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Jewish World Review July 6, 2004/ 17 Tamuz, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Seeking an optimism transplant | BERLIN — Horst Koehler, the newly installed president of Germany, is not a clone of Gerhard Schroeder. Herr Koehler wants Germans to be more like Americans, to be "optimistic" and "open-minded." He's talking jobs.

Herr Koehler admires the way Americans who lose jobs take the initiative to find new work. Germans rely on the nanny state to take care of everyone, beginning with generous unemployment benefits. "We must explain to the public why we need to cut social costs to save jobs," he told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He sounds like a tax-cut Republican.

Since his role is mainly ceremonial, he doesn't have a lot of constitutional clout, but because he's an economist, and because he spent the last four years as director of the International Monetary Fund and has bluntly argued that he wants Germany "to fight for its position in the world in the 21st century," many Germans are listening.

But it's not easy to preach optimism to a country where the unemployment rate is bumping 10 percent. Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the world as well, and it gets even worse. The population is aging, too. Demographers suggest that the German workforce will decline from 41 million now to 26 million by mid-century.

Proposed immigration legislation could — the operative word here is "could" — begin to turn things around. Immigration reform would encourage foreigners with skills and capital to invest here in the expectation of making Germany their permanent home. Otto Schily, Germany's interior minister, tells the New York Times that the legislation could be a "historical turning point."

The historical turn is radical because it requires Germany to embrace diversity over German-ness, requiring a multi-ethnic society. This, for obvious reasons, won't be easy.

To its credit, Germany has genuinely sought to expiate the enormous sins of the Third Reich, whose goal was to purify the German "race" to an Aryan ideal. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is not yet finished, testifies to the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust. The site covers five acres near the Brandenburg Gate within sight of the Reichstag. The grounds will be covered with 2,751 stones of varying heights, placed on uneven ground to suggest a cemetery in a world created off-balance. The memorial cries for sorrowful reflection on the silence of death confronting inexplicable evil, fusing tragic loss with searing memory. An underground museum will tell personal stories about the European Jews mourned by the memorial.

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The site is near Hitler's bunker, where he killed himself. The bunker was destroyed by the Russians and the site remains unmarked. By design, no one can say exactly where it was. Time marches on.

I stood in front of the memorial when Berlin's "Christopher Street" parade came prancing by, an annual gay pride parade modeled on New York's that has taken place in Berlin since 1979. Homosexuals in Germany want a Holocaust memorial, too, to honor the thousands of homosexuals who were made to wear armbands marked with pink triangles. Many died in concentration camps.

Germans have never been noted for their acceptance of differences, and toleration of foreigners has always been strained. In the '60s, Turks were invited to West Germany as "guest workers" with the idea that they would take jobs nobody wanted and eventually go home. Many stayed, raised families, built mosques and began to feel more comfortable as their children went to school with their German peers. But integration was slow. More recently the Turks have been joined by refugees from the Balkans and East European countries.

The newest demographic estimates suggest that Germany will require between 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants a year if the country remains at its current economic size, and many Germans worry that the refugees won't learn the language or appreciate the culture. (Sound familiar?) In Kreuzberg and Wedding, neighborhoods in Berlin where many Turkish immigrants live, huge satellite dishes decorate balconies so the immigrants can receive their foreign-language television programs.

The war against terror exacerbates German suspicions that foreigners may not be able or want to integrate and assimilate. Textbooks at King Fahd Academy, a private Islamic school in Bonn funded by Saudis, teach that "the Muslim people's existence has been threatened by Jews and Christians since the crusades, and it is the first duty of every Muslim to prepare to fight against these enemies." The school was forced to sack a teacher last year after he gave an inflammatory speech calling for "jihad," or holy war.

Caught between a weak economy and a shrinking German population, the new president and his nation need all the optimism he can conjure. We must wish him well. It won't be easy.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS