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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