My Germany mix (I: remembrance)

So I finally got around to Hitler.

I took the expiry of the copyright of Mein Kampf as my excuse to reflect on how the Germans have over the past 70 years dealt with the shadow and legacy of the Führer.

But that piece in our 2015 Christmas Issue is only the latest of several articles that I’ve written on the wider theme of German remembrance.

Recall that in 2012 I moved from California to Germany to cover the country for The Economist. In that time (through 2015) I must have written a couple of hundred articles of all lengths, in print and online. So I want to select just a few here on my blog, in a series of posts grouped by themes. And the first theme must be remembrance.

I’ve always been fascinated by German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That one long word means coping-with-the-past, and it’s telling that only the Germans would need such a term. Germany is cursed with the worst past to cope with. But coped it has. In the process, Germany has transformed a curse into a sort of blessing. All other countries, and even individuals, can learn from it in this respect.

The question, for a country and a person, is: how does one confront the worst in one’s past to atone for it and eventually to transcend it by becoming good in the present?

The answer is: with relentless honesty and everlasting sensitivity so that the act of remembering always connects one with, rather than divides one from, those one has harmed and allows new connections in the present. (That aspect of re-connecting is salient in the Stolpersteine piece below.)

Articles I have written that touch in different ways on this theme of remembrance and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, in reverse chronological order:

Hitler: What the Führer means for Germans today

Obituary: Richard von Weizsäcker

The Graffiti that made Germany better

This is a piece I wrote for The Atlantic on how Germany uses its public architecture “to blend the tragedy of the past with redemption in the present and renewal in the future.”

Stumbling over the past with Stolpersteine

Other themes to come in this series:

12 thoughts on “My Germany mix (I: remembrance)

  1. It is often said that Germany has done a much better job at Vergangenheitsbewältigung than has Austria, although I, frankly, have no intuitive understanding whatsoever as to the precise nature of our backlog in that regard.

    Regarding the glorious Führer, just the other day I came across that 11-minute clip (I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it was news to me) of his private meeting with General Mannerheim of Finland in 1942, the only known recording of Hitler speaking conversationally (i.e., not screaming into a microphone before a crowd of thousands), chewing the fat about Germany’s “Schönwetterbewaffnung,” how German tanks had never been tested for winter warfare in Russia, and all manner of other contretemps he’d encountered in his quest to establish the Reich on schedule. Fascinating to hear it all from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

    And he does sound kind of Austrian. Like an old Burgschauspieler in his downtime. At least the way traditional Burgschauspieler sounded before the Burgtheater was taken over by your people, who cannot (or will not) pronounce the terminal “t” in words like “nicht,” among other elocution issues.

    • That is a very eerie recording. Because for once he does sound conversational and ordinary and, as you said, Austrian. Possibly this is a historiographical document. He’s explaining–am I right?–that the only reason he didn’t invade Russia earlier is the … weather.

    • Well, as I understand it, he says he would have preferred to conclude the France conquest in 1939 already, but the weather didn’t permit a full-scale attack until 10 May 1940, so everything got delayed, and then problems in Italy, Greece, and North Africa necessitated German intervention, and so his army never had time to properly regroup for his invasion of Russia, which he had to get going before the Russians would have a chance to occupy some Rumanian oil fields the Germans desperately needed to fuel their military.

  2. Your Christmas 2015 article is a masterpiece. After outlining the circumstances which gave rise to Hitler and to Mein Kampf, the perceived dangers of publication and the release of copyright, you seamlessly progress to a description of its effect on post-war Germany, the resulting policies which seek to avoid repetition in order to restore your country’s proper standing in the world and an analysis of the German psyche as it comes to terms with its past. You then neatly return to the open question of the consequences of publication upon a generation that has no personal memory or assessment of those times.

    The first thing to observe is that you deal not with a German problem but a human problem. It is facile to suppose that the phenomena in Germany of the twentieth century could not have happened elsewhere in the world. Indeed they might easily have happened in Britain. It was only the simple fact that the worst manifestations were observed in another country by a few perceptive individuals that prevented it and ultimately led to war. There were plenty of admirers of Hitler in high places amongst the allies and a level of appeasement and tolerance of his ambitions, justified by a misplaced pacifism.

    Furthermore, one doesn’t have to look far to find identical processes worldwide at work today in hideous barbarities and the responses to them.

    You cite the psychotherapist Mr Radebold and his work among his patients, many of whose problems, he concludes, derive from their date of birth as war children or war grandchildren. Here again, they are not unique to Germany. I myself was a war baby in blitz-riven London. I, too, am chilled to the core at the sound of fireworks and air-raid sirens, though I would not say the feeling was fear: it is more in the nature of an all-consuming thrill that could so easily result in wild, unthinking, primitive action. Warm reason, patience and sanity are the only antidotes. There is no quick fix to the trauma of being bundled as a baby under the Morrison shelter at the piercing glissandos heralding an attack.

    In the post-war period I saw the effect on my parents of Germany’s search for identity and invasions. My father would have been flying over France in three weeks had the Armistice not been signed in 1918, my mother never really recovered from the loss of a favourite brother at Jutland in 1916 nor the austerity and food rationing she had to deal with, the result of German blockades, in the second world war. My father, in a supreme act of reasoned assessment, taught me to understand Germany’s cultural and scientific contributions that have profound benefit to the world and the betrayal of that civilisation in a reversion to the primitive.

    Anyone who has had to endure playground bullies over an extended period, and the isolation inflicted by those who conform to them, knows the depth of this human affliction and the ease with which it is aroused. It is observed in chimpanzees. A constant effort by potential perpetrator and victim is required to subdue these ever-present emotions and allow the higher function of reason to prevail.

    It is apparent that these considerations can be extrapolated and applied to societies as a whole, vividly in Germany but also in the various forms of religious fanaticism and conquest that have taken place over the generations. Christianity itself is based upon the myth (or otherwise) of a martyr who was sacrificed to the baying demands of an irrational mob. It is instructive that before long adherents were committing like atrocities. Girard went as far as to say that religion is the assuaging of guilt by sacrifice.

    So what might be the way to manage this aspect of human nature? Bland law-making carries with it the joint peril of repression and denial followed by further eruption of the will to destroy. It is mass psychology. Where are the anthropological studies? The role of Germany is to get over its guilt, obsession with self and sense of isolation, find its humanity and make these studies along with the rest of us. Ignore the bullies who seek perpetual reparation. Vigilance requires recognition of a state of mind that is far from easy to define, let alone cure.

    At the same time, Germany must be wary of self-congratulation. Your country is a newcomer, for example, to the burdens of large-scale immigration. I saw the interview you gave to the BBC. Do you have a transcript of it, or does the BBC own the rights?

    I look forward to your further postings on this vital topic.

  3. Thank you, Richard.
    Do you mean a BBC interview I gave already a few months ago? No, I don’t have a transcript of that. I never even saw it myself. Big and fast-moving story though. I’m writing about it again today, for instance….

    • That must have been the interview but I had no idea it was that long ago.. Time runs out fast, or perhaps my brain misses the short term.

      However that may be, experience can deliver a heavy blow to altruism.

  4. “So I finally got around to Hitler.” Your introduction is profound without another word. As if Hitler were the washing or the bills or an episode of television that everyone else is watching. Luckily, We can say that Hitler did not get around to us (although he sends ripples through current events to this day — so he’s still getting around to Us). Do today’s current events (e.g., Trump, Asylum) demand that we know the past better? Of course. But reading Mein Kampf (MK)? Really? I’m not trying to suck up to the esteemed Herr Kluth by saying, “me too,” but, OK, I have waded through MK this winter. Every f’ing word. Show of hands. Who has actually read MK? Any newlyweds who got a copy for free ca. 1936? For me, reading MK is about understanding all things German. You may not realize it, but Crotchety is a German family name. I’m curious. I’ve got nothing for remembrance.

    Here’s my list from MK.
    Things I didn’t expect to learn about: WWI, Marxists, union organizers, and physical exercise. Things I did expect to read about but didn’t expect to be so fascinated with; propaganda, media, and leadership. Things I learned about and I am ashamed to admit I liked; tips for public speaking (see HB April 29, 2011) and crowd control. In addition, there’s the whole idea of racialist rather than racist. I wonder how this translates. Racialist is a term I never hear in English. Is this known in German? This is fascinating. Alas, even Mr. C is afraid to say something risky (i.e., interesting) in a presumably safe milieu such as the HB.

    Here we are in February, weeks after this blog was posted, I wonder about the absence of comments at the HB. I keep waiting for things to pick up. Is the blog form just dead or is it this post? Don’t we owe it to Andreas to not leave him stranded at the party with Cyberquill and Richard? This is an important post by someone uniquely qualified to act as researcher, writer, interpreter and scholar. C’mon people. What do you think? I’ve safely established my reputation as one to provide shallow thoughts on deep subjects, so I’m off the hook. There’s Richard, but something shiny caught my eye just after I started reading Richard’s comment (was that my phone?), so I couldn’t be bothered.

    This blog started with an idea for a book. What do you think? Is there room for one more book about Germany and Hitler — beyond the porn?

  5. We are touched and impressed as usual by this crotchety intervention.

    First, kudos for reading all of MK. I’ve tried and tried, once in college and again for this article, and always I wound up skipping. Perhaps it was my fault. You clearly gave H a deeper “scan” than I did. I wouldn’t mind some time hearing what exactly you took away regarding, say, public speaking.

    As to the relative dearth of comments, fret not. The blame is mine, for posting so infrequently and in effect “hiding” new posts, and the comment link, in this new layout I adopted.

  6. Since book readers are a dwindling species (I’m assuming Germans are, in this respect, like North Americans), I wonder whether the fuss about the expiry of “Mein Kampf”s copyright will turn out a damp squib (or a storm in a teacup). Books are simply becoming less relevant as time passes, for we are today audio/visual creatures.

    I noted this from your Economist piece “…….Why do these people squirrel away food amid plenty? Why are they scared of fireworks or sirens? Why do some women in nursing homes wail uncontrollably when male carers come to change their nappies at night?……..”

    Do some of these food squirrelers and wailing mothers belong to the generation born after the war? If so, they could have *genetically inherited* their parents or grandparents wartime traumas.

    You also said in your Economist piece, “……If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can……..”

    Mmmm……..I wonder how many Greeks think this?!! Y’know, I have to tell that, from my viewpoint in far-away British Columbia, Germany’s handling of the Greek debt crisis of last summer looked a public relations disaster, that may have dissipated much post-war goodwill towards Germany (think only Wolfgang Schauble – boooo hissss!!!).

    It’s good, by the way, to see you back at the Hannibal Blog…….

    • That idea of epigenetics is fascinating and probably underestimated in history.
      For instance, it is often said that the Thirty Years War was the most important event shapign german culture/history. Well, for one entire generation the Germans were raped, plundered, killed, maimed etc. they would have epigenetically pass much of that trauma on, and that explains perhaps why the Englithenment came to germany in an attenuated form only.

      As to the bit about the Greeks not being so crazy about the Germans: I think I already conceded that at the end of the piece. But you know, all in all, Germany today as a country has its act together pretty well.

    • “……. Germany ………. has its act together pretty well.”

      Yes, but what of the real dangers of complacency? There are many unresolved troubles that Angela Merkel’s wavering leaves in its wake – e.g., the euro crisis, Brexit, migration, Greece, trade imbalances, high energy costs, is Germany competitive enough? These are matters which might have received better attention had there been less comfort and more self-criticism in leadership.

  7. What progress are you making with the four further themes to come in this series?

    One in particular caught my eye. Why do you speak of German as an awful language? I hope you prove the opposite. My knowledge of it is virtually nil, but I find it soothing and beautiful to listen to when it is not scarred by memories of Hitler’s rasping, insane rhetoric.

    I recall, too, that Beethoven preferred German musical terms to Italian.

    Now that Brexit is a fact, my own country can reflect on all it owes to and has in common with Europe, Germany in particular.

    My own inadequate understanding and intellectual dips into some of German culture (in the broadest sense) attests.

    Gauss, Riemann, Beethoven, Bach, Gödel, Euler, Freud, Jung, Goethe, Handel, ………. I cannot bring myself to Wagner at all, his anti-semitism spoils it. Yet … yet, I remember how Bernard Levin reviewed in such glowing terms performances of the Ring Cycle at the Festival Hall.

    This is a culture that can bear and be fully conscious of the brief aberration of Nazism. It annot be cured. It is the only culture in a position to immerse itself into this deeply human problem and propose more far-reaching precautions than the EU ever could – indeed, the EU is showing itself in some respects to have the opposite effect: witness the sentiment to “punish” Great Britain for its, albeit narrow, democratic choice. A comment, incidentally, not issuing from Germany, as far as I can tell.

    Why these closed doors? If Scotland chose to leave the UK and join again, why not – and leave and join again indefinitely? The same goes for the EU and its member states. Only a misplaced sense of mission prevents it and has unpleasant echoes of a “master race”.

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