We’re not supposed to like Germans or Germany, but I do—a lot. I found out just how much when, coming back to Frankfurt after a week of lecturing in Madrid, I found myself glad to be “home,” and happy to babble away in my pitiful German, after a, week of misery in my primitive Spanish. I had missed everything about Frankfurt: the green, the gardens and trees, the parks, the outdoor pool near my university office, the helpful people in the streets and stores, and above all, the German good cheer; Madrid is dour.

So what about the holocaust, and how can I, a faithful Jew, genuinely like Germany and the Germans I’ve been meeting? Well, for one thing, the holocaust is long ago. My students are the third generation past the war; their grandparents remember, their parents don’t. For another, Germany has utterly rejected anti-Semitism. The only signs of anti-Semitism these days are on the toilet walls at the university, and even here, other anonymous voices cover “Juden raus” with “Nazi raus.”

That does not mean Jews love Germans, or Germans, Jews. High walls of discomfort keep Jewish-Germans away from other Germans and vice versa. But could a holocaust happen again here? Yes—but not to Jews. Germans make good students, the kind that get strong B’s: they learn their lessons well, but they don’t then draw conclusions from them in order to deal with other cases, other problems. The Germans have learned the lesson of the National Socialist period: leave the Jews alone. But they have drawn no conclusions, such as that racism ruins society. The Germans I meet perceive the world through a bitter, racist perspective: white versus anything other than white, Christian versus everybody else.

A colleague, strongly pro-Jewish, complained to me that 25 percent of the population of Frankfurt is not German. What he means is, not of native parentage, or if born here, then not light-skinned. The large minority here is dark-skinned, from Turkey in the main, but also Italy, Portugal, Spain, and points south. The Turks have been Germans for more than a generation, and Turkish youngsters speaking excellent German to German-speaking parents are everywhere in the parks and at the zoo. But to the German-Germans, they’re not Germans. Why not? Because the Germans who derive from long-established families have a conception of what a native German is. “Germanness” accommodates German-speaking families from the Volga or Romania or Poland, who have not set foot in Germany for four hundred years, but it makes no room for Turks.

Yet Germany must draw conclusions from its calamitous history, because in the coming years it will find it necessary to teach an entire new population what it means to be German: the five new states, formerly the German Democratic Republic. People now define “the eastern problem” in economic terms. To unite Germany, the Federal Republic took over an utterly bankrupt country, ransoming its population from the Soviets, who had held it captive. The East Germans celebrated, but it now appears somewhat prematurely. With unemployment heading upward toward 10 percent of the population, the goods and services the western part of the country enjoys appear out of reach. Just what unification means is no longer clear.

But the economic problems will sort themselves out. When they do, what will the 15 states of West Germany have to teach the East about the Germany they should rejoin? The “Ossies” have been out of touch with the “Wessies” for a whole generation. They formed their own sense of Germanness, their own definition of the public interest and the common good. And whatever makes them German and forms their cultural consensus, discredited and abandoned as it was when the wall was torn down, has now to be replaced. But if anyone in the western part of the country can tell the East what it means to be German, and of what Germanness consists, the message has yet to circulate. So Easterners, demoralized and disappointed, state without embarrassment the old anti-Semitism, which is out of style, along with a new racism directed toward Turks and other dark-skinned people, which these days is very in vogue.

Another conclusion not broadly reached hereabouts is that the National Socialists ruined the universities. But they did. German universities exhibit little vitality or academic ambition. At Brown University, where I taught for 22 years, I watched an excellent-national university reduced to a trivial and mediocre college by the uncomprehending idiots who ran the place. But nothing I saw at Brown at its most pathetic, lazy, and mediocre prepared me for what I found here: a vacuum, a desert, a wilderness; no community, no vitality, no intellectual life. If some professors hereabouts pursue ideas, ask urgent questions, engage in sustained debate, I have not met them or heard of them; if students do so, the evidence is not easy to muster. There is no student newspaper here where I am teaching, and little student expression of any kind; extracurricular lectures are episodic and scarcely define great events on the campus.

The students in my seminar and public lecture, dear and lovely young Germans, have been coming around, though, and when they express their ideas they turn out to have interesting things to say. But it took a stubborn American, me, to ask a question—even one of (mere) opinion—and then insist they answer it. One of them even got up the courage to call me “Jack,” as in “Why did you decide to come here. Jack?” I took that as a warm compliment. But I had worked for that trust—hard.

A German university must be the most inhospitable place in the world. True, everyone is friendly enough, and happy to correct your German, thank you. But after two months as a visiting professor, I have yet to be invited into a German home. My sense is that people are just not interested in outsiders, any more than they want to hear things they haven’t heard before. (Concerts in Frankfurt consist of Mozart and Beethoven, except when the program is Mozart and Vivaldi.) What you find are indications of a great tradition done in. The professors come to class, teach around four hours a week, and after scarcely doing more than greeting their Herr Kollege, return home. They do not eat together, do not talk together, do not argue with one another, but keep themselves busy by publishing articles that go over this and that, merely collecting and arranging the results of other peoples’ anguish and insight. And why should things be better, when we remember that the National Socialists got rid of the talent as well as the entrenched mediocrity? With the great tradition ruined, where were the universities to turn for models of excellence? For our part, we never conceived a Marshall Plan of ideas, a rebuilding of the ruined intellectual life of a great country. It is no wonder, then, that 46 years after the end of World War II, Germans find themselves rehearsing discredited ideas and confronting an intellectual deficit.