German was my mother’s first language, and it’s the only foreign language I have ever properly learned. My relationship with Germany began with stories from my mother’s family. But their relationship with the place was distant. Actually Swiss-German in origin, mom’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine for several generations before moving overseas to farm the American Great Plains.
My link with the actual country began in 1978 when I lived in Hamburg as a foreign exchange student. This summer I’ll renew that connection as I take my family to Hamburg to visit my old host family, the Bestgens.
My memories of Germany are stable and vivid but my impressions of the place seem to be in constant flux. When I lived there, Germany was split in two, occupied by foreign armies. Now, it’s one country again.
When I lived there, history and the cold war made Germans shy away from militarism. On that count, their attitude is not much different today. And yet, there they are… the big uncle smack in the center of Europe. They are rich and powerful, calling the shots as the near-bankrupt nations of the Eurozone pray they’ll be merciful and generous.
I’ve just finished reading a popular book called In the Garden of Beasts, about an American academic named William Dodd who served as ambassador to Germany in the 1930s. Dodd was an unremarkable diplomat who, though highly principled, did not achieve very much. But he and his family witnessed one of history’s most astounding tragedies: A civilized country that was bullied and seduced by an irrational leader into an orgy of violence.
When I lived in Germany, the memory of the war was everywhere. The principal of my high school had served in the Hitler Youth. Vera, the mother of the family I lived with, once had two sisters and a mother. But they were burned to death in the bombing of Hamburg. Vera was then a small girl who was out of the city that night, for reasons I forget.
I have heard that the Japanese avoid the subject of the war and try to forget the atrocities they committed. That was never true in the Germany I knew. The held their Schuld (guilt) very close to them, and they seemed to talk about the Nazi era all the time; at home, at school, in movies and books, and in the communist propaganda leaflets you often saw on the street, back in the days when Germany was still split between east and west.
Ironically, it was the communist east where Schuld was actually held at bay. Party bosses told the East Germans that they had been the vicims of fascism during the Nazi era, therefore they shouldn’t be held fully responsible for the war or the slaughter of Jews and Russians.
I have not visited Hamburg for more than 20 years, and I expect to be dazzled when I see it again. It’s the second-largest city in Germany; a prosperous and cultured place that’s the capital of German shipping and publishing. After being flattened by bomber planes, it was rebuilt in a graceful but sober fashion, typical of the German north.
Will it be just the same as before? I doubt it. I was there at a time when Americans were still held in the highest regard. We were the benevolent occupiers that held off the Russians, who would have happily taken all of Germany into their empire. The people in Hamburg made fun of American kitsch, joking about the multi-colored lights we put up every year on the Christmas tree in front of the American consulate. But the jokes were always good-natured.
Maybe the Germans I’ll meet will be more condescending. Maybe they’ll be more arrogant. Arrogance, after all, has never been in short supply among Germans. They will surely feel less in our debt. On the other hand, I’m guessing they like Obama.
Just a few days ago, I met a young man from Germany. He was visiting the public radio station where I work, on vacation from Westdeutsche Rundfunk in Mannheim. His name was Dirk and he wore thick black-rimmed hipster-doofus glasses. And he told me something interesting.
The regional state-based radio network he worked for was locally funded and staffed. It maintained an independence from the national network that was financially impractical, resulting in the duplication of a lot of services. But, he said, that was the system they created when West Germany was first founded. They imposed a strict federalism, for fear that centralizing power would lead to dictatorship and the nightmares of the past.
Not many Germans alive today even remember Nazism, much less fostered it. But Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are still a defining characteristic of Germany. I really believe the war changed Germany forever. It’s the horror that country must always avoid, in all ways and at all costs.