Diary of an Expat, Part 53
So now we talk about the Holocaust
So this is going to be a more serious post.

I love Berlin. I really do. Sometimes I find it aggravating — the way that people seem to approach life so lackadaisically, the constant construction, the poor state of the roads, etc. The weather, particularly today, when after being called into the office I was confronted with a torrential downpour that immediately soaked three layers of clothing completely through.

I would go so far as to say, perhaps, that not only do I love Berlin, I probably love Germany. The government is not entirely functional, as governments tend to be, but it's a damned sight better at both the municipal and the federal level than Americans have to deal with, and every day I thank god I don't have to. Fair enough.

I love Berlin, I love Germany, and I am quite fond of Germans. I appreciate their candor, and their sense of humor, and their dedication to their society. I appreciate their willingness to indulge my terrible command of their language. I appreciate their willingness to put up with me at all, Berlin being rather notoriously unfriendly towards non-locals.


This is not really a judgmental post, it's just a reflection, which I believe I'm entitled to, and it's this: of all the lies that Germany has substantially voiced and then rigorously defended, perhaps the most pernicious regards its past in World War II. And the best part is, the lie is sort of true, but maybe not in the way you think.

It's sort of a truism that between the Germans and the Japanese, the Germans have come to grips with the atrocities committed by their country in the Second World War. Certainly I'm not going to defend the Japanese, a country whose national response to its period of imperial aggression appears to be a vaguely defined sense of amnesia.

But German culture has substantially convinced most other westerners that they, at least, "get it." They acknowledge the Holocaust; they paid reparations to survivors, and Holocaust revisionism is strictly verboten here. So, for that matter, is any public endorsement of Nazi ideology.

I would not say that the efforts of the German government have been in vain. Germans are quietly and more or less inoffensively racist, in the way that most people are, but nothing particularly more troublesome. There are pockets of nationalism and areas of rather unpleasant skinheads, but they are aggressive and irritating in the fashion of misguided youth, not in the fashion of a lurking undercurrent of hatred, jingoism, and antisemitism.

This isn't completely true, mind you; as I said Berliners are relatively hostile to foreigners, even if they don't always admit it†, and this can carry an unpleasant sensibility to it where Muslims are concerned. But for the most part, Berlin (at least) is not a particularly racist city, and its racism tends to take that quaint form that your grandmother sometimes has — I see more blackface here than would be appropriate in the States, for example.

† This is one of those things where, were this to be a well-read blog, people would post their disagreements. I think that they are viewing Berlin through rose-colored glasses. Everyone I know has encountered that resistance at one point or another, from being charged more by their doctors for speaking English, to being looked over for apartments (illegal) to receiving poor service at restaurants to being outright attacked.

So Germany has created a functioning more-or-less race conflict free society — which is to be admired. They have also abjured a history of martial prowess and retained a competent military whilst raising a citizenry imbued with a pacifist's ethos, which is something the United States would do well to emulate. But the truth, which nobody really wants to talk about, is that Germany hasn't really come to terms with its past, and maybe they never will.

Proscribing symbols of Naziism — demanding that the swastika be removed from model kits of Luftwaffe aircraft, for example — is not the sign of a country that has a healthy relationship with its past. It is not the sign of a people who ever went through a truth and reconciliation commission.

It is the sign of a people who were explicitly informed that they were guilty of unspeakable crimes, and then watched as specific individuals, ideologies and groups were identified as those of proximate responsibility and either executed, imprisoned, or marginalized. It is the sign of a people who underwent a "denazification" process that allowed them, effectively, to decide that they were "done," and then sweep it under the rug. Which they have.

I've mentioned in the past that there are three Stolperstein ("stumbling blocks") in front of my apartment, for three people who once lived there and were murdered by the Nazi regime during the war. It should tell you something that Munich, birthplace of Naziism, refused to permit their installation. It should tell you even more that the civic leaders mumbled something about how it was offensive and, besides, even the Jewish council didn't like it, and this rationalization merely garnered a few knowing ja, genaus.

(Munich has since changed their mind, at least a little bit)

Part of this is because Germany spent most of its childhood years following its 1945 rebirth as a pawn. It was important that West Germany be retained as a NATO ally, and so reconstruction money poured into the city. The USSR was a greater threat than Nazi Germany had been, at least to an extent (they had nukes, after all) and so the US and its partners overlooked a lot. German industry came back, it became kosher to praise the Germans for their strength as a nation once again, and whilst everyone was united against the Soviets a country matured into something that had moved beyond its old transgressions.

In East Germany, by contrast, the new rulers also had a foe they needed a bulwark against, and a country they needed to get on "their side." The Soviets did not, at least initially, spend nearly so much money on reconstruction, probably because they simply didn't have it. Instead they primarily worked culturally: East Germans, the Soviets said, were communists, you see, the historical enemies of Nazis. To the extent that they had ever once been Nazis, it was merely because their natural communist tendencies had been subverted it was because they had been hijacked by a few crazed fascists, and went off the rails for awhile. And there was Uncle Joe, ready to bring them back.

The meme that emerged after reunification was that this approach created two separate Germanies. One Germany, the East, had been told that Nazi Germany "wasn't their fault" and never had to come to terms with it. The other Germany, the West, had been brought up wallowing in shame for what they had done, and was therefore better suited to join the world stage.

Except, as I have said, this is untrue and self-serving. Believing that some abstract concept of "Germany" committed crimes is well and good, and I have absolutely no doubt that even most Germans both know and internalize this fact. But here's the thing: that's not how Nazi Germany worked.

Everyone is familiar with the six "death camps" (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka) that formed the primary engine of genocide in the Nazi regime. Probably, if I pushed you, you could name half a dozen more concentration camps — Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, Dachau, Mathausen.

But the German concentration camp system did not consist of a dozen camps. Nor even two dozen. Or three. Or a hundred. There were literally tens of thousands of camps, spread across Germany and its occupied territories. These, and the infrastructure required to support them — the trains, the mainpower to organize the supplies in and out, the processing of paperwork — were not neatly hidden.

In other words, the militarism and the hatred incumbent in it was not some brief, massive convulsion of delusion, sparked by one madman, that gripped a civilized nation for a few years and then guttered out. It was a shared exultation of viciousness, and everyone took part. Everyone.

Pointing to those limited instances of resistance — Sophie Scholl, Oskar Schindler, the Kreisau Circle, the July 20th plot — is the German history equivalent of everyone who has ever commented on a cold snap by saying "so much for global warming!" By and large, Naziism and the Nazi party were popular — right up until the end of the war. People knew what this support entailed, and they freely offered it anyway.

We know, of course, that antisemitism was for some time endemic in Germany, as it was in all of Europe. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has somewhat famously argued that this even took an inherently "eliminationist" scope; for example, he notes somewhat darkly that in the 19th century — a time when genocide† was not really a concept in common use — two-thirds of German antisemitic writers were already calling for the extermination of the Jews.

†"genocide" as a term dates to 1944, per the OED. But the notion that a race of people should be systematically destroyed is a relatively new one, race itself being a relatively new concept.

As late as just a few years back, in one of my classes on Nazi Germany, we listened to a speaker who had grown up during that time. She told us that her family, of course, knew nothing of the Holocaust. And we listened politely but, of course, this was bullshit. The crimes of the German state and the German Army were common knowledge because they had to be.

We've known this for awhile now, of course. The idea that war crimes and genocide were strictly a province of a small cadre of elite Nazis was exploded long, long ago. Even the innocence of the German Army is a long-dead concept — prior to reunification, the dominant story was that the German Army fought for nationalistic reasons and was therefore relatively innocent; it was the SS that administered the camps and was therefore guilty.

We also have known for awhile that all branches of the service were complicit in war crimes. We know this more or less objectively; to put it in numbers, the historian Wolfram Wette estimated, amongst the members of the German Wehrmacht (regular army), that there were a number of attempts made to rescue the victims of German atrocities. How many attempts, in 17 million soldiers? A hundred.

It's not my desire or meaning to condemn the Germany of the present. And it's not my desire to suggest that Germans "need" to come to terms with their past. But I think a lot of people think that they already have, and this is incorrect. Or perhaps, the way that they have is the best way possible, but it is not the way that you think. I haven't quite decided on that one yet. The point is that there was a thing, "Nazi Germany," and that it has always been permissible to say "that was them" and not "that was us." It is true today with the division of the two Germanies; "that was them, manning the wall and shooting at people trying to escape. It was not us."

And these days that is true. But it wasn't always, and it wasn't when the ball got rolling.

The truth is that human history itself is unclean. World War II was not a clean war. Warmaking being a fundamentally disturbing activity, it is not I think a surprise that it is not a conflict between heroism and villainy so much as a conflict between villainy and villainy. So be it. I think these days it's acceptable to point this out: that World War II was a clash of empires pursuing their own imperialistic goals and willing to do unconscionable things to achieve them.

I said that perhaps Germany came to terms with its past in a fashion that was "the best way possible, but not the way you think." It's not the way you think in the sense that it is not a way of sackcloth and the tolling of bells. But it is in this way:

Since World War II, Germany and Japan have essentially completely demilitarized. They maintain armed forces — well-trained and well-equipped, at that. But they have not prosecuted a war in more than half a century, as they have become first-world economic powerhouses in their own right. The same cannot be said of the allied powers. It cannot be said for Russia — whose brutal suppression of its Chechen rebellion and brazen invasion of Georgia suggest they may have taken the wrong lessons from the Great Patriotic War. It cannot be the said for the United States, who has racked up a six-figure civilian body count in Iraq and Afghanistan in wars started for reasons ranging from bellicosity to insanity and who continues to foment rebellions for reasons of realpolitik despite knowing they will lead to massive loss of innocent life.

Which raises the question, I suppose, of how much whitewashing is allowed, for what sort of ends. And for that, I have no answer.
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