Friday, April 9, 2010

It's No Longer the Germans I'm Worried About...

Confession: until this week, whenever I visited Germany, I felt a little queasy. Even as I laughed with German friends, raised a beer, and feasted on strudel, part of me was on red-alert, one eye on the door, my heart thumping nervously.

The first time I ever set foot in Deutschland was 1987. I went to visit my friend Eckehardt, a beautiful West German man who’d helped rescue me in China a few months before. Eckehardt was one of the kindest, most heroic people I’d ever met. Yet I couldn’t stand to be in his homeland. Everything– the linden trees, the brightly-painted medieval houses, the lively beer gardens – struck me as sinister, suspect, and unforgivably unfair.

What had happened inside those historic buildings, I kept wondering. Where did those train tracks lead? Every time an old man or woman walked by, my mind began reeling: “What were you doing 45 years ago? Which of my relatives were you helping to murder?”

After two days, I had to high-tail it out.

Since then, I’ve returned to Germany a half-dozen times. Though my uneasiness lingers, each visit has gotten easier. First, the demographics have changed. It’s now 65 years since WWII ended. A sizeable portion of German grandparents have been born after the war.

And I’ve changed too. I have family members who refuse to set foot in Germany. One won’t even change planes in Frankfort Airport. I completely understand this. But as a post-war baby, I’ve had the luxury of developing hopefulness and idealism. And I’ve decided that I don’t want the Nazis to have the last word.

I want my generation of Germans and Jews to write a better, next chapter.

I’m not saying we should ever forget – or forgive – the Holocaust. But we’ve all been impacted by the genocide. We’re all aware of the Evil. So let’s follow it up with Good. Let’s be able to tell our children that once, Germany committed unspeakable atrocities against the Jews – but now, just decades later, look: descendents of both Nazis and their victims are hanging out together in nightclubs, collaborating on world aid projects, and building beautiful museums together. While people are capable of monstrousness, we are also capable of extraordinary humanity. We have the capacity for both. Never forget either.

And so, I go to Germany and engage. I stroll along its rivers, joke with its locals, visit its museums. Maybe I’m naïve. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

And few cities, it seems to me, have more first-rate intelligence right now than Berlin. It used to be East vs. West. Now it’s a brilliant union of contradictions, a metropolitan Janus looking both backwards and forwards.

Berlin today is quirky and dynamic, filled with innovative new glass architecture, graffiti art, museums, night clubs, and cutting edge-fabulosity. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a citizen anywhere over 35. Even the older people are hip, riding their bicycles, recycling their trash, going to film festivals. Everyone seems to have the funky sneakers, the little Scandinavian eyeglasses, the ethnic scarves.

Yet it’s a city of scar tissue. Berlin doesn’t shy away from its hideous history for a minute. Memorials to the Holocaust and the Cold War are everywhere. It has literally embedded the directive “Never Forget” into its sidewalks. Brass cobblestones dot the city streets, naming the individuals who were arrested, deported, and murdered by the Nazis there.

There’s the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Jewish Center at the Neue Synagogue.” Track 17. Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Daniel Libeskind’s Judisches Museum. (Yes, in some ways, the very concept of a Jewish Museum is icky and unnerving – it seems to reduce Judaism to a specimen. But what’s the alternative?) There’s the extensive “Topography of Terror” exhibit documenting in painstaking detail the rise of the Nazis and their extermination machinery.

Germany’s brutality and culpability are presented unflinchingly: Jews didn’t “die” in the concentration camps. They weren’t “killed” or “exterminated.” Plaques read bluntly: “Murdered by poison gas.” No euphemizing in that.

At several sites, a clear analysis is given of the circumstances that enabled Hitler to come to power: a combination of terrible economic times, endemic racism, and a trumped-up fear of Socialists and Communists – all of which the Nazis exploited. When they seized power illegally in 1933, they insisted they were doing this to “save” the homeland from “dangerous socialists” – their name for the legitimate, democratically elected government at the time.

Bombed-out churches, bullet-holed buildings, and open spaces have been left standing as they were in 1945, looming as a constant reminder. Even the Neue Nationalgalerie, filled with modern art, displays black-and-white reproductions of paintings that were seized by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” then burned or auctioned off.

Add to this Checkpoint Charlie. The Stasi Museum, the Stasi prison, the DDR Museum, and “The Story of Berlin” -- which includes a guided tour of a nuclear fallout shelter – and it’s almost a little much.

It’s almost, dare I say, overkill?

But that’s exactly appropriate.

The Holocaust, as a friend of mine reminded me in Berlin, was uniquely evil – a systematic, state-sponsored genocide that was meticulously designed and implemented for years with industrial efficiency across borders against a peaceful, helpless minority. “The reminders should be overwhelming,” she says. “It should never be easy to witness.”

Even so, Berlin’s mea culpa impressed me. Let’s face it: genocide has happened before and elsewhere. While the Holocaust may be the definitive evil, plenty of other atrocities have been committed throughout history. Yet few countries have ever owned up to their crimes the way that Germany has.

In Berlin, I didn’t find myself looking around anxiously, wondering What happened here? Are the people aware? Are they even sorry? The city itself makes it clear: Everything happened here. Yes, the people know. And wow, are we ever sorry.

For the first time in Germany, I felt something like hope.

Two days later, however I returned home. A book review I’d recorded for America’s National Public Radio had aired on “All Things Considered” while I was away. The book was The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. I’d begun the review by comparing the strengths of this biography to those of the President. Both, I said, seemed “even-handed, eloquent, and beautifully packaged.” That was it. One sentence. The rest of my critique was mixed.

The first response I received was titled: Jobama Rectum Sniffer. It called our President “a treasonous n***ger,” told me to get my head out of his ass, and ended: “Safeguard the Constitution, Strive for the Death of all Domestic Marxists.” Another read: “You’re an idiot.” On the NPR website, I was called a “drooling liberal” who should invest in sturdy “knee pads.”

I then read that threats against lawmakers had increased threefold this year. I read the speeches being made by far-right pundits and politicians calling Obama a radical socialist. I read about the Tea Party protestors.

I reflected upon everything I’d just seen in Berlin.

It’s no longer the Germans I'm worried about.


Emily said...

Amazing post. I felt exactly the same way when I visited for a week last month....I kept writing and rewriting blog entries about it, but ultimately I didn't feel that I could articulate that feeling in the way you just did.

Despite the fact that I never did (and maybe never will) shake the inevitable anxiety of being a Jew in Germany, by the end of my visit I realized modern Germans are moving toward a bright future, rather than dwelling on an embarrassing past (except, of course, for the numerous museums, as you noted).

Thanks for your thoughts.
( contributor)

Blackgirl On Mars said...

It's funny cause I not only felt the same way when I was in Berlin, but to be honest, as an African American, I kinda feel that way throughout all the places I have traveled in Europe...

MmeLindt said...

An interesting and thought provoking post.

I am married to a German and like many of his countrymen, we have visited Berlin and been struck by the sheer exuberance and vitality of the city.

That of the Judisches Museum that for you was icky and unnerving, was for us a chance to learn about the history of Judaism and the life of normal people who just happened to be Jews.

Just as all German school children visit a concentration camp, many school classes visit the Jewish Museum and for the children it is the opportunity to see that Jews are just like us, with the same hopes and dreams and fears. Sadly some of their parents will not share this view so this experience is very important to broaden their horizons.

I am proud of the country that I called my home for over 15 years that they have faced up to their past and continue to challenge bigotry in any form. It is terrible to hear that the same cannot at present be said for the USA. We can only hope that this will soon change.

Anonymous said...

I am ashamed to say I have never heard of you until now but after stumbling upon your blog I will certainly read your books, maybe even attempt a visit to Berlin, or not.
Did you know that Sarah Palin originally called members of her group "Teabaggers" until some fool pointed out the meaning of that phrase. These people are frighteningly stupid so naturally speak very loudly.
I'll look for one of your books tomorrow.

Dr. Reiman said...


have you seen "Walk on Water," the Israeli film? It covers many of the bases you do in this blog and comes to much the same conclusion!

Rick Reiman

Dr. Reiman said...

I just wanted to leave one more comment: Having taught under a Fulbright Grant for 5 months in 2007-2008 in the former East Germany, not far from Berlin, I agree with everything you write about the changing Germany (and especially Berlin). You can find the stolpersteiner you mentioned(gold "stumbling stones" with the names of murdered Jews outside the homes where they once lived) in many towns in Germany. I also worry with you about America and the irresponsible rhetoric which often passes for politics these days. As for the Holocaust, let me recommend the finest scholar on the subject now living: Yehuda Bauer. His "Rethinking the Holocaust" is magnificent.

Andy said...

... When they seized power illegally in 1933, ...

This isn't true. Hitler was legally elected in 1933. What happend afterwards was illegal. "Mein Kampf" was a best selling book an translated in many languages. So everybody could know what was going to happen.

"Hinter der Trommel her
Trotten die Kälber
Das Fell für die Trommel
Liefern sie selber."
- Bertold Brecht -

This means the most stupid calves choose their butcher by themselves.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana -

I'm sure. What happened in Germany can happen everywhere.

„Principiis obsta. Sero medicina parata, cum mala per longas convaluere moras.“
- Ovid -

Anonymous said...

I don't get how you like in Berlin... it's a disgusting and dirty city.

I'm german and i paid Berlin a visit two times... I don't like it.

Well the first time was actually cool: Attented the "Hanfparade" LOL

Anonymous said...

You are very right to worry about America. Nazi Germany has wreaked havoc on civilization for a decade and brought unspeakable terror to its neighbours and especially inhabitants of certain religions and descents. Fortunately it has (been) stopped. Not for the right reasons (you probably know that), but the really important thing was that the Nazis got stopped.

Unfortunately, we still see a lot of murder in the world. The USA have continued to kill literally millions of people in ever more unjustified wars. The feeling of unchallenged superiority is the stench of American politics. It is not surprising that the arrival of inhuman economic ideologies (that coined phrases like "human capital") also brought us an ever-growing population of dumb consumers that will attack anything their allegedly "unbiased" media will put in front of them, like the frantic Teabaggers and FOX News. Still you cant say they are all the same idiotic tribe, there are a lot of them that are just sick of the surveillance and injustice imposed upon the ordinary people, but dont get that they are instrumentalized by the GOP and Fox.

It is especially shocking for a German like me to see the things that happen in America now. I really hope that you find a way to cope with it _before_ anything worse happens. As I said before, the USA already is perpetrating mass murder day by day in its numerous wars. I dont wanna know what happens when these guys take over.

One remark: You wrote
"When they seized power illegally in 1933, they insisted they were doing this to “save” the homeland from “dangerous socialists” – their name for the legitimate, democratically elected government at the time."
This is not the truth. Please bear in mind that the Nazis seized power _legally_. Hitler was appointed chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933 and everyone thought it would be a matter of months until he would resign in frustration. Even when they staged the burning of the Reichstag and subsequently passed the "empowerment bill" (Ermächtigungsgesetz), they had gained support by some other parties that were shocked by the attack on the Reichstag, much like Pearl Harbor was the incident that sparked public support for America's entry or 911 for Afghanistan and Iraq. That chapter reminds us that we should stay vigilant and sceptical of any government, especially in times of crisis. One cannot state, however, that it was completely legal, as Socialists and others that refused to agree with the bill were silenced and deported soon after.

I wonder if the lessons from back then are taught in American history classes. It is probably harder to have a critical approach on a war (and its precedents) that you have won.

And back to Germany of today: You are right, it is a much more open country now. Militarism has almost vanished though its ugly head still hasnt been buried. Recently Germany has started to join wars although the public does not agree with it. Nowadays the people know that we should not do harm to others under any justifications than defense, but politics has their heads up their a****. That is probably better than it was 70 years ago, but we still have to strive to create a truly peaceful world that has its place for Jews as well as Muslims and everyone else that wants to pursuit his or her happiness.

Viele liebe Grüße aus München,

Susan Jane Gilman said...

Thank you, readers, for correcting my error. The Nazis did seize power LEGALLY. My typo was clearly a Freudian slip!

Anonymous said...

"Hitler was legally elected in 1933. What happend afterwards was illegal."

That's still not perfectly true: After Hitler came to power, he secured it with laws that allowed him emergency measures in certain situations ("Notverordnung"), and weakened the democratic separation of powers ("Ermächtigungsgesetz"). So it followed the rights ("Recht") but it wasn't righteous ("Gerecht"), it was judical but not ethical. As Hitler installed a system to oppress the people, i think many were too anxious to point out this distinction. There must have been many things in this time, that the people didn't understand.

Anonymous said...

"Hitler was legally elected in 1933. What happend afterwards was illegal."

That's still not perfectly true: After Hitler came to power, he secured it with laws that allowed him emergency measures in certain situations ("Notverordnung"), and weakened the democratic separation of powers ("Ermächtigungsgesetz"). So it followed the rights ("Recht") but it wasn't righteous ("Gerecht"), it was judical but not ethical. As Hitler installed a system to oppress the people, i think many were too anxious to point out this distinction. There must have been many things in this time, that the people didn't understand.

Jenn said...

Fascinating perspective, thank you for sharing. You and I appear to live at opposing ends of the political spectrum, and yet...and yet. I like the way that you think and express yourself.

As to the comments here, I would caution that there's precious little difference between the terms 'drooling liberal' and 'frantic teabagger.' Both are sweeping generalizations, neither have a place in an intelligent political discourse.


Jill said...

Susan, I know this post was written a year ago, but I just stumbled upon it now. I've been to Germany twice in the last 2 years and I share your perspective. I was touched and humbled at how Germany has come to terms and faces up to the less savory aspects of its past (for all that there are younger Germans who wonder when they get to just move on already -- a feeling I understand in my head but my gut always tells me "never"). Still...after watching Keith Ellison break down today during Peter King's Muslim witch-hunt, I agree with you -- the next genocide is going to be right here at home.