Monday, December 1, 2014

Geschwister Scholl Prize awarded to Glenn Greenwald

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst
When I first went to Europe in 1960, at the age of 20, I was a country kid who had never been out of his native New England, except for a summer job in Ohio.  I lucked out.  My father agreed to finance a year at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, a transformational year which exposed me to theater and the arts, and to a world beyond my own provincial origins.  I cannot imagine a greater opportunity for any young person than a period of life and study abroad.

Munich in 1960 still had traces of the war.  There were lots of people on crutches in the street, and bombed out blocks with rubble still uncleared.  My roommate still made do with a slice of dark bread smeared with lard, and maybe a boiled egg for lunch.  I felt obliged to keep hidden my large American income of $80 a month, which enabled me to sneak out to restaurants for a Wiener Schnitzel now and then.  It was, after all, only fifteen years after the war, and Germany was still getting back on its feet.

Because it was still relatively close to the end of the war, like the other Americans I befriended, I was curious about how the Germans would speak of the war years.  Would they speak of it as we did, as a period of shame?  Would they be all "Hitler built the Autobahns" and even try to justify it?  Remain silent about it?   I got my answer soon enough, from little old ladies who moved chocolates around on their coffee tables and explained how if Hitler had just moved his tanks this way at Stalingrad, and not that way, things might have turned out differently.  Or the old soldiers at the Hofbräuhaus who would, with several liters of beer under their belt, let loose about the injustices of having to eat crow.  Or the nice folks, like members of my own German family, who would insist it was a time for looking forward and not back.  For a while, I began to build a sense of alarm that this period of history might actually be shoved under the carpet, and a whole new generation might never learn the full extent of the horror inflicted on the world by the German nation.

Geschwister Scholl Plaza,
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich
Fortunately, though, resistance to that will to forget began to reveal itself.  About the time my worst culture shock hit with full force, and I was getting a bit down on all things German, I noticed that the area around the fountains in front of the grand main entrance to the university, which I took a bath in at four o'clock one drunken morning, and dumped laundry detergent in on another, was called the Geschwister Scholl Platz.  Geschwister is more an equivalent to the everyday English “brothers and sisters” than to the more scientific sounding “siblings,” as it is commonly translated.  When I asked a German colleague who these people were, he said, “war resisters.  Students here at the university who were caught and executed.”  They were guillotined, actually, for distributing pamphlets in the Lichthof, the main court just inside the entrance, urging resistance to the Hitler regime.  A janitor sweeping the main hall saw who it was who had the temerity to oppose the Führer, and turned them in to the Gestapo.   At twenty-one I was in this place, horsing around in the fountain; at twenty-two and twenty-five, they were in this same place, headed for the guillotine.  
the "Lichthof" - main court just inside the entrance

Here, at long last, some official recognition of what I was looking for.

Die grosse Aula at LM University, Munich
Once I learned the names of these two students, Hans and Sophie Scholl, I began to feel differently each time I passed through that courtyard.  I had several classes right off that space.  It was a heady feeling knowing what had transpired just a few feet from where I was sitting and trying, in one romantic literature class, to identify which lines from the Outpourings of the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk” were written by Ludwig Tieck and which ones were written by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder.  Or in another, this time in the "Grosse Aula" back in the days before decent loudspeaker systems, wondering what that guy up on the stage was going on about.  

Fast forward a half century.  Germany’s democracy has grown and matured and few who know it well worry all that much about the fringe group of neo-Nazis.  Fascism is a thing of the past in Germany, and Germans no longer need to explain to Americans such things as what I had to do when I registered with the police upon arriving in Munich. One of the questions they asked was “Where were you on September 1, 1939.”  I wish I had had the courage to give a straight answer: “In my mother’s womb.”  What they were after was trying to determine everybody’s origins for statistical purposes.  Were you a Sudeten German, and Easterner, Westerner, a refugee from parts of Germany that are now Poland?  History was still a living, ever-present challenge.

Most Germans today were not even born at that time, so the question is no longer relevant. Today the Germans are asking some equally embarrassing questions of the Americans.  Where were you during the sit-ins at the lunch counters in the South during the Civil Rights movement?  Which side were you on?  What is your stand on whether the genocide of the natives of the North American continent by European invaders was equivalent to the Holocaust?  Do you think the Washington Redskins ought to change their name?  Why, or why not?  Are you with the 59% of black Americans who believe Darren Wilson should have been charged with murder?  Or the 15% of whites with similar beliefs?  If not, why not?  And why the discrepancy, by the way?   Do you believe Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be tried in an international court for war crimes for their invasion of Iraq?  Do you believe the United States of America is a proto-fascist nation?

And not just the Germans, but progressives from around the world, including many in the United States, are answering this last question in the affirmative.  Just how far away from “full blown” this proto-fascism is, is anybody’s guess. The good thing about “proto-fascism” as opposed to full-blown fascism, is that there is time to turn the tide.  That, I think, is what the bestowers* of the Geschwister Scholl Prize are doing today in the Grosse Aula at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.  They are awarding the prize this year to Glenn Greenwald, for his past work, and particularly for his book, No Place to Hide.

Previous winners of the award include the playwright Rolf Hochhut, whose play, The Deputy, charged Pius XII with being a willing enabler of the Nazi regime; German philosopher Jürgen Habermas; historian and political scientist Peter Gay, known for his many books on Voltaire, the Enlightenment, Freud, and Weimar; and Anna Politkovskaya, the courageous Russian journalist and Putin opponent who covered the Chechen War and was assassinated in 2006,  just to mention a few. 

To some, this may seem like a local Munich event, but its consequences go far beyond progressive circles in one German city.  Just as, with time, our consciousness has been raised about slavery and genocide in American history, we may hope it will be raised again by the dark events in Ferguson, Missouri.

And again, by a group of literati in a far off land called Bavaria, who are drawing a direct line from a couple of their own local heroes in the fight against fascism, a horror still alive in their cultural consciousness, to an American journalist making waves.

Should you want to call me an alarmist for throwing around a word as loaded as fascism, let me explain how I am defining it.  Fascism is a political philosophy originally limited to the authoritarian style of Benito Mussolini which today may be generalized to apply to a system of government led by a dictator or to dictatorial forces who exercise power for its own sake, reach readily for military solutions to conflict, for the good of a few, generally at the expense of the many, without regard to such civil rights as the freedom of expression and a free and open press, or respect for transparency or diversity of opinion, and without regard for truth.

I have found an English language news source from the Deutsche Welle (no American sources yet!) on the event, but I have been unable to find an English version of the award committee’s explanation for the award, so I have translated a portion of a version from the German press report:

Glenn Greenwald is a dedicated lawyer and passionate journalist who has sounded a warning about a powerful surveillance apparatus which promises to destroy the private sphere and threatens to undermine the foundations of democracy. He embodies by this act a compelling contemporary example of a courageous citizen who, along with others and without regard to personal risk, advocates for the right to unrestricted reporting, free speech, individual liberty and the necessity of control over the power of the state. With his articles and now also with his book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald has provided us with a prime example of what a free and independent press can and should accomplish. 
Only through the enlightened work of Glenn Greenwald and others of evaluating the documents made available by Edward Snowden and the revelation of the activities of the secret service which have damaged our foundational liberties in the name of security, have we gained a clearer insight into the threats of our time. This has given us the opportunity to correct mistakes and prevent the abuse of power. This accomplishment, which furthers civil freedoms and moral and intellectual courage and provokes strong impulses to a responsible contemporary consciousness, bears witness to the intellectual independence of Glenn Greenwald.

*the recognition for excellence and service comes with a 10,000 euro grant from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels), the Bavarian State Association and the city of Munich.

photo credits:

  • Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, from a tumblr site worth visiting for extensive information on the Scholl siblings, including information on the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  (The 2005 film is available on Netflix.)
  • Geschwister Scholl Platz:
  • The Lichthof: photo credited to Jan Greune at
  • Die Grosse Aula:

  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Thoughts and reactions very much like mine! I was in Munich a few years later and had very similar experiences. Today I am much more optimistic about Germany's future than I am about that of the US.