I have two children, a daughter and a son, almost 16 and 13 years old.
They’re no longer little children but they’re still just teenagers. Although they’re growing up sheltered, they’re exposed to much of what is going on. They watch the evening news, surf the Internet, hear about Putin, Trump, Erdoğan. And recently they have been asking me more frequently: Are they all crazy?
For the men of my generation, being a father is a sort of a project, actually the grandest one of all. We want to do it well but feel our way forward tentatively. We think a lot and we also worry a lot. In recent months, a queasy feeling often sneaks up on me. The feeling that at the moment, something fundamental is changing. Not only for me, but also for my children. Into what sort of world are they going to grow up?
Back then, there were rivers in Germany you couldn't swim in because they were poisonous. Back then, it was a crime to be homosexual, and inconceivable that a woman could head the government. Today, that seems incredible to me.
When they were smaller, three or four years ago, they enjoyed playing a game, a sort of family quiz. They asked me what didn’t exist when their grandparents were children. What was different then?
There wasn’t a telephone in every house, I replied, and keep in mind, your grandparents are pretty old. There were no televisions, only radios. No dishwashers, no toasters, no pizza delivered to your door. In fact, no pizza at all.
That seemed to them to be a strange, remarkable world – fascinating, but incredibly distant, even though that was only 60, 70 years ago.
Sometimes they also asked me what didn’t exist when I was as old as they are today.
I answered that there were no iPhones, no Google, no WhatsApp or Skype. Only three television channels and an end to broadcasting sometime shortly after midnight.
Weird life, they responded with a smile, half amazed, half pityingly.
What I didn’t tell them then, or only much later, is about everything that existed in the mid-1970s but no longer does.
Back then, there were rivers in Germany you couldn’t swim in because they were poisonous. Back then, it was a crime to be homosexual, and inconceivable that a woman could head the government. Today, that seems incredible to me.
Back then, a border ran through Germany with concrete walls and barbed wire, and whoever tried to climb over it in the wrong direction was shot dead. I didn’t tell my children, or if so only once in passing, that an hour away by car from Hamburg were Soviet tanks and soldiers of the Red Army, enemy soldiers. I didn’t tell them that my friends and classmates, when we were as old as they were, argued about the deployment of new nuclear missiles in Germany. And that we were firmly convinced what was at stake was the very survival of humanity.
Why did I never mention that? Not because I wanted to conceal it, but because it no longer seemed so important to me. Because it seemed like a distant, strange nightmare, a digression of history. Because afterward, everything got better. And because we experienced how things can develop positively. Not by themselves, but through doggedness and hard work.
In 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the barbed wire disappeared along with the Russian tanks, then something new began, something fundamentally different, a more fortunate era, it seemed to me. And it was for this era that, half consciously, half unconsciously, we raised our children. The East-West conflict no longer played a role, the arms race, the nuclear menace. I wanted to prepare my daughter and my son for another world. And I’m still sure this is the right thing to do.
Of course, both of them know about the crimes of the Nazis. The children read books; they learn in school how the Holocaust could happen. But they and their friends, perhaps for the first time for a generation born after World War II, have a relaxed relationship to this Germany, joyous and confident, just as we know it from other countries where people unabashedly wave their flags.
And why not? It’s scarcely possible to live better than here in the Federal Republic. More security, more tolerance, more prosperity, more freedom can scarcely be imagined. Of course, there are also neglected and excluded people who have only a bare minimum to live on, or not even that. In Germany, there is poverty and loneliness and depression. But for around 90 percent of everyone in the world, the country where we live represents paradise itself. It is for that reason that so many of them try to get to our country. We would probably do the same if we were in their place, in order to make a better life possible for our children.
Our children were born into a world full of options and seemed almost free of obstacles. When I worried about them, it was more an anxiety that they could be confronted by despair, overwhelmed by so many possibilities, that they wouldn’t do anything right, and they would simply be spoiled. But parents always have to worry, and these worries seemed pretty bearable.
At least that’s how I look at it in retrospect. Because for a few months now, something different, something new has entered the picture and changed the worries.
Every day, people drown in the Mediterranean– we’ve almost grown accustomed to it. There are terrorist attacks in Paris, in Brussels, in Florida. Journalists are arrested in Turkey. In Austria, a right-wing populist was almost elected president, and now indeed could be after new elections were called on Friday. Refugee centers are burned down in Germany. And now the British, the pragmatic and level-headed Brits, have voted to leave the European Union. The inhabitants of the country where my children were guest pupils a year ago. Just like I was more than 30 years ago.
I have the impression that the foundations are suddenly under threat. What seemed self-evident is no longer self-evident. This is a deeply disturbing realization for my generation.
It seems that everywhere anger is growing, people are yelling, societies are divided. Not so much between rich and poor, above and below, or left and right. Instead between enraged and unperturbed, between indignant and sanguine. One half puts its faith in exclusion and nationalism, the other half in openness and cooperation. One sees a threat in foreigners, and the other sees xenophobia and racism. For one half, Europe is a monster, for the other it is a source of hope.
Of course I ask myself how that could happen. Up to now, I haven’t really come up with a good answer. And I continue to ask myself how I could have failed to notice the other half: the angry and disgusted people, the nationalists. Or why I didn’t really take them seriously for so long.
Perhaps it’s because I was sure, too sure, that nothing can go really wrong in Europe any more.
Of course I worried about terrorist attacks here at home, and it was clear that we had to struggle with xenophobes and racists. But the underlying foundation, the crucial rules of the game? They no longer seemed to be under threat.
And then Vladimir Putin invaded the Crimea. The government in Poland disempowered the country’s highest court, just as the Hungarian government had done before. And now it suddenly looks like the European Union could fall apart.
That’s a little bit too much all at once.
I believed we had already experienced the most profound disruptions, the events that change everything, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and then, 12 years later, the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Or more precisely, I thought privately, half-consciously, that this was actually enough history for my generation to experience, enough transformation, that there would not be too much more historical intrusion.
Now it seems to me that everything we experienced then was only a beginning. As if history is again pouncing upon us from all sides. And if that is so, then I naturally ask myself what it means for my children, for their lives, their future.
Perhaps it is still too early to give an answer. But I’m sure that they, too, will have a wealth of possibilities that a majority of people can only dream about. But along with these opportunities, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will also come genuine obstacles – toughness, fighting back, counter-pressure. That is new and unfamiliar for them. And for me.
We have cast out authoritarianism, imperiousness and brutality from families, from schools and from many companies.
Fortunately, violence is despised and proscribed today, except in the shadowy reaches on the fringes of society. Yet authoritarianism is returning in a powerful way, along with violence.
Somewhat apprehensively, I now ask myself whether we have actually prepared our children for confrontations with people and forces that don’t play by the rules and that threaten violence and spread fear. People like Putin, Erdoğan and Trump. And their supporters.
How does one defend oneself without becoming aggressive? How will my children deal with boldfaced lies and physical violence? We had them learn languages and piano and volleyball. But did they also learn how to do a tough tackle? A tactical foul? Did we teach them that as well? When they encounter resistance, will they meekly submit? Or remain steadfast? And push back?
I don’t know. But actually I’m quite optimistic. They have become strong, even if perhaps they don’t yet feel it themselves exactly. They are self-confident and can build on many positive characteristics.
Last year when the refugees arrived, my children and their friends went out and helped in clothing drives and accommodation facilities. We didn’t force them; they did it on their own. It seemed to them the right thing to do. We parents were quite proud of them. Some of them are still helping a year later.
I don’t know yet what will come of these changes, no one can know. But I suspect that someday our children will look back and say that in the late summer of 2015, something changed. It may very well be they say that they became political during those weeks.
Before then, they didn’t need to be political. What reason did they have?
The end of nuclear power? Angela Merkel decreed it. The end of military conscription? The federal government decided upon it. More rights for homosexuals? The Constitutional Court pushed them through.
Many young people are involved in development aid and go for a few months or an entire year to Guatemala or Zambia. A few of my children’s classmates went out onto the streets in support of Edward Snowden and against data surveillance. Many protested against the trans-Atlantic free trade treaty, TTIP.
But the grand battles seemed all to have been fought. And our children could scarcely rebel politically against us, the generation of their parents. We’re so liberal and casual, gentle and ecological, or at least we try to be. And so all that remained as an issue of contention was whether to have a vegetarian Christmas roast.
That’s not a reproach. It was a blessing. But it seems that is over for now. And this doesn’t have to be a misfortune.
What is so abstractly called globalization is thrusting itself massively into our lives.
I can’t say what exactly it means to be political in these times. My children will have to find that out for themselves. But perhaps that isn’t so difficult, because the diffuse, the discretionary, the indifferent are disappearing. The fronts are becoming clear, the issues becoming acute.
To put it somewhat melodramatically, the future has once again become open. What is so abstractly called globalization is thrusting itself massively into our lives: the partly provocative, unequal distribution of wealth between the few and the many; the destructive injustice between north and south; the refugee crisis; and Germany’s new, still untried role in the world.
It’s entirely uncertain how that can be managed, balanced, readjusted. But it has to happen. And our children are perhaps better prepared for it than anyone else. They are growing up in a country that has an awakened social awareness. They speak more languages than we did at their age. They have seen more of the world.
And what is perhaps most important, they will see that they are the ones who matter and the future depends on them.
Yes, and of course for a while longer, we’ll still be here as well.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org