Different lessons often learned from history

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated columnist

BERLIN — My apartment here, located in a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of town, overlooks Wannsee, an idyllic lake that has been frozen over for much of the winter. From my balcony, on a typical day, you can see the ice dotted with people strolling, bicycling, walking dogs, or cruising in ice sailing vessels.

If you raise your eyes a bit, you can also see a villa on the opposite shore known locally as the Wannsee House. On a January day in 1942, a group of Nazi officials met there to make plans for what they called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The solution was extermination.

In Germany, where I’ve spent the last month as a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, history has a way of sneaking up and shouting in your ear. It also has a way of shaping government policy in international relations, which often exasperates those on the other side of the Atlantic.

Today’s Germans have an allergy to military power — and a preference for negotiation — that often strikes Americans as naive or even cowardly. Germans, in turn, complain that the U.S. government is like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees every international dispute as a nail.

Those differences split the two governments over how to deal with Saddam Hussein, and they have complicated joint efforts to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

What both sides forget is that each is a product of its history — and that our very different histories are bound to yield very different views on the utility of armaments.

Even though Germany has been at peace for 60 years, reminders abound of the horrific consequences of war. Sometimes it’s the unspeakable crimes of those who used war as a means to their vile ends. Sometimes it’s the catastrophic destruction, human and material, that military conflict can produce.

Berlin brings to mind what William Faulkner wrote of his native region. In the South, he said, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.”

The city is not only steeped in history but scarred and haunted by it.

One of the architectural jewels of the city, the neo-classical Berlin Concert Hall, gives the impression of having stood unchanged for the last 185 years. In fact, it was wrecked by Allied bombing during World War II. What you see today is a reconstruction completed in 1984 — by the Soviet-imposed regime that tyrannized East Berlin and East Germany for nearly half a century after the fall of the Third Reich. In the concert house, as in much of Berlin, glory and tragedy are intertwined.

Germans have learned many lessons from losing two world wars, the most recent of which left the nation devastated, divided and disgraced.

The biggest lesson is that war is an option to be avoided at almost any cost. When nations abandon talks and treaties for bullets and bombs, Germans believe, they risk catastrophe.

In the United States, by contrast, the two world wars left few visible reminders. Battles weren’t fought on American soil, and bombs were not dropped on American cities. Instead of being left weak and impoverished, we emerged richer and stronger than any country on Earth. Our military might not only have defeated the Axis powers but implanted democracy where despots once ruled.

Most of our experiences with the use of force have been successful — and when they have been unsuccessful, the cost on the home front has been comparatively modest. When we couldn’t win, as in Korea or Vietnam, we exercised the option of securing peace and going back to a secure home.

So Americans tend to see the good that can come from the use of force, while Germans are inclined to focus on the bad. What Germans forget, in their aversion to military solutions, is that it was Allied military power that liberated them from the Nazi regime and protected them from the Soviet one. What Americans forget is that our last great victory — the Cold War — was a success only because the two sides kept the peace, avoiding a path that might have ended in nuclear cataclysm.

Germans would be wise to keep in mind that diplomacy unsupported by military power can end in self-deluded appeasement. Americans, mired in Iraq, may now realize that even when the other options look bad, war is often worse.

The two sides may eventually come to agree on two propositions: Like health insurance, military power is a very good thing to have. What’s even better is never needing to use it.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com