ON THE ROAD WITH ANN – Made in Germany, a personal reflection

A number of us returned last week from a trip to three cities in the former East Germany. I had intended to write frequently while travelling, but I had trouble forming coherent impressions. It goes without saying that Germany is a country with a most complicated past, encompassing both the best and the worst of human endeavours.

But I had not fully appreciated so many other dimensions beyond the obvious black and white. It seems that how one experiences being a German depends greatly on one’s age cohort. Perspectives across the four living generations appear decidedly different. Compound that with which side of the political divide one lived in before reunification, and the picture becomes even more fragmented.

Our readings and our visits kept presenting facets of the country that did not quite jibe with one another. Yet all seem to reflect a partial truth from one perspective or another.

So, the best I can do at this early stage of reflection is to offer a series of memorable vignettes and invite my fellow travellers and others with experience in Germany to offer their own reflections. Please bear in mind that I am doing no more than skimming the surface of our collective experience and my particular impressions may not be shared by others.

As we strolled through Dresden’s exquisitely beautiful Baroque historic centre, with its cafe-filled pedestrian cobbled streets, I found it all but impossible to believe that in 1945 the city was just about levelled by, and over 25,000 civilians were killed in, the Allied firebombing. It was hard to reconcile Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with people we saw in their colourful summer clothes, enjoying the sunshine.

There also was no obvious evidence of Dresden’s more recent Communist past. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the sumptuous Semper Opera House was rebuilt true to its original magnificence during the grim German Democratic Republic (GDR) period. We did learn that propaganda was heavy on both sides of the political divide, and that not all former East Germans are altogether happy with reunification. Some see their cozy old world swept away by their arrogant countrymen form the West. Stereotypes persist on both sides with West Germans being characterized as know-it-alls, and East Germans as lazy and inclined to blame anyone but themselves for their woes.

Yet there was something unsettling about Dresden. Dresden’s reconstruction seems designed to create the impression that nothing monumentally disruptive ever happened there, creating a kind of artificial, movie-set sort of feeling. Berlin is a striking contrast in its approach to reconstruction. Rather than attempting to hide the worst decades of its history, Berlin is full of deliberately jarring and disorienting memorials of its self-inflicted wounds.

Another disjunction was the geographic proximity of Weimar to Buchenwald. Weimar is a lovely small city in the middle of spectacular natural beauty. It was the focal point of the mid- 18th century German Enlightenment and home of the leading characters of the literary genre of Weimar Classicism, the writers Goethe and Schiller. The city was also the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, with artists Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, and Lyonel Feininger teaching at Weimar’s Bauhaus School. Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps within Germany, is only five miles to the northwest.

I had not before been very conscious of the position of Germans of my own age, children during the war and the difficult post-war period. Their experiences seem to be largely unspoken because of the enormous efforts the country has made to assume responsibility and make reparations to victims. These Germans have been lumped together with their parents and grandparents in the category of “perpetrators” and their physical and emotional suffering has gone largely unacknowledged. Their children, on the other hand, also deeply affected by this silence, use art, therapy and atonement to deal with their past. There are indications that the very young are detaching from this fraught past and see themselves more as cosmopolitan citizens of the world rather than as Germans, an appelation which to many is tainted.

I was also surprised to learn that part of the ‘party line’ in the former GDR was that that the East Germans, being Communist, did not bear responsibility for Nazi atrocities, but rather were on the side of those resisting the Nazis. It was those other Germans in the West who had been the source of Fascism. In the East, the Berlin Wall was known officially as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier.”

An awkward situation has developed as a consequence of reunification. Ethnic Germans who have been living in other countries that were part of the Soviet Union are invited back to Germany provided they can prove their Germanness, which almost unbelievably can involve showing a grandfather’s membership card in the National Socialist Party!

Germans do seem earnestly united in at least one thing – assuming collective responsibility to make sure nothing like National Socialism occurs again, there or anywhere. I imagine no other country on earth has taken on the kind of humiliating burden of self-examination that Germany has.

The books we discussed and the sites we saw provoked new questions about history and memory – what gets remembered? Who tells it and how? And, can there be too much or too little attention to history or for too short or long a time?

No definitive answers, but our final evening was a celebration of the best of Germany. We went to a breathtaking concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. The barn-like building, constructed in the early 1960s looked out-of-date and cheaply constructed. But the 2400-seat hall had sound like I have never, ever heard. Of course, the orchestra is among the very best. Still, what impressed me most was the utter clarity and warmth of the sound – very tremolo on the piccolo, the subtle strains of a quiet duet between a solo violin and oboe, the exactitude of the percussion.

I conclude with warm and deep thanks to three exceptional German women who spent much time helping Don Whitfield (our fabulous discussion leader) and me plan this trip Their thoughtfulness and open-mindedness resulted in a great selection of readings and informed choices or what to do and see. Barbara Zabel, who lives in Ottawa, was with us throughout. Helga Herrmann from Norderstedt in the north of Germany was there in the form of her amazing daughter Ulrike, economics correspondent with the national paper, the “Taz.” And Hannelore Krome, of Luneburg, near Hamburg, who hosted Don and me for a couple stimulating days on our way home. We met a number of her engaging friends from all walks of life, including a writer from Romania and another from East Germany. Our conversations were wide-ranging and were limited only by my need for sleep.

Here are two excerpts from Nietzsche’s 1874 essay, “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” that leave me scratching my head.

“The unhistorical and the historical are equally necessary for the health of an individual, a people and a culture.”

“..only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what has happened into history, does man become man: but with an excess of history man ceases again, and without that cloak of the unhistorical he would never have begun and dared to begin.”

Have a look at some of my photos. Slide show.

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11 Comments

  1. Jack McMahon says:

    Does Germany seem as torn as do some Scandanavian countries over the question of immigration, i.e., how to retain the country’s German-ness and deal with non-“German” newcomers — even if they’ve lived there for a generation or two?

    Jack McMahon

    • Hi Jack, I was surprised at how few obvious immigrants we saw. I think there have not been many in the former GDR. The obvious exception is Berlin. There is bound to be some opposition to ‘the other’ as there is everywhere, especially if/when it is felt that the cost is high – both financially and taking a toll on tradition. I did hear a sort-of joke that soon there will be no blondes left in Germany. I suspect that political correctness governs public discourse in Germany far more than anywhere else. I was not privy to private speculations.

  2. cindy van says:

    I was also just in Germany:
    wonderfully preserved pretty Rothenburg with its “Torture” museum and horrors of medieval Germany ruled by the church.
    Vibrant, modern Berlin beautifully showcasing the not very distant evil past alongside youthful Berliners going about their lives. I thought it had a more honest acceptance of the war than Dresden which is impossibly pretty in its perfect reproduction but somehow not real by not addressing the horror. Apparently the Frauenkirche until recently kept a small pile of rubble by the church to honor the past but has now cleaned up that also.
    We rented a car and my impression of Germany is of a country in full throttle economically: its autobahn is full of commercial trucks delivering goods alongside new BMW’s, Mercedes and Porches travelling at top speed.
    I spoke to a few people concerned about all of the immigrants and the unfairness of successful Germany paying for other EU countries’ debts.
    I don’t know that we ever learn from evil — it just takes a different benign seeming form. That is why I liked Grass’ “Peeling the Onion”. I’m sure like most he won’t quite acknowledge his part in the war. We blindly believe what we want to so we can continue on our apathetic way. Could we have really made a difference? That is what is so enriching when we read about the heroes. Which one would we be?
    I was surprised also by the East Germans denial of being part of the war as they were Communists!
    We then travelled to Prague where we were told it is more corrupt now than under the Communists. Another beautiful city, a little tired and shabby but with the Czech edge.

    • Hi Cindy,
      You might want to track down a fascinating article about Dresden and how it has handled its history, architecturally speaking. And how greatly it differs from Berlin in the decisions made. It is in the Feb. 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. Letter from Dresden: Embers – Will a prideful city finally confront its past? by George Packer.

  3. cindy van says:

    Sorry it is the “banality of evil” (NOT benign!– I was in a hurry to go see the “Cherry Orchard!) and as I thought it was Hannah Arendt

    • Funny, I also saw Cherry Orchard last night. Brilliant acting, didn’t you think? My first National Theatre experience at the movies.

  4. Lynne Litwiller says:

    Hi Ann,
    Having friends who lived through the war and thereafter in GDR, and having spent a lot of time in Germany, I was puzzled to read that former “East” Germans claim to have had no responsibility for WWll because they were “communists”. Before 1945 there were no “East” Germans nor was it politically communist as the country wasn’t partitioned until after the war. While many may have been anti-Nazi, to base it on being communist can’t be serious. It’s hard to believe any German would say this.
    Lynne

  5. Hello Lynne, Thanks so much for your note. I know we read and learned only a smattering about this complex country, and I am glad to receive your qualification to my perception. But on a number of occasions we both read and heard that part of the Communist propaganda during the GDR period was that the Communist ideology was in oppostition to the National Socialists (even if Communist sympathizers did not conveniently align themselves on the east side of border. A major theme of East German government propaganda often claimed that the West German government was nothing but an extension of the old Nazi regime. And there was some sense that during the post-war years those in the West did more soul-search and bearing of responsibility than occurred in the East. I realize this is a gross generalization and perhaps an example of propaganda from the West. I welcome other readers to weigh in.

  6. I was glad to read your reflections on our trip, Ann. There was much that I learned through our readings and our visit. The memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, and to the horrors perpetrated by the National Socialists, still, blessedly and much to their credit, a constant reminder in Berlin (but not, as you say, in cities like Dresden), juxtaposed with the bustling, cosmopolitan feeling of a city wanting to move on, leaves me with an unsettled, almost eery, feeling. Just as the proximity of Buchenwald to Weimar, once the literary and cultural center of Germany, highlights the co-existence of barbarism and humanitarianism, the moral dilemmas which Germany is grappling with are ripe for study by the rest of us. Our readings highlighted the German angst and desire to work through the trauma of WW2 and its aftermath – enlightening and informative works, particularly Crabwalk and The Wall Jumper. The afterthought for me is broader, less just a German problem, which, up until now is how I saw it. Human beings are capable of great evil. Evil will not present itself in the same form again, we know too much, our world has changed, some lessons have been learned. In our global outlook and interconnectedness atrocities like those committed by the National Socialists are less likely to occur. Yet the unease that evil and hate lurk just beneath the surface lingers. In what form will this take hold, can it take hold of a national psyche again?

    That being said, I have picked up on Cindy’s reference to Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ and am rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Study in the Banality of Evil. This has stirred up very conflicting emotions once again. It is not that simple. There is Faust’s representation of evil in Mephistpholes’ often comical, articulate conniving to seduce his prey. And there is the more insidious kind of evil, the wanting more, more power, better situation, wanting to overcome one’s bad luck, wanting to prove one’s worth, in Eichmann’s case (even in Faust’s case?). The ‘not very smart or alert or confrontational among us, of whom I count myself, can easily be swayed to small acts of ‘evil’ without recognizing what the larger consequences might be. True, if we have any conscience at all, there is hope that this would kick in to avoid committing murder, in Eichmann’s case, this was not so. There are millions of people like that!

    Not to be too morbid about it all, these are just some of the loose strands of thoughts tumbling through my brain stirred by our readings, all of which is to attest to the power of literature and of being there.

  7. cindy van says:

    great discussion. i would like to think we have learned from the past but not everyone follows history and we are easily manipulated. there were many who saw germany’s direction in the 30’s but were ignored. and as in the case of east germany distancing itself from the nazi’s afterwards we have an amazingly short memory and a good or at least prolonged marketing campaing can sway us. i have read not alot was taught to more recent german generations about the war so many would accept east germany’s claim. whatever makes you sleep at night!
    on the other hand i thoroughly enjoyed germany,its warmth and people and its history. alas every country has its share of barbarism just not so recent and horrific in the so called civilised world.
    the jewish question in particular has always vexed me in that i have never really understood the hatred aimed at them over so many centuries and yes i’ve read and read but somehow i can’t grasp its depth and longevity. i witnessed a few loud and rude comments against obvious immigrants particularly in the czech republic and austria which make me shudder.we must all be vigilant in not being prejudiced and keeping an open mind especially in the easy atmosphere of 9/11 and muslim reprisal. we were in germany trying to find news of the canadian election and instead were bombarded with news of obama’s death. interesting to watch european news and a different perspective than the chest beating americans which causes me to cringe as many europeans assume canadians are americans. these are the best reasons why we should all read and travel as much as possible: to learn, to understand, to talk to locals and accept there are other cultures and other ways of living. and on and on i could go….lol

  8. George Fontana says:

    ann,
    greetings from cape cod. re: made in germany – a personal reflection.
    in the early 60s I was back-packing through europe with some college buddies. while enjoying the warm camaraderie of a munich beer hall, one of our group suggested a day trip to dachau. young and foolish, we boarded a public bus the next day in the spirit of a school field day or outing. when the driver and passengers learned our destination, they immediately turned their gaze to the floor. still occupied by american military forces, dachau had only recently been opened as a memorial to those who perished in the holocaust. it was still raw. the crematorium loomed above the remaining barrack-like living quarters. there was a small, make-shift “museum” containing uniforms and hand-crafted items of daily living. most heart-retching were the photos taken by the german “scientists” as they conducted experiments upon their captives. I vividly remember a photo series of a young man in standard-issue striped prisoner uniform probably around the same age I was then – 19 or 20. the young man was shackled to a brick wall, arms and legs splayed to his side. upon closer inspection of the photos, electrode probes could be discerned attached to his finger tips. sparing you the horrible details, the series depicted the slow electrocution of this young innocent. the night, back in munich, my friends wanted to return to the beer hall. I reluctantly agreed. like you, I couldn’t reconcile the friendly bavarian toasts and “welcome americans” to the horror I had witnessed earlier. the image of that martyred youth remains with me today – indelible like no other. upon returning to the states, I immediately applied for conscientious objector status. I remain a committed CO. that even today, almost 40 years later, germans remain scattered in their personal identification as german nationals does not at all surprise me. theirs (and ours) is a deep wound; the pain remains palpable.

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