FEUCHTWANGEN, Germany — After Amy Gutmann’s father fled the Nazis in 1934, he vowed never to set foot in Germany again. For the rest of his life he boycotted German products and spoke only English to his daughter. Germany, he impressed her when she was growing up, was “very bad”.
Almost a century later, Ms. Gutmann, a respected democracy scholar, has moved to Germany – as the new US ambassador. With anti-Semitism and far-right ideology resurfacing, and with Russia waging war on Ukraine nearby, her new role is not a job, she says: “It’s a assignment.
This mission is personal as well as geopolitical.
Earlier this month, Ms Gutmann paced down a cobbled lane in Feuchtwangen, the sleepy Bavarian town where generations of her German ancestors had lived before a Nazi mayor burned down the local synagogue and declared her town “Jew-free”.
When the current mayor came to greet her, Ms Gutmann pulled out the small black and white photograph of her father that she still carries with her.
“You will forgive me for speaking not just as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, but as Amy Gutmann, the daughter of Kurt Gutmann,” Gutmann, 72, told a crowd of local dignitaries. “I wouldn’t be here today if not for my father’s foresight and courage.”
The timing of her official arrival as ambassador on February 17, Ms Gutmann said in an interview, was particularly poignant, a week before the invasion of Ukraine by a revisionist Russian president who was blamed by his own boss. of having committed “genocide”. in his quest for empire.
Seventy-seven years after America and its allies defeated Hitler’s Germany, the two countries now stand united against Russian aggression. A big part of Ms. Gutmann’s job will be to keep it that way.
“Germany and the United States are extremely powerful allies today and they are allies in the defense of human rights and in the defense of the sovereignty of democratic societies,” she said. “It closes a loop, while taking us forward into an era that my father never had the opportunity to witness.”
When President Biden called her in April 2021, she was the longest-serving president of the University of Pennsylvania, a math major turned political philosopher who had written more than a dozen books on democracy.
“Do you want to be my ambassador to Germany?” Mr. Biden asked him.
Ms. Gutmann swore on the Hebrew Bible that her German grandmother Amalie, whom she is named after, brought it from Germany.
Germany welcomed Ms Gutmann not just as a representative of a new administration, but of the longtime US ally – before she became fickle and abrasive during the Trump years. Ms Gutmann’s predecessor, Richard Grenell, threatened to stop sharing intelligence with Germany and posed for selfies with lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
Repairing US alliances was one of President Biden’s main foreign policy goals and Germany was at the heart of that effort, making Ms Gutmann a perfect fit, said longtime Biden adviser and now ambassador Julianne Smith. of the United States to NATO.
“The president considers Germany to be an indispensable partner for us and he wanted to send someone he knew well,” Ms Smith said.
(Before Mr. Biden offered him the job, Ms. Gutmann had offered him one in 2017 as a lecturer at his university, an offer that came after he lost his son Beau and ” saved,” as he once described it.)
“It was obvious in her mind that she was the right person at the right time,” Ms Smith said. “She’s a proven leader and she’s an intellectual giant.”
When her father died in 1966, Ms Gutmann was only 16 and Germany was still full of former Nazis.
In the three decades since reunification, the country has worked hard to come to terms with its history and apply the lessons of that history.
But it took the arrival of more than a million Middle Eastern refugees under former Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015-16 for Ms Gutmann to have full faith in Germany’s transformation.
“I was deeply moved by Merkel’s welcoming of refugees,” she said. “It made a strong, perhaps decisive, difference in my sense of Germany’s commitment to human rights.”
She added: “Today’s Germany is a model for recognizing the past.”
That recognition was on display in Feuchtwangen, where the director of the local museum guided Ms Gutmann through an exhibit on 800 years of Jewish life in the city that also detailed the persecution of Jews under the Nazis.
Among the items on display were items from Ms. Gutmann’s own family. A photograph of his grandfather. A postcard written by his grandmother. As a gift, Ms. Gutmann received copies of her father’s report cards. “German wasn’t his strength, it seems,” she said with a laugh.
“Everyone gets bulletins, but seeing something in which there were semi-normal times for him was a highlight,” she later said. “I only knew my father after he was traumatized.”
Her father, an Orthodox Jew who fled Germany as a teenager and later engineered the escape of her parents and four siblings, barely told Ms Gutmann about his own past, but told her. learned about the Holocaust.
“He clearly didn’t want me, as a child, to know – let alone report – his emotional trauma, but he did want me to bear the lessons of ‘never again’,” Ms Gutmann recalled.
Raised in the small town of Monroe, New York, Ms Gutmann said she felt like “a strange child”, as she put it, her Jewishness and intellectual curiosity making her a double foreign.
Her mother urged her to do well in school. After winning a scholarship, she became the first in her family to go to college and earned a doctorate. from Harvard before teaching at Princeton for nearly 30 years and becoming president of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.
His book “Democractic Education”, which shows why democracies need a robust public education system, is a reference in the field.
“One of the reasons I wrote about democracy and education was because it was a way out of tyranny,” she said. “The first thing the Nazis did was shut down the press and burn books.”
The Gutmann house in Feuchtwangen, where her father grew up, has become a bookstore, which delights her. “Oh my God! If this was a Hollywood script it would be a bookstore,” she said before buying half a dozen books for her grandchildren.
His father had been apprenticed to a metalworker in nearby Nuremberg, home to the Nazi Party’s largest rallying ground, where he boarded with a Christian family who treated him well. But when he saw them throwing the Hitler salute at a passing Nazi march, he knew it was time to leave.
“He ran away when he could because he saw what was happening,” Ms Gutmann said. “One of my missions is for people to know how important it is to speak up early.”
Despite Germany’s best efforts to apply the lessons of its past, there is still a big step forward, she said: Long reluctant to spend on its military, let alone deploy it, the Germans must trusted to direct military matters.
“Diplomacy is the first resort – but it often doesn’t work against brutal tyrannies,” Ms. Gutmann said.
This too is a lesson of World War II, she said: “If it hadn’t been for the military might of the Allies, Hitler would have won.”
“And now we have Putin,” she added. “Without military force, Ukraine cannot defend its sovereignty. At this time, as at many other times in the history of democracies, we must have not only military might, but the will to use it.
In Germany, this awareness is still sinking. The government has embarked on a €100 billion rearmament program in what Chancellor Olaf Scholz called a ‘Zeitenwende’ – or historic turning point – but Berlin has been criticized for dragging its feet on the heavy delivery weapons in Kyiv.
“I believe the Zeitenwende is real,” Ms Gutmann said. “If there’s anyone who isn’t willing to be lenient with Germany, it’s me. But I think we have to recognize what a historic moment this is, and we will continue to urge Germany to do more.
Ms Gutmann expressed concern that Germans and Americans “overestimate the durability of democracies – they are not unless you fight for them”, she said, adding: “All this what we do makes a difference. And everything we don’t do makes a difference.
Despite all her eagerness to visit Feuchtwangen, the day before her trip, Ms. Gutmann barely slept.
“I was worried about going there and feeling that they hadn’t really come to terms with the past,” she recalls, “that I would be disappointed and couldn’t have done it. hide – and it would have been just a terrible time.
By the time she left town, she was reassured.
Addressing the small photo of her father in her hands, she said: ‘You would be so proud not only of your daughter, but of your country, the United States, which has become your country, and the country that you had to leave – and what they have become: two of the greatest allies still fighting, what you would tell me is a fight that could never end. »
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