People and Places

The problem of Germany

Posted on March 9, 2013

So let me take up the difficult question: the Holocaust.  I’ll use the term broadly here to include the six million Jews murdered by the Germans and also the five million or so Roma, Soviet prisoners, homosexuals, the disabled, and others put to death.  I remember one of my favorite college professors, Lois Zimmerman, who spoke with passion about Beethoven, Goethe, the wonders of the Pergamon, and more, but for all her travels she could not bring herself to visit Germany.  Too many of her family members were lost in the camps.  Like so many others, I have wrestled with what to make of that coolly efficient and well organized machine for genocide and the complicity of the German people, the German culture, and how we should think about this place that seemed to have at once embodied humanity’s greatest ideals (in music and culture and science and education – I think I read that Germany had the highest per capita number of PhDs in the world in the 1930s) and humanity at its most bestial and debased.

Earlier this week, we were walking through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s version of Central Park and the former hunting grounds of the Kaiser (king), when I noticed that every single tree in the park was numbered and so too every bird house.  It led me to conclude that maybe Germany, with its cultural drive towards efficiency and orderliness and excellence, was the last country in the world that you would want surrendering to fanaticism and hatred because it would do it better than anyone else.  I don’t think German culture is any more given to mankind’s worst and violent propensities.  Mao almost certainly caused many more than 11 million deaths (especially if you include preventable famine in the equation), while Stalin (now actually more favorably viewed by Russians and a Time Magazine coverboy 11 times) was responsible for an estimated 6 million deaths.  The Congo was a charnel house under Belgium’s rule with close to 8 million killed, and Turkey and Armenia still argue about their sad history.  Closer to our own time, consider Rwanda, Bosnia, and the hellish Congo again.  No culture has a monopoly on evil, but as in so many other things, the Germans did it with peculiar and modern efficiency. 

What strikes me as profoundly different about Germany is what has come after.  The society has committed to an unflinching admission of its sins like no other country of which I know.  I’m not talking about a passing and symbolic mea culpa, but a full blooded and pervasive admission of guilt unvarnished.  On the site of the old Gestapo headquarters is an amazing museum called the Topography of Terror that chronicles the rise of the Nazis and the resulting insanity.  It lets no one off – the German people, the collaborators, the Vichy French, or anyone else implicated in the evil doing.  Across the city are 25,000 small brass squares embedded in the sidewalks and called stolpersteine (stumble stones) and designed so you trip upon them.  Each has the name of a Jew murdered in the Holocaust and indicates that he or she lived at this address.  German schoolchildren raise money to sponsor a stone and research the person to be named.  In the Technology Museum (yes, we are nerds….) were occasional placards with biographies of great German Jewish scientists and engineers who often had made amazing contributions to their field and to Germany, but who were murdered (and that is the word they use – not the more innocuous “killed” or “perished”) in the camps or driven out of the country if they were lucky.   The railroad room in that museum included a box car used in transportation to the camps.  The Kaiser Wilhelm Church has an exhibit that talks about the “political insanity” that gripped the country.  Next to the American Embassy and a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, in maybe the most valuable city block in the city, is the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by American Peter.  An undulating field of what looks like blank tombs of differing heights into which one gets lost.

I’m not trying to let the German people off the hook in any way, but very few of those walking the streets of Berlin were alive in WWII and no country embraces its dark past the way Germany does.  Not Turkey, who gets furious at the mere mention of an Armenian genocide, nor Japan that still uses textbooks that varnish over its dark deeds in Korea and China and the rest of Asia, nor the rest of Europe that also hummed with virulent anti-Semitism and often actively participated in the deportation of their Jews to the camps (the French are only now beginning to publically admit their actions).  Nor the United States, which says almost nothing at all about our near obliteration of American Indians and has a mixed record of dealing with slavery (go to a museum in the South if you want to see glossing over and note how little popular civil war narratives talk about slavery in the north).  I’ve heard people say that every-day Germans were more complicit than their post-war narratives acknowledge (and there is some “The Nazis did it, not us” , but look at pictures of lynchings in the South and note the crowds of onlookers, whole American families including small children, looking on with equal parts glee and virulence. 

It would be comforting to think that there is something peculiar to Germans that led to the Holocaust.  We could sleep easier at night.  I prefer to find our commonality, praise Germans for wrestling with their terrible legacy, and stand guard against the very same dark propensities in our own culture.  None of this is an argument to my Jewish friends to visit.  Some pains are too close to home.  A friend who has spent time in Berlin asked, “Don’t you feel a haunted sense about the place, of evil having been done there?”  I guess so, similar to the sadness we felt permeating the Somme or the haunted killing fields that of Cambodia. 

But we left Berlin with a newfound understanding and respect for how the Germans have dealt with their past.  In this, like so much else, they strive to do the best job possible.  The impulse maybe strongest in Berlin (in Dresden, victim of horrific fire-bombing by the allies, there is more of a victim narrative according to Hannah), but Berlin is the capital, the place where policy is made and governing happens, and the core of the cultural force that radiates out to the rest of the country.  I can only speak for myself here, but I’ve made my peace with Germany because it seeks to make peace with itself in a genuinely unique way from which all societies could learn.

Next, a return to the more fun aspects of Berlin.

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