Germany Gets It, I Think…

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.

Hungary….Where Are You Going?

Hungary…Where Are You Going?

Budapest. Could it be more beautiful? thriving? welcoming? At least to the tourist, euros in hand.

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This city was the reason I started on this journey. A book – Katalin Street by Magda Szabo – spoke to me, told me I had to return. This, my third visit. And it was all that I remembered, and more. More construction, more tourists, more prosperous.

It’s been more than thirty years since my first trip to Hungary. Then, it was dipping its toe back into Western culture. Wanting more contact with the West, and its money, many of the stringent economic and personal austerities had eased. Everyone wanted the US dollar, and we were approached by every type of Hungarian offering us improbable amounts of zlotys for American currency.

Five years ago, Budapest was booming, at least to my eyes. There was construction everywhere, new building as well as infrastructure renewal. And while the Revolution of 1956 might be ancient history to us, it was never far from the minds, and hearts, of those with whom we came in contact. It gave me pause – for surely we left these people in the lurch. But with the fall of Communism in 1989, compared to its neighbors, Hungary’s transition was relatively calm. The country had experienced considerable inflation, its citizens trusted that better times were to be had with another system. Now they’re part of the European Union, far ahead of their eastern neighbors.

And, indeed, Budapest has prospered. On this trip, even more building, more infrastructure upgrades, tour groups everywhere, riverboats filled with tourists two and three deep in the Danube. Things seem to be going their way. The days that we were there were filled with sunshine and blue sky and streets crowded with commuters and shoppers.


And then. For isn’t there always a “then.”

We were there during the week before their elections. Some we talked to were concerned that their right-wing anti-immigrant Prime Minister would be elected for a third term. He won, and since then there have been massive demonstrations in Budapest against what protesters call an unfair election system. Of course, like finds like, so most of those I talked to, including one man who had organized an action group to help those immigrants stranded in the city, were appalled to see their country head in this populist direction. Sound familiar?

I know, a lot of political thought on a vacation. But, for me, politics is everywhere these days. None of us have the luxury or privilege not to be involved.

Oh, Hungary, have you, like so many of us here in the U.S., forgotten those times when we reached out to help those needing a hand? Is the world now building walls instead of lengthening our tables?  Who are we becoming? Where are we going?