New York Times July 2 2001
Schröder, Like Germany, Is Looking Harder at the Past
By ROGER COHEN
BERLIN, July 1 It is a scene of modern Germany: Chancellor Gerhard Schröder
in his new office opposite the Reichstag gazing in wonder at a photograph of
the father he never knew, Cpl. Fritz Schröder with a Nazi swastika on his
"I only recently was given this photograph," Mr. Schröder said in an exclusive interview. "Before that, I never had a mental picture of my father, and only a very limited relationship to him. For me, in a sense, he never existed. So only now, for the first time, am I beginning to deal with him."
The turbulence of modern Germany as it passed through two world wars, Nazism,
Communism and division has been such that almost no family has escaped some
form of personal anguish. And Mr. Schröder, like his country, is treading
his personal way out of the labyrinth of the past.
Now approaching his fourth year in office, he has been obliged by the move
of the capital back to Berlin to confront this past in a way more direct than
his predecessors. Perhaps his most conspicuous achievement has been to allow
the airing of German trauma in a new atmosphere of openness.
So here the chancellor sits with the newly discovered image of his own trauma:
a handsome, clear-eyed young Wehrmacht soldier, seen in half-profile, some years
before his death on the eastern front in Romania in October 1944. Mr. Schröder
had been born six months earlier, yet another German child of war who would
What intrigues Mr. Schröder is not so much his father's role; "everybody
did that," he said. "He was a lowly soldier, no sort of leader, and
was sent to the slaughter like everyone else." It is more the uncanny physical
similarity that inevitably prompts reflections on how fate determines the dilemmas
of each generation.
"There's a picture of me when I was about the same age you have
to see it," Mr. Schröder, 57, said. "It's exactly the same, without
the steel helmet and uniform, naturally, as if it were a twin brother. That
makes you think. That is very interesting."
Certainly the very existence of this intimate conversation is interesting.
Germany is opening up.
It is partly the passage of time: ever fewer former Nazis are still alive. It is partly unification and the resolution, at last, of Germany's borders: a state no longer at risk is inevitably freer in spirit. It is partly the arrival in power of Mr. Schröder's postwar generation: these people tend to be more moved by Tuscany than by Bismarck.
The family circumstances that led to the discovery this year of the photograph
have also presented the chancellor with cause for ethical reflection. Research
by the newspaper Bild led to three first cousins of Mr. Schröder in the
former East Germany with whom he had lost contact.
All the cousins were the daughters of Kurt Schröder, the brother of Fritz.
One of them had the picture of his father that the chancellor now keeps in his
office and showed during the interview, although he has not yet allowed it to
"I knew nothing about these relatives in the east and always said I had none," Mr. Schröder said. "So now the fall of the Iron Curtain has become personal as well as political. I have to find a relationship to people I had not believed existed."
He is not alone. The quest for a satisfactory relationship between west and east continues to haunt Germany more than a decade after unification. The perception of Mr. Schröder in a still disillusioned east will play an important role in his quest to be re-elected next year.
After meeting the chancellor recently, one of the Schröder cousins, Renate
Gritzke, said: "We always hear that now we are one in Germany. In that
case, east Germany should not be lagging so far behind."
Unemployment figures tell part of the story. The jobless rate in the east is 17 percent, compared with 7.1 percent in the west, even after the huge transfer eastward of public money.
Beyond those differences, a psychological gulf remains rooted in resentment
among former East Germans of what they see as the wholesale dismissal and takeover
of a society, where, as they like to say, "we also lived."
Ms. Gritzke lived in a particular way. She worked for the East German intelligence service, or Stasi, in a unit that bugged embassies. Fluent in English, she played a leading role in spying on American and British diplomats.
"I have no regrets about what I did," she told The Times of London recently. "We joined that organization because we wanted to work for our country."
Mr. Schröder said he saw his cousin's attitude and that of easterners
in general as more rooted in "a form of protest" than any ideology.
"Protest," he added, "against certain forms of political dominance
from the western part of the country."
Only in this way, he suggested, was it possible to understand that the Party of Democratic Socialism the successor party to the East German Communists commanded the support of 40 percent of East Berliners.
The chancellor said the Party of Democratic Socialism, which is a strong candidate
to join the government of the city of Berlin after elections in the fall, should
no longer be viewed as dangerous. During the cold war, he suggested, the loyalty
of such parties was ultimately to "Big Brother in the Soviet Union."
"But that is no longer the case," he added.
Conservative parties have voiced fierce opposition to the idea of a former
Communist party's joining the government of the city that was the symbol of
the cold war. But Mr. Schröder in this as in almost everything
is a zealous pragmatist.
Of his former Stasi cousin, Mr. Schröder said: "What should I say to the woman? I told her, listen, that does not affect my relationship to you, how could it?" The chancellor's view seems to be that one should be wary of judging the acts of people in situations one had not oneself experienced.
A further meeting with the three cousins together including Ms. Gritzke,
whom he previously saw apart from the others is now planned. Mr. Schröder
is uncovering his past.
As to the future, the chancellor is the strong favorite to be re-elected next
year, partly because the Christian Democratic Party remains in considerable
disarray. He expressed optimism about trans-Atlantic relations in the coming
years and was very conciliatory toward President Bush, with whom there have
been a number of differences.
"Look, when Mr. Bush tells President Putin in Ljubljana that Russia is
a potential partner and no enemy, that is precisely what Europe wants,"
Mr. Schröder said, referring to the recent summit meeting in Slovenia between
the American and Russian leaders.
He expressed confidence that differences over the environment and national missile defense would be approached in a similar spirit, adding that the evolving American foreign policy showed the fruits of dialogue.
But does a united Germany more relaxed and determined to deal with its
own problems still need more than 70,000 American troops on its soil?
"The American presence is an expression of trans-Atlantic togetherness,"
the chancellor said, "and America's role as a superpower, as the only remaining
superpower, can and should remain clear in Germany." He added, "I'm
no friend of those who say, `Thanks, now go home.' "
The European Union is engaged in a project to develop its own rapid reaction
force that would work in conjunction with NATO but separable from it. Mr. Schröder
said of that project, "We are not there yet," adding that American
leadership, especially in logistics, would be needed "for the time being,
at least my time being."
Of the planned expansion of the European Union, Mr. Schröder said it posed
the possibility that Europe could become ungovernable. "In the end,"
he said, "it comes down to the question of whether we think of Europe in
intergovernmental terms or in terms of integration."
He made clear that his own preference was for integration, with in the
next 10 to 20 years "a strong central European government,"
controlled by a reformed European parliament with real powers.
"One also needs an ordering of the nation-states that will continue to function," he continued. He said he envisaged a possible "Chamber of Nation-States" and saw the need for a charter laying out a "division of competence." That would define what is Europe's business and what remains the business of the nation- states.
Such federalist views cause grave misgivings in several of Germany's European
partners, which see them as a veiled way for Europe's most populous and powerful
country to control the fate of the continent.
"There are such fears, but they are unfounded," Mr. Schröder
said. "Germany has demonstrated that it is the country most eager to integrate,
and most prepared to put pure national interests second to European interests."
Gazing out at the new Berlin taking shape before the new chancellery on the
River Spree, Mr. Schröder added: "I believe we have reached a level
of civil society that has discredited the yearning for dominant personalities,
and it is good that this is a country that has developed a real democratic quality.
That is why I live here happily."
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