My 12-year-old granddaughter is studying German and, as part of an exchange arranged by her school, a girl from a Gymnasium in Bonn came to stay for 10 days. She was around the same age, unsophisticated in comparison with the west-London cool of my granddaughter. Her north European physiognomy reminded me of those enchanting Madonnas painted by Flemish painters in the 15th century such as Hans Memling. Her English was rudimentary and so is my German, but I managed an interesting conversation about her family. What struck me was that both her Christian name and the names of her siblings were not German. It appeared that her parents preferred the Swedish form of one and the Dutch form of another.
Were they embarrassed to be German? Are there, I wonder, fewer girls in Germany with names such as Waltraut or Brünnhilde that were still common in my youth? Clearly, a German parent might not want to call a son Adolf, but what about Herman?
Joseph has surely overcome its association with Goebbels, but certainly the Nazi era still hangs over the Germans. The world will not let them forget, nor do they themselves wish to forget, the horrors that were perpetrated in their name.
An American friend, who visited Berlin in October, was struck by the prominence of memorials to the Holocaust. “They have really come to terms with their past,” my friend observed. But has the price paid been self-disgust?
And what of the British? In London, the memorials are all to the makers of our Empire: there are none to remind us of the atrocities perpetrated in India, which we read about in Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas, or the horrors that went with the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya.
This question of a nation’s self-esteem, or lack of it, is relevant to our approach to the refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made them welcome and the Catholic bishops have endorsed her policy of an open door. Most of the refugees are Muslims and, added to the already substantial population of Turks, will undoubtedly bring about some degree of change in German identity. Perhaps for Frau Merkel that would be no bad thing, She grew up in the Communist German Democratic Republic: nothing to be proud of there. Perhaps the German bishops, too, feel that accepting a million Muslim refugees can compensate, in some small way, for the unimpressive record of their predecessors under the Nazis.
Pope Francis shares the view of the German bishops that there is a moral obligation to welcome migrants and refugees. The Hungarian bishops, however, take a different view. “They’re not refugees,” said Bishop László Kiss-Rigó, “this is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over.” This may be an exaggeration, but one can see why a people who for centuries has battled against the incursions of Islam into Europe – whose major national holiday commemorates the country’s turn to Christianity – might feel disconcerted to see Islam’s arrival, as it were, by the back door.
Hungarians may no longer be particularly observant Catholics, but their culture is Catholic in the same way as is that of Austria, Bavaria and Slovenia. In those lands, too, many are alarmed at the prospect of a sprouting of minarets.
The Catholic culture of European nations has been under threat before. In France, in the 19th-century, anti-clerical governments built grandiose mairies in every small village to rival the churches, and in Rome the hideous monument to King Victor Emmanuel II looms over the Piazza Venezia to show that a secular monarch ruled over the Eternal City. The Church survived, and it will survive the influx of refugees from the Middle East.
But unquestionably there will be Catholics who agree with the Hungarian president, Victor Orban, that the influx of Muslim refugees threatens the Christian character not just of Hungary but other historically Catholic nations as well. The Polish St John Paul II wrote eloquently about the relation between the faith and culture of his native land; and the Bavarian Benedict XVI sees flourishing of Christianity in Europe as part of God’s plan.
It would be wrong for Europeans to turn away those truly in need of refuge, but nor should they succumb to self-loathing because of shameful episodes in their recent past. “We learn history,” wrote the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, “not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.”
The magnificent cathedrals and monasteries, the onion-domed churches, the shrines at street corners, the sung Masses and cantatas, the traditional Catholic fiestas – all are there to remind us that Europe springs from a magnificent civilisation moulded largely by the Catholic Church.
Piers Paul Read is Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer
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