What the New Pope Says About Germany and America
There has not been a pope from Germany for nearly
1,000 years, and plenty of people in Britain could have waited
another 1,000. After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected, one
newspaper blared, "From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi,"
and other tabloids trumpeted his nicknames, which include "God's
Rottweiler" and the "panzer cardinal."
So great was the obsession with his youthful Nazi
connections that one German columnist said the British "must
have thought Hitler had been made pope."
On the western side of the Atlantic, there were
some similar reactions. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
also noted with alarm that Ratzinger was one of the Hitler Youth,
without telling readers that his membership was not optional.
Comedian Dennis Miller quipped, "Whenever I see a German
on a balcony with an adoring throng, I get nervous." An op-ed
writer in The Los Angeles Times attempted an impersonation of
Benedict XVI: "Vee haf vays of making you pray!"
But these were surprisingly few and far between.
In the United States, unlike Britain, a newspaper might go broke
trying to exploit memories of World War II. Here, the references
to Ratzinger's nationality didn't reflect an abiding distrust
of Germans. They were merely a frail vestige, which persists only
because commentators can't bother with new punch lines.
Somewhere along the line, something happened that
once was hard to imagine: Most Americans stopped harboring deep
misgivings about Germans. When Karol Wojtyla became head of the
church in 1978, much was made of the fact that he was the first
Pole (and the first Slav) to become pope. But Ratzinger's origins
were largely ignored. It was as though he comes from a normal
He does. The country that did so much evil is
now accepted as a permanent part of a free Europe and a democratic
West. The latest Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans
have a favorable opinion of Germany, with only 22 percent disagreeing.
That's lower than it was in 2002, when the favorable
rating hit 83 percent -- but the decline is the result of events
in the 21st century, not the 20th. Negative sentiments about Germany
spread during the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, because
Prime Minister Gerhard Schroder strongly opposed it.
That was a new experience for Germans: being despised
because they were insufficiently warlike. Even then, though, Americans
had a higher opinion of their former enemy than of their longtime
Most Americans don't care if the new pope comes
from Bavaria or Bermuda. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found
that 60 percent of Americans and 81 percent of American Catholics
approve of his selection.
With any luck, his papacy might give the world
a positive new image of Germans, just as John Paul II helped to
make Polish jokes obsolete. Americans may have trouble believing
that Germans once had a very different reputation from the humorless,
militaristic rigidity they came to personify.
In the 19th century, German-Americans were known
for their easygoing enjoyment of life. As Hoover Institution economist
Thomas Sowell recalled in his 1981 book "Ethnic America,"
they helped popularize "numerous forms of innocent public
family entertainment. Music, picnics, dancing, card playing, swimming,
bowling and other physical activities were among the American
pastimes, now taken for granted, but introduced or promoted by
Their affinity for harmless fun eventually eroded
Puritan attitudes. In 1883, one commentator noted with wonder,
"The German notion that it is a good thing to have a good
time has found a lodgment in the American mind."
Having German roots used to be a matter of great
pride, manifested in "German-American" banks and German-language
newspapers. Some American Jewish newspapers were so pro-German
during World War I that the U.S. government prosecuted them for
disloyalty. But the Great War soured many Americans on Germany,
and World War II was twice as bad.
Afterward, West Germans accepted responsibility
and built a thriving democracy. But for a long time, nothing could
overcome the distrust of the country's onetime enemies and victims.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the prospect of a reunified Germany
made many people nervous, the joke was that the French loved Germany
so much they wanted two of them. Today, though, that wisecrack
The new pope has a chance to further rehabilitate
his native land. Far from being an autocratic Prussian, Benedict
is said by his friends to be gentle and approachable, and so far,
he has given a good impression of a humble shepherd. Who knows?
In time, he might make Germans seem lovable.
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