Jacob Heilbrunn

Germany's Osama bin Laden Problem

 Germany is on the front-lines of the battle against terror. It was in Hamburg that the 9/11 plotters hatched their plot. But Germany has also uncovered multiple plots over the years aimed at targets inside Germany. Its experience in combatting the Baader Meinhof gang has surely helped prepare Germany for stopping Islamic radicalism.

Surely it was reasonable, then, for Chancellor Angela Merkel to express her happiness at the death of Osama bin Laden. "I am glad that it was successful, the killing of bin Laden," she said. But for a broad spectrum of German elite opinion, as Der Spiegel reports, it apparently was an unreasonable thing to say. America violated international law, so the thinking goes. Bin Laden's death is no cause for celebration. About Merkel's fairly cautious remarks Siegfried Kauer, a member of the Christian Democratic Party, said, "I would not have formulated it in that way. Those are thoughts of revenge that one should not harbor. That is from the Middle Ages."

There, in a nutshell, is the German problem, an elevation of a simple expression of relief at the death of a fiendish cult leader who lured his followers to their death so that they could murder thosuands of innocents becomes a philosophical condundrum. From the Middle Ages? Hardly. What the broad unease, if not condemnations, of America (simply in reading the comments from many readers in newspapers such as Der Tagesspiegel it quickly becomes clear that they view America as a lawless, imperialist aggressor) reveal is a society pathologically committed to the notion that it is superior to the rest of the world by virtue of its refusal to become embroiled in the violent world outside its borders. This is a new version of the old German problem. Germany has embarked upon a new Sonderweg, or special path, that is marked by the inverse of what once distinguished it. As before, it is the intellectual elite that is propagating this vision.

Its origins, of course, rest in the post-World War II credo of abjuring military aggression. But it has now evolved into a stance of active superiority to its neighbors and America. The German tradition of innerlichkeit, or inwardness, has returned with a vengeance in the form of pacifism. To be sure, not everyone denounced Merkel. Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, a member of the Free Democratic Party, noted that her remarks were understandable. He added, ""We must be careful, that we in the West—with understanding of the relief felt—do not send images into the world that could again lead to incitement or to the heroization of al-Qaeda."

What Westerwelle said makes sense. Contrary to the many pundits demanding the release of photos of bin Laden's death, President Obama probably got it right in refusing to release them. They could serve as pretext for Islamic radicals to launch new attacks on UN workers or American soldiers.

But it is troubling that, far from seeming to be relieved at the death of a murderous thug, many Germans have forgotten the true lesson of their own history. Should the world not have rejoiced at the death of Hitler, the greatest tyrant humanity has ever known? Instead, Germans, too many Germans, seem ready to condemn America for having killed bin Laden. Given that Germany was the epicenter of the 9/11 plot, you might think that it would be particularly overjoyed to hear that bin Laden is dead. It isn't. But Bin Laden's death is no cause for shame. Germany's disgraceful behavior is.