German lessonsFeb 24th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: International
Attending a dinner with a German friend last night reminded me of from what Europe has recovered in his lifetime. He recounted childhood memories of 1945.
“My father was away in the army somewhere. Perhaps in France? We did not know. My mother was trying to run the hotel.
Our village had been granted a charter as a town in medieval times, but was really no more than a village.
One day a tide of people came through the streets: thousands and thousands of them from East Prussia and other places. A huge wave of refugees, walking, tired and exhausted. They had nothing and nowhere to go.
My mother let two hundred of them come into the hotel. Some were just happy to lie on the ballroom floor; there was no other space. People just lay down.
There was an old Catholic priest amongst them, trying to look after them. We lived in a Protestant village, there were only three Catholic families. We would have gone to Mass in the next village; it was a five kilometres walk.
The Protestant pastor in our village offered his church for the priest to use to conduct Mass for his congregation of refugees. The refugees remained, the Russians had conquered the East and no-one wanted to go to live under Communist rule. In seven years, the Catholics had gathered enough money to build a church”.
The new church in that village would have been symbolic of the determination of ordinary Germans to rebuild their country, in many cases, literally from the ashes. In twenty years, the country was transformed; Germany became a byword for prosperity and efficiency. Growing up in England in the 1960s and 1970s, Germany was a place at which we looked with envy.
My friend could give lessons to news journalists on what it means for things to be really bad; on what economic collapse really means. Every morning the news is filled with another catalogue of gloom, yet not one sentence of it comes near the trauma of that tide of displaced humanity.
No-one living in Germany in the 1940s could have imagined what would be achieved by the Federal Republic by the 1960s. Would it be beyond the wit of political leaders now, to engage in the odd history lesson; to say that this is not the end of the world and that with a bit of hard work and enterprise, we shall turn things around?
I suggested jokingly to a friend last week that if all else failed, we might write to Angela Merkel and ask if Ireland might join the list of German Länder – North Rhine-Westphalia would be our nearest neighbour. We would have sound government and people who, having rebuilt from ruins, would know how to go up from a downturn.