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Old enemies, new friends

Opinion: Why we need foreign reporting.

PARIS — My pal, Manfred, visiting from Munich on May 8, asked about the fuss nearby on the Champs-Elysees. Ah that, I said. They’re commemorating victory over you guys.

Millions dead and a continent left in smoldering ruin are not all that funny. But Manfred, an old hand at covering global ups and downs, chuckled at the irony. 

Within our lifetimes, Germans had shot Frenchmen only yards from where we spoke. Churchill saw Teutonic hordes invade Europe three times and observed: Germans are either at your throat or at your feet.

That does not, however, say much about Manfred, a gentle soul of quiet dignity who would attempt life support on any flea he might happen to discomfit.

At 5, he fled as Allies bombed the family grand piano and most of Nuremburg. His conscript father hated war; to this day fireworks paralyze him with fear. He was missing until 1947 when he returned, a skeleton, from Russia.

Manfred’s wife, Birgitte, also thought she had lost her father. He hid in a stable to escape the draft and then, when caught, barely survived a work camp in Poland.

“Others did that to our country,” Manfred said, meaning Hitler’s Nazis as well as Allies who leveled much of Germany to defeat them, “and the children had to pay.”

The lessons here are obvious enough: Collective nouns mean nothing on their own. Worldviews based on generalities set against comic-book context can only bring us to grief.

This is why today’s trend toward drive-by coverage, distorted by meaningless tweets and senseless twaddle, ought to have us trembling in our socks.

Manfred and I each know people still fighting World War II — and others in Europe and Asia who have yet to digest ignominious defeats that predate medieval times.

We’ve also returned to battlefields we knew as journalists where invasion is forgiven. “To Vietnamese, Americans are just foreigners, like Germans,” Manfred told me, and that’s what I found.

Wars fade into memory along with the tyrants and fools who start them. Yet even if some victims learn quickly to forgive, few ever forget.