by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published as “Role of history in shaping citizens” in The Malay Mail 8 May 2015

Within ten minutes of landing at Munich Airport, the stereotypes of German efficiency were confirmed: at the end of the corridor connecting the plane and the terminal was an intimidating but robot-like dog methodically sniffing every passing bag, the many passport queues never had more than three people waiting behind them (even for non-EU citizens), and the bags shot out of two underground jets onto the carousel around which non-Germans automatically followed suit in neatly surrounding the perimeter in an orderly manner and at a good distance, with no need for a yellow line pasted on the floor, people only stepping forward briskly to retrieve their bags.

Similar scenes of efficiency and patterns of behaviour repeated themselves throughout my week in Munich and Berlin, which I was visiting together with fellow directors of the Malaysian operating entity of a German insurance group. On the streets, shared with the Straßenbahn, orderly queues materialised every time the trams arrived. In the tiny, ponderous lifts of old office buildings, the amount of reconfiguration performed at every floor – the ingress, egress and shuffling of people – seemed to adhere to an algorithm that must somehow be ingrained into every German at a young age. In parks, joggers and cyclists adjusted for possible collisions well in advance, seemingly at pains to avoid the possibility of intruding others’ enjoyment of the public space. At a surreal spot in Munich’s English Garden, surfers took turns alternately from two queues on either bank to ride the Eisbach’s waves.

But it was at the historic sites, in the museums, and through conversations with Germans, that I came to better understand what lies underneath all of the civic consciousness that I observed. Of all the countries in the world that I have been to, none have surpassed in Germany in terms of the role of history in shaping citizenship today. Our tour guide in Berlin explained that a generation after Bismarck had succeeding in unifying Germany, her great-grandparents fought for the Kaiser in the First World War. Her grandparents lived through the trauma of the Nazi period and the horrors of the Second World War. Her family was then split by the Berlin Wall, whose fall in 1989 remains a most emotional moment for many Germans of her generation. Her children have grown up in a Germany that has become a stable, prosperous, central and powerful federal republic in the European Union – but through the education system have been made aware of the roller-coaster journey of the past 150 years.

Through five generations of a single family we can understand the institutional development of Germany, through its foray through the entire spectrum of political ideologies – nationalism, absolutism, national socialism, communism, democracy and federalism – spurred on by thinkers and doers from Marx to Weber, Hitler to Honecker, Bismarck to Merkel, whose zeitgeists have been captured by countless musicians and painters. Today there are other influences: near Berlin’s old Tempelhof Airport where during the Berlin Blockade Allied planes landed every few minutes to provide supplies to the population of then West Berlin, stands a mosque built in Ottoman style.

As with anywhere else, however, some of the historical sites have been infected by kitsch commercialism: at Checkpoint Charlie you can pay to have a selfie with fake soldiers. It made it rather difficult to imagine the daily tension at a border where so many tried to cross into freedom – but it was still nostalgic for the chairman of the board of directors on the trip, who used to be ambassador to the German Democratic Republic and crossed the checkpoint regularly. (He claims not to have smuggled anyone across.)

I was in Berlin on the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s suicide in the Führerbunker (where now stands a block of flats), but you wouldn’t have known unless you read the news: “Most Germans now view the end of the Second World War as a liberation from the tyranny of the Nazis, rather than a defeat.” I couldn’t help but think that attitudes are different in some other countries, where past dictators are celebrated; indeed, their legacies capitalised upon by nationalists who wish to promote new intolerances.

At the Malaysian Embassy in Berlin, outside the meeting room where we attended a presentation on German economic indicators and investment opportunities, was a caption-less painting of the Istana Lama in Seri Menanti. “Please put an explanation here,” I asked the Deputy Chief of Mission. Germans might appreciate how the history of Negeri Sembilan – its traditional democracy, its federalism, its accommodation of many different clans, its interaction with colonialism – has, as with the experience of all states of Malaysia – helped to shape our country today.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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