Coming to Terms With Germany and Its Past

Old Warehouses and canal in Hamburg, Germany

As many of you know I spent my Christmas break with my wife in Germany.  This is my third trip and with each visit I’ve grown more attached to the people, the landscape, and the culture.  I find myself completely absorbed by my surroundings when abroad, especially in Germany.  My passion for the history of the Civil War is replaced by an intense interest in the German experience in World War II.  My visits always include a good book about the period.  This time around I put a major dent in Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War.  I have little problem imagining the battles, lines of advance and ruins of places like Bonn and especially Koln owing to that iconic image of the bombed-out city center, including the cathedral and nearby railroad bridge.

My interest in the period, however, is not purely military.  Even though I do not live a religious life I was raised in a Jewish family and my education early on was filled with survivors of and stories about the Holocaust.  I don’t just bring that personal past with me to Germany, I am forced to confront it on a daily basis.  It manifests itself in the form of a puzzle or set of seemingly contradictory perceptions.  On the one hand I am married to a wonderful German woman.  Her family has accepted me with open arms.  I have never felt from anyone in my wife’s family – or for that matter anyone else in Germany – any feelings of Anti-Semitism.

At the same time I can’t help but acknowledge the brief span of time between today and the 1940s.  For historians 70 years is a drop in the bucket.  It’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that just a few decades my presence in this very same country would have been met with disgust, anger, and worse.  I know this and at times it colors how I view the people around me.  At times I find myself playing with the faces in the streets.  I can imagine the elderly in their youth – young enough to have lived through the Nazi era and perhaps somehow contributing to the extermination of the Jewish people.  I can imagine them forcing me onto a train.  But what troubles me is how easily I can imagine younger male faces in German/SS uniforms.  I can’t help but feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for doing so.  After all, why saddle a younger generation with the past?  The mental act is my way of trying to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”  Why would my presence have been so revolting just a few decades ago when now I am welcomed with open arms?  I’ve read plenty of philosophy and social scientists on just this question, but they provide me with little in terms of answers.

For me, the past and present collapse when in Germany.

16 thoughts on “Coming to Terms With Germany and Its Past

  1. TFSmith1

    Very honest and human post.
    Has there been much study of Americans who were Jewish and their interactions with Nazi Germany from 1933-39? Seems like that may be a fertile field, and your Boston location would make it (reasonably) easy to get into the US side of the research, given the likely focus on the northeast…
    Got to say, that’s a pretty dreary looking city scape in the photo…not exactly chamber of commerce graphics.
    Best,

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  2. ericwittenberg

    Excellent post, Kevin. I had the same feelings when I visited Germany–and Dachau–as a teenager. Then, only 30-odd years had passed, and the wall was still up. I grappled with this issue every minute that I was there. I can only imagine what it’s like for you. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. longislandwins

    One of my closest friendships is with a family of Holocaust survivors. A member of that family told me that she was able to escape from Germany via the kindertransport. After the war she returned to Germany to publicly denounce the man who had forced her family out of their store and taken it over for his own profit. Nearly 90 now, she has been back several additional times to work with local teachers to remind students that their city once had a thriving Jewish community and to give her teenaged view of how it was destroyed. She told me last year (at a bat mitvah) that she thought the teachers and the students were wonderful. She said they were courageous and willing to face the past for what it was. She also said it helped her to understand that the grandchildren of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not at all the same as the perpetrators. I listened to her for two hours while her cousin’s wife, an Aushwitz survivor, nodded approvingly. -Pat Young

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  4. Lisa Laskin

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Kevin, it is still too soon to not think about that war when there. My parents never cottoned to Germany when we lived there in the late 70s (although they embraced the expat lifestyle) and I think it is because it was just too close to the war, during which they’d both grown up. My mum’s dad had been in the Army, albeit as a mostly stateside lawyer, but theirs was a generation that would never ever ever own a German or a Japanese car. They openly wondered, to each other what the old lady in the konditerei had done, how the town we lived in had reacted. This was also right before Germans began to openly discuss and remember the Holocaust, although one could visit places like Dachau. Which we did, and it remains a searing memory 30+ years later. And of course, in the late 70s everyone was wprrying about homegrown terrorism and the Russians. But the Holocaust, and Germany’s war was always weirdly omnipresent, and completely ignored at the same time.

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  5. John Hennessy

    Thanks for a thoughtful, personal post. After I went to Birkenau a couple years ago, I couldn’t sleep for a month. I was not tormented so much by the mind’s-eye images of families on the ramp, or of suffering in the camp (though they were bad enough). I was staggered by the system of it all–the organized, highly conscious, precise, efficient, inhumanity. What hung over me was the realization that a nation could muster itself to create such a place, and to do it systematically across Europe. When I returned to Germany, I found it impossible not to wonder–about that person, or this, or imagine, just as you did, that the historical counterparts of young Germans once happily wore the uniform, gave the salutes, or, at best, looked the other way. I too found Germany fascinating, partly because it’s so difficult to fathom.

    I recently read Schlink’s “Guilt About the Past.” I found it interesting and helpful. But still, the struggle to understand continues.

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  6. Jazzeum

    As I mentioned in the other post you made I visited the parade grounds and walked the reviewing stand and stood where Hitler stood. I was reminded of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumpth of the Will. It was a rather eerie sensation being in Germany. I am of the immediately post WW II generation having been born in 1950. Although I did not know them and don’t know their names we had many relatives from Poland who never emerged from the camps and are lost to history.

    Speaking of the lost and apologies for the meandering post but have you read The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendolsohn. In a way the book is about memory, finding a part of his family lost to the Holocaust. One of my other reading interests (when I can squeeze it in nowadays) is WW II and this is is one of the best I’ve read. A hard book to put down.

    I hope this doesn’t sound trite but one of my favorite movies is the Odessa File. At the end of the movie, the narrator of the movie reads the words of one of the characters now dead, “I bear no hatred or bitterness towards the German people. People are not evil. Only individuals are evil.”

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  7. bummer

    One of Bummer’s best friend’s parents carried the tatooed numbers on their forearms. Both came to our high school and lectured several times regarding the horror of their internment. Such amazing folks, just to have survived and be able to continue an almost normal life, raise a family and enjoy what this country had to offer, still seems a miracle after all these years. This “old guy” still has nightmares of the tales they related to us so long ago. Great post!
    Bummer

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    1. longislandwins

      I tear up every time one of the survivors passes, but one woman told me “I’m 85, I’ve had five kids, eleven grandkids, and that SOB Hitler’s been dead 65 years.”

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  8. Jimmy Dick

    I think it is interesting to look at the way Germany has
    dealt with its Nazi past and to compare that with the way the United States
    dealt with its Civil War past. Obviously both nations were different in many
    ways, yet the Nazi past was dealt with harshly and even has laws regarding the
    use of Nazi symbolism. There has been a core of resistance to the treatment and
    interpretation of the Nazi history for many years which ignores factual based
    interpretation in favor of ideological beliefs. Now while the Lost Cause is
    totally different from Nazism and in no way whatsoever are the two related
    beyond the point of comparing them via the lens of historical interpretations,
    I find it very interesting in how groups of people can completely ignore the
    facts surrounding these two subjects in favor of a mythological fictitious concept.

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  9. Lyle7

    Were you able to make it to the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn? Nice museum and free. They have some good museums in Bonn.

    The last time I was there, I spent a summer working in the administrative office of an iron foundry in rural Germany, specifically in the Eifel (the German part of the Ardennes – the staging ground and jumping off point for the German winter offensive in late 1944). At the time, in Germany, it was becoming popular to look at Germany as a victim during World War II. A book on the bombing of Hamburg, I believe, had come out which explores the idea of Germans as victims. The family I was renting a room from in conversation was adamant about how American soldiers had committed atrocities too.

    There is definitely antisemitism in Germany. Today, official Germany is emphatically pro-Jewish. The country goes way out of its way to suppress antisemitism. Just look at how Merkel and her government reacted to the German court’s banning of circumcision (even though the case had to do with a Muslim child and his parents). That said there are still neo-Nazi groups and far Left groups that don’t like Jews… especially in East Germany. The German populace is pretty vocal about standing up to these people, at least the neo-Nazis. The counter rallies they have at neo-Nazi rallies tend to outnumber the neo-Nazis… at least in the West from what I saw.

    Then there are Muslim immigrants. Germany has actually expelled at least one radical imam from Köln. Not for what he said about Jews I think, but because of threats he made to the German state, which in turn would affect the lives of Jews in Germany.

    When I was an exchange student I had the good fortune to live in the immigrant part of Bonn, in a neighborhood called Tannenbusch. My dorm room neighbors were all from Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Jordan, Afghanistan, you name it. The very first question I got when I met Mohammad, a pre-med student from Morocco, was… was I Jewish. I have no idea how he would have responded if I had said yes. Later on Mohammad and the others told me to stay away from the bearded guys in the neighborhood because they want to kill you. That’s literally what they said in unison. Stay away from the bearded guys, they want to kill you… because you’re American. After that year abroad I flew back to America less than two weeks before 9/11.

    One of the guys from Yemen I got to know well, Hani, said about myself and another American… “what I like about you guys (in comparison to Germans), is you’re not racists”.

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  10. Lee Hodges

    I think that Hitler, the Nazis, WWII, and the Holocaust will always be among the first things that come to most people’s minds when they think of Germany (at least except for those who are so ignorant of history that they don’t know about those things). Someone once said that when people think of French history, the French Revolution and Napoleon come to mind, when they think of British history, the British Empire, when they think of German history, Hitler and the Nazis. It’s unfortunate and sad, but actions have consequences. Acknowledging this is very different from holding post WWII generations of Germans responsible for what happened, or denying that much of Germany’s heritage–particularly its cultural contributions–has been extremely positive and enriched the world immeasurably.

    BTW, Kevin, do you speak/read/write German? If so, have the feelings you’ve expressed here affected your attitude toward the language? I’m Jewish also, and German is one of the languages I plan on learning. For me, the connection with the war and the Holocaust is actually a positive in terms of the language, because while what happened was horrendous, it also interests me greatly, and learning German can let me read material about it in the original.

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  11. Phil Obbard

    I really like this line, because it’s true: “For historians 70 years is a drop in the bucket.” I remember during the German reunification period (1990), when I was in high school, a classmate telling me she thought it was unfair for modern day Germans to pay a price for things that happened a long time ago. I remember thinking, “45 years is nothing, my parents were alive then”. I agree that we can’t hold children responsible for the sins of the father, but in many cases, the “father” is still alive, or his memory is very, very recent.

    (You know what else this reminds me of? Reading Obama’s first memoir when he talks about kids throwing rocks at his mother when she spent time with an African-American friend in grade school. Must have been in the 1950s. Obama’s mother died young, but many of those rock-throwers are likely still alive, or only recently gone.)

    A drop in the bucket.

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  12. Dave Jordan

    Having traveled through much of western Europe for business or pleasure, I have found the Germans to be more like Americans than any other non-English speaking nationality. My co-workers and I joke that it seems to be easier for the Germans to forgive us for defeating them than it is for the French to forgive us for liberating them. Anyway, it’s hard to believe that these people or their recent ancestors could have perpetrated the Holocaust. And yet they did.

    Have you read Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners? Although hard to read, on a variety of levels, it does a good job of explaining why so many Germans were willing or even eager to participate in the Nazi genocidal policies.

    My ex-wife was a psychologist, and she was baffled and troubled by how these seemingly normal ex-Nazis could perpetrate such ghastly atrocities and then successfully blend in to postwar society both in Europe and here in the US. After these ex-camp guards were arrested their friends, neighbors, and co-workers were almost always shocked to find out that this nice man had done such evil things.

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