Pope could restore home country’s image

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated Columnist

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 country.

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 ally, France.

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 Germans.”

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 sounds anachronistic.

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.

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