Schmidt, speaking of indelible images, was born a year after John F. Kennedy. A half-century after the assassination, its mystery remains. Kennedy’s words, like Brandt’s genuflection, admonish us: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.