Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Never Again

As I listened to people trying to come to terms with the loss of so many young people in this Germanwings crash in France this week, one summation of the event went straight to the heart.  “When your parents die,” this person said, “a little of your past dies with them.  And when your life partner dies, so does a little of your present.  But when your children die, your future dies as well.”

A “gruesome event” – the word all over the German press and television is “Grausamkeit” – like no other I’ve experienced lately.  For some reason it struck close to home, partly because I have a fear of flying and watching my worst nightmare play out before my eyes was  almost too much to bear.  Partly because it hit so close to what I call home and became a national tragedy for Germany, as well as for so many others.  And partly because it brought the mighty low in a way I believe they didn’t deserve.  Lufthansa has always stood for the best of German virtues – the mechanical and organizational skills, the disciplined approach to work and to service, the quiet efficiency – all now up in smoke as it turns out they had put a very young man in the cockpit of one of their planes who had repeatedly struggled with suicidal tendencies.

One way to frame this event, far-fetched as it may sound at first, is as only the latest of many German tragedies stemming ultimately from the greatest of all German tragedies, the unleashing of the evils of the Third Reich upon the world, including on Germans themselves.  I’m not being far fetched.  What appears to have gone wrong is that the details of Andreas Lubitz’ medical problems were not allowed to see the light of day.  If they had been, there might have been second thoughts about allowing a chronic depressive to take control of a flying machine where he might well slam it into a mountain.  And the reason is Germany’s history of one police state after another – first the Third Reich, then the German Democratic Republic, both of which showed little respect for individual rights and none at all for personal privacy.  As a result, the modern German democracy has made privacy a high priority.  Even after death, one’s medical records remain sealed.  It’s a case of a pendulum that once swung too far in one direction swinging now too far in the opposite direction.

Menschen bei Maischberger
"Legacy of 1945 - German Guilt, German Victims"
Quite coincidentally, I happened to tune in just now to a German talk show online titled, “Das Erbe von 1945: Deutsche Schuld, deutsche Opfer (The legacy of 1945: German guilt, German victims)”

There are three popular television talk shows hosted by women on German television.   All three display a much greater degree of earnestness and desire to foster public debate than one expects from their American analogues. More Charlie Rose than Oprah or Ellen.  

This particular program – Menschen bei Maischberger (People (talking) with [Sandra] Maischberger – even exceeded the normally high level of discourse and took on the painful rehashing of war crimes, guilt, shame and misery of the Nazi past.  As might be expected, there was in the commentary an immediate cry of “Oh, no, not again!”  According to figures cited on the program, 81% of Germans recently polled would like to “put the Holocaust behind them.”  58% would like a line drawn under the Nazi past.   But just as we marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January, this whole year we will be marking seventy years since the end of World War II.

Although Germany isn't remotely what it was seventy years ago, there is the nagging thought that we haven't crossed all our t's and dotted all our i's.  For one thing, there is still the radical fringe (Click here, if you have a strong stomach, for a quick glance at evidence that Nazism is still alive). For another, there is the work survivors have to do to keep memories alive.  And the job of digging for an ever deeper understanding of the human condition and recognizing personal responsibility for crimes done in your name by your countrymen who preceded you is a job you do your whole life long.  It has to be balanced with the challenge to get on with life and not obsess over things for which you were not responsible and to find ways to feel good about life and those around you.  That's what Sandra Maischberger and her six guests were doing in her program today.

“German Guilt, German Victims” had the following guests:

Erhard Eppler
1. Retired socialist party politician Erhard Eppler was six years old when Hitler came to power and he never knew any other reality than the mindset of the Third Reich.  Instead of being exposed to democracy and human rights as a child he went at age 16 from the Hitler Youth into the military, like the rest of his generation, and watched his world fall apart.  From his early 20s, until now at 88, he has had to live with the reality that he took part.  “I believe I was not particularly guilty of what happened,” he says today, “but I am ashamed that right up to the end I obeyed every order.”
Miriam Gebhard

2. Miriam Gebhardt is a historian who focused especially on the toll the war took on women in Germany.  She stirred up controversy with her recent publication of stories of women raped not only by Russian occupiers, but by British, American and French soldiers, as well.  Some 860,000 women, according to best estimates.

When Eppler, who lived in the East, and Gebhardt, who lived in the West, tell their stories, it becomes clear that all accounts of what happened are only partial and one could fight to the end of time over which missing piece of the whole picture is most in need of attention.  One learns in the West of the routine raping and pillaging by Russians, but not of the wholesale destruction of the Russian (and Ukrainian) homeland which went into building up such a rage for revenge.  And when the victors get to tell the story, their abuses get underplayed.

Nico Hofman
3. Nico Hofman is a film producer who has been sharply criticized for making films that some claim whitewash the perpetrators of the war and present his German characters too sympathetically.  Others claim he has done an exceptionally good job at portraying historical events objectively, taken the black and white images we are given to work with and shown shades of grey.

Niklas Frank
4. Niklas Frank is the son of Hitler’s Governor General of Poland, the man ultimately legally responsible for all the crimes that took place in Poland, including all the concentration camps located there.  Frank carries a picture of his father around with him for two reasons, he says, “First, to prove to myself that he is actually dead.  And Second, to remind myself that he is still alive.”  Living with the shame of being Frank’s son means he carries a burden that might do many of us in.  But it also drives him to feel a personal responsibility to assure the events of the war years are never forgotten. 

Frank appears obsessive about his claim that Germans have learned nothing from the experience. He is particularly pessimistic about the future of the nation. His views are not shared by the other members of the panel and he locked horns particularly with Hofman. The exchanges between Frank and Hofman are dramatic. Watching the two go at it, you don’t take sides. You simply note how important it is to recognize that the stories one chooses to tell depend on where one sits, what part of the shoe pinches, what part of the elephant one has been given to describe.

Especially poignant are the challenges of what to do with the memories of victims who fit both categories of perpetrator and victim.  What of the comrades who died too young to make amends, too young to begin life anew with a raised consciousness?

Elfriede Seltenheim
5. Elfriede Seltenheim was gang-raped as a teenager because there was no escaping the Russian invasion. She began telling her story only recently, after the death of her husband, so great was the shame her generation taught her to internalize.

6. Guido Knopp is another historian and television moderator. “Guilt is never collective,” he maintains, always a question of personal responsibility. But he insists that one must understand that “Hitler, Himmler and Auschwitz belong to German history just as much as Goethe, Beethoven and Weimar.” He has been called “Germany’s History Teacher.”

While the six perspectives represented here do not cover the entire spectrum, they give enough of an insight into the breadth of issues that must be considered when remembering the past so that the past is never repeated. Telling the story from a variety of German perspectives, one comes to see how often when one labels someone a perpetrator one is pointing simultaneously at a victim. And, by the same token, when one mourns a victim, one may well be mourning a perpetrator.

What of Russian (or French) rapists? Are they men who abuse women? Men avenging crimes committed against their homeland and loved ones? Does one curse the Russian invader or thank him for liberating the concentration camps? Curse the American rapist occupier or thank him for building the new Germany? Mourn the destruction of Dresden or remember it was the genocidal policy of its leaders that gave the British reason to want payback for the bombing of London? Celebrate Germany as the first choice of Russian Jews wanting to emigrate? Or dwell on the fact that Jews were once a far greater percentage of the German population than they are today (.75% of the population in 1933 vs. .14% of the population today)? Is it even possible to talk about German victims without talking about German guilt, and how is one affected by the other, if at all?

No easy task, struggling against charges of being a humorless drudge who gets their jollies wallowing in the misery of the past. And no easy task living up to the responsibility of taking your “Nie wieder!” (Never again!) promise seriously.

all photos from publicity for German Channel 1 ("Das Erste"),  Menschen bei Maischberger

1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Dear Alan,

Bill shared this posting and link with me. I read it today, Easter 2015, and with gratitude for your effort is bringing these discussions and issues to us, to our attention and for our needed reflection.

There is a theological principle not often valued, except among liberation theologians, in which time and space is transcended in the discussion of "sin and guilt:" It is the theme of "solidarity in sin;" it is a theological counterpoint to the "solidarity in suffering and injustice." Both themes argue for "complicity" on all sides for the atrocities of history and of the present--and argues for our efforts at remediation in our own present and hope for the future.

Your reflections, Alan, in bringing the discussion to your posting here, take me to these theological thoughts and the recognition that we are often both part of the evil and the good of human history, and that this extends beyond our particular space and time location. Johann Baptist Metz is the one theologian whom I admire most in the German context for his articulation of these themes of "solidarity" and how we are all a part of what "happenED."

Alan, Thank you for this posting!