Germany Gets It, I Think…
Now I’m not claiming to be an expert, a pundit, or even someone who has done sufficient homework to expound on such a topic. This is just one person’s take, after a short and admittedly superficial visit to three cities in the former German Democratic Republic, East Germany as we once knew it. But sometimes you just have a feeling…
Here’s what I think the Germans get:
I sense that they have come to terms with the evils and atrocities of Nazism and the brutalities and barbarisms imposed by Hitler and his supporters. Of course, there are museums dedicated to helping those too young to have experienced this history, and it is taught, some younger students believe excessively, in schools. Those of my generation, those schooled in the 50s, report that they learned, heard, nothing, that their realization of the role Germany and individual Germans, ofttimes they parents, played in World War II came independently, as they catapulted into the tumultuous 60s.
That educational philosophy changed in the 1960s and 70s. Teaching history is now a pillar of national identity in postwar Germany, and the Holocaust is an integral part of the curriculum where students are encouraged to visit a concentration camp. Only in Bavaria is this visit mandatory. Recently, a Berlin state legislator with Palestinian heritage, proposed making such visits mandatory for everyone.
An article in Jewish World (February 2019) featured German students commenting on this:
Fynn Bothe, a high school student in Hanover, noted that he was exposed to the subject in ninth or tenth grade where they learned about the war and Auschwitz. “I am satisfied with how the school teaches the subject because we learn what the Nazis committed. They were responsible for one for the most horrific crimes in the history of Germany.”
Anna Laura, from Dusseldorf said that her class read Anne Frank’s Diary, and focused on the atrocities committed during the war. “We discussed the subject all year long,” she said. “I think that the school is doing good work by teaching the youth about the matter and by not ignoring the horrors (that were committed).”
I saw heart-rending sculptures appearing in unexpected places; gold cobblestones caught my eye, as well as my heel, as I explored historic areas. On each is inscribed a name, a birthdate, and the location where that person was last seen. At the entrance to Berlin’s bustling Friedrichstrasse Station is a sculpture that no one can miss – children with suitcases, on their last journey. I passed this on several different days, and each time, a memorial of flowers stood by its base.
Reminders. Everywhere. An undercurrent of Never Again.
And yet…it is not perfect. People are not perfect. Germany experiences anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment. East Germans resent West Germans; West Germans resent East Germans. Neo-Nazis have been emboldened by the arrival of Alternative for Germany, the first far-right party to break into Parliament since World War II. And there are concerns that the recent absorption of more than a million immigrants, many from the Middle East and many Muslim, has inadvertently created incubators of a different kind of anti-Semitism — one hiding behind the injustices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but sometimes reverting to hateful old stereotypes.
The reaction in Berlin, where there are strict legal prohibitions of Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda, has been swift. The government appointed its first-ever anti-Semitism coordinator.
And there are many in the country, as in our own, who understand and support the immigrants’ journeys.
And through this, I think of my own country, how we have avoided coming to terms, acknowledging the atrocities of our past. Stories of visitors to South Carolina’s plantations, resentful of having slavery presented as an integral, and sordid, part of our story. “We didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves. We came to get the history of a southern plantation and get of tour of the house and grounds.” (For some comic relief, check out Twitter’s responses to this comment.)
And our horrific treatment of Native Americans continues as we deny them access to voting and move pipelines through lands sacred to them.
Such hubris. So we just don’t get it, do we?
I don’t think Germany is perfect by any means. But they get it. Most get it. I think.