One of the advantages of being a Pundit is that people always want to fly you to speaking venues in their private jets or send you to their annual meeting first class. When they don’t treat you, there are still 4,000,000 frequent flyer miles to use up, so on my way to Fruit Logistica in Berlin, I find myself sitting in seat 1A on the Lufthansa nonstop from Houston to Frankfurt.
One of the disadvantages of being a Pundit is that you have to skip the movie to write the next edition.
When I travel, I like to try the national airways in search of some insight into local culture. This flight, though, is as devoid of things German as one could possibly imagine — which may just tell us something about the local culture.
The decor is sleek and silver-colored, perhaps a hint of hi-tech German engineering prowess. Yet the menu contains not one dish one could identify as German. Not surprising since the menu was developed by Terry Crandall, executive chef at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago.
No bratwurst or sauerkraut. Only one of the featured wines is German and when I try to order it, I am dissuaded by the purser, who prefers an American Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley in California.
The cheese plate consists of Camembert, Manchego, Gorgonzola, Vella Jack and Humboldt Fog, which is pretty much what I get at Johnny V’s on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
I squint to try to figure out where the photos on the menu and the wine list were taken. Nobody is wearing Bavarian dress, there’s no oom-pah-pah band performing in the distance. The hillside, the impeccably set table — the scene could be anywhere.
They used to call airlines such as Lufthansa “flag carriers.” Their purpose was to proudly carry the flag of a nation to the far corners of the globe. Yet, this plane really wants to fit in, not to draw attention to itself.
It fits in neatly with my American conception of the European Community. It always appears to us that the French want to use the community to extend French power and influence in the world, but the Germans want the community to allow their identity to be subsumed in some new and larger identity.
I think it is a reflection of World War II. Every nation has to be proud of its culture, to feel it contributes something unique to the world. But how can a nation be proud of its culture if it led to the concentration camp?
Years ago, when ValuJet airline, a discount carrier originally based in Atlanta, Georgia, had a plane go down in the Florida Everglades, it quickly bought another carrier named AirTran Airways and adopted that name. It was too hard to market a name everyone associated with a calamity.
So Germany, on some level, would rather operate in the world as the EU and avoid connotations it would rather not face.
I have never been to Germany, which is, in a sense, surprising as I’ve been as far from home as Australia and South Africa.
I almost went the week the Berlin Wall came down. It was such a moment in history and the pictures were so inspiring. Such a hopeful moment for the world. I thought I would go and witness history. Yet I stayed home and watched it on TV.
Why? I’m not sure. But I suspect it is because I am Jewish.
I do not believe in collective guilt. The very pleasant flight attendants, all blond and, dare I say, Aryan-looking, are not responsible for the Holocaust or for any other atrocity they were not involved in.
Yet as we discuss the merits of the various teas offered and she laughingly tells me about her preferences, as we discuss the nightlife of South Beach and the Greek food in Astoria, Queens … as we laugh and genuinely like each other, I can’t help but wonder if her grandfather worked in the SS.
In many ways this is horribly unfair. More likely he was some conscripted soldier who died in the war. But she is so blond, so Aryan, and I know what that once meant in this country.
The Holocaust is a uniquely unnerving event in human history precisely because Germany was such a civilized nation. These horrors were not committed by jungle tribes; these were the heirs of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Goethe.
Hannah Arendt, one of the great public intellectuals of the 20th Century, was sent by The New Yorker to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel. Out of her reporting came a phrase, The Banality of Evil, which concludes that even Eichmann was a small man and that such horrible evil could be done by any ordinary clerk.
It is a frightening possibility. It is far easier for us to portray the Nazis as some uniquely malevolent force. If Adolf Hitler was a monster, then he is not like us. But if he was just a man, then what are we capable of?
I have lived with these thoughts my whole life, and my isolation from Germans left these thoughts to dwell. Interestingly enough, although I traded extensively with Europe when I was with my family business, my dealings were with the Dutch, Brits, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns. We sold grapefruit to the French and the Swiss, imported lemons and melons from Spain, endive and salsify from the Belgians. We brought in Greek figs and Italian chestnuts. We even sold to the communists in Poland.
Although the Dutch sent much of our fruit into Germany, I do not recall ever selling one box directly to a German.
Although Fruit Logistica is a major international event, its source of power is that it is the only show where the produce teams from the big German multiples walk the floor. So in deciding to come to Germany, I came to confront my own demons.
History is a funny thing. We dare not forget it, lest we be doomed to repeat it. Yet some eminence once said of the Irish that their battles continued because they were “drunk on history.” If the entire historical record must be resolved every time people sit down, how will they ever get along?
So I go to Germany and hope to transcend my own limitations. I am blessed with many friends across Europe. I hope to leave Germany with a few more.