Sunday, November 30, 2008

TORTURED PERSPECTIVES : GERMANY

AN ESSAY

Living in the United States, you could be forgiven if you truly thought that all Germans were militaristic killers who secretly worship Hitler. You could be forgiven if you thought that Germans were all icy technocrats who prize efficiency over all else. You could even be forgiven if you thought that all Germans hate Jews. In a word, the American media--through television, film and press--has perpetuated a dangerous stereotype linking "Germans" to "Nazis." Television programs involving Germany typically focus on some barbaric cruelty inflicted during World War II, while most movies involving Germany show Germans murdering innocent civilians, or at least goose-stepping around in slickly-polished boots. The image alternates between the savage and the ruthlessly efficient. If these are the only images an American sees, he can be forgiven for thinking that all Germans are like the sadistic concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List or the treacherous soldier in Saving Private Ryan who slowly stabs an American Jew to death. If this is all you see, what impression will you form?

At the outset, I must be very clear: the Holocaust DID happen and I cannot condemn more strongly the conduct of Germany's National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945. But I find it unfortunate--and historically unfair--to judge Germany solely on these 12 years. By focusing exclusively on Nazi atrocities during World War II, we blind ourselves to earlier German history. That history reveals an image far less brutal than the one so often shown in movie theaters.

World War II fascinates virtually everybody; and for good reason. There has never been such a cataclysmic encounter between clear "villains" and "the forces of freedom." No war in history has even approached the immense scale and horror experienced between 1939 and 1945. But for all our fascination, we cannot view World War II in a vacuum; earlier events led to the war. The key "earlier event" was World War I.

Almost no one talks about World War I anymore. Almost all World War I veterans are dead. Hollywood does not make movies about it, and it all seems impossibly remote to a modern listener. This is a terrible mistake, because World War I is the key event in modern history. World War II--along with the villainous Germany that facilitated it--would never have happened had World War I never taken place. No other war in history has so altered accepted political and social systems as World War I. Before 1914, monarchs held sway over vast European and foreign empires. After 1918, monarchy was out. The true "modern age" had begun, along with all its intractable modern complexities and industrialized violence. World War II continued the battles left unfinished in 1918. Yet because its scale and drama was greater than World War I--and because it came later--it overshadowed its predecessor. World War II is like the noontime sun, while World War I is like a star that cannot be seen during the day: The light from the sun overpowers the light from the star, even though the star is right there next to the sun.

What does all this have to do with Germany? Just because World War II has burned itself more intensely into our collective memories does not mean it should blind us to other history. If we use World War II as our only historical guide, we would be right to think that Germany was always an intolerant, brutal Nation, even in World War I. But this would be utterly inaccurate. I have often asked acquaintances what they think would have happened had Germany won World War I. Most say that Germany would have conquered all of Europe and subjected all Nations to Hitler-style persecution. I disagree with this assessment, but I know where it comes from: The superimposition of World War II onto all other historical inquiries concerning Germany.

So what was Germany like in the years preceding World War I? Was it a ruthless, intolerant dictatorship as so many Americans believe? Absolutely not. Germany was a constitutional monarchy ruled by a Parliament and an Emperor. The Emperor--like an American President--had Executive power but could not make laws. All males could vote, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Polish or Muslim. The fact that only males could vote at the time should not be seen as repression; even in the United States women were excluded from voting during the same period. Beginning in the 1880s, Germany guaranteed health care, unemployment insurance, social security pensions and accident compensation to all its citizens. Germany dedicated an immense part of its budget to caring for wounded veterans. In 1901, Germany had the third-largest Jewish population in Europe, thanks to a State policy of religious tolerance and excellent commercial opportunities. In 1912, Marxists composed the largest contingency in Parliament. Although the Emperor was unelected, he depended on the democratically-elected Reichstag to enact legislation. There was even a constitutional free press guarantee.

Does this sound like Nazi Germany? Religious freedom? Freedom of the press? Universal health care and unemployment insurance? Marxists in Parliament? Democratic elections for representatives in Parliament? It is hard to imagine a starker contrast. Although Imperial Germany vested executive power in a monarch, virtually every European country embraced monarchy in some form during this period. Even "democracies" like the United States did not provide social care to their citizens, nor did they so readily tolerate left-wing political expression in government.

Why does no one remember these liberal traditions in German history? Again, World War II has poisoned foreign understandings about Germany. It would not fit the barbaric stereotype about Germany if Americans suddenly learned that Germany had universal health care and unemployment insurance in 1884. After all, barbaric governments do not provide such compassionate assistance to their citizens. Nor do tyrannical governments allow political expression and universal suffrage. Yet Imperial Germany provided all these things to its citizens at a time when even the United States did not.

World War II also poisoned foreign understandings about Germany's motives in World War I. Under the "World War II" view, Americans think that Germany was a belligerent Nation bent on world domination. In 1939, Germany launched a war of aggression against its neighbors. It initiated vicious racial purification programs in the conquered territories, eradicating both ethnic and political opposition. It appeared to have no intention to relinquish the countries it conquered. But in 1914, Germany blundered into war without any intention to permanently annex new territory, let alone to exterminate millions in ethnic and religious minorities. Germany invaded France because it had treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary, which foolishly triggered war with Russia, France's ally. Throughout World War I, Germany was not fighting to exterminate "Untermenschen" or expand Germany's "Lebensraum." It was fighting due to a failed system of European alliances. If Germany had won World War I, there would have been no World War II-style oppression. Most likely, Germany would have taken some punitive steps against its adversaries, but would certainly not have begun slaughtering Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and Communists. After all, Jews, Poles, Communists and--although not declared as such--homosexuals formed essential parts of Germany's political system. In a word, Germany in World War I was not an intolerant Nation bent on world domination. Yet through the lens of World War II, many Americans assume that Germany "has always been" both intolerant and repressive.

I do not hide the fact that I am partial to Germany for several reasons. First, I am of direct German descent. Second, based on my studies I believe that Germany has borne an unfair stigma for a very limited period in its history. While this does not excuse Germany for its actions between 1933 and 1945, it also does not excuse us from simplistically assuming that Germany "has been and always will be" a violent, repressive society. Indeed, any fair investigation will reveal that precisely the opposite has been true for many centuries. Germany has a long history of liberalism, from artistic excellence to religious tolerance to intellectual freedom. The corrupt legacy of World War II has unfairly overshadowed all these cultural achievements. True, Germany also has a profoundly militaristic history, but its unique position in central Europe--caught between at least three powerful foreign enemies--partially explains its insistence on military strength. Furthermore, it is unfair to brand Germany "militaristic" for its actions during a time when all European powers jockeyed for military dominance, whether at home or in overseas colonies. In that sense, Germany's military prominence in the 18th and 19th Centuries is hardly unique. If military power alone signified a tendency toward repression, then Great Britain must certainly be counted as a "naturally repressive" State. Indeed, Britain waged nearly constant war during the 19th Century, from North America to Belgium to Portugal to South Africa to the Crimea to Hong Kong to India. It constantly maintained the world's most powerful navy, yet few Americans today view Britain's military prominence as proof that it was a naturally repressive State.

In sum, I think German history has suffered from gross historical distortion. Modern media has perpetuated this distortion. Unless Americans do their own research about German history, they will have no reason to think that Germany has been--and always will be--something akin to the Third Reich. Germans are profoundly aware of this distortion. While virtually all Germans deeply regret the darkest part of their history between 1933 and 1945, many now feel that continued prejudice against them is unwarranted. For generations now, Germans have been instructed to be ashamed of themselves for actions they never took. They have been instructed to suppress patriotic expression because they are told it is "dangerous" to have nationalistic feelings for Germany. These impositions have led to greater and greater resentment, precisely because Germans understand that they should not be over-punished for a discrete period in their long history. They know that for generations Germany has been a beacon for liberalism and tolerance in Europe. Yet in world media they see themselves portrayed as inveterate Nazis. These portrayals ignore all German history aside from World War II, perpetuating a lasting historical distortion.

Once living links die, media and second-hand accounts shape public understanding. We no longer have a living link to World War I, and the trauma of World War II has so dominated popular thought that it allows little room for reflecting on what came before. But it is dangerous to rely on popular history, because history will always reflect a distinct political or social perspective. Only by investigating all the evidence can we gain a clearer understanding about historical events. That means looking beyond stereotypes forged from a single historical experience. When it comes to German history, it is essential to examine more than just the National Socialist experience. We must look further back to see what Germany truly was. It is not an exaggeration to say that postwar Germany simply picked up the pieces scattered by the Nazis in 1933. Modern Germany--like Imperial Germany before it--enshrines many of the liberal ideals that have traditionally found expression in German life. Postwar Germany broke radically from the Nazi regime, but it did not break radically from overriding German political and social traditions. Today, Germany is again one of the most liberal Nations on earth. But that is nothing new; it only seems surprising because many Americans think that before 1945 Germany had never been anything but a savage, repressive State.

America has a perplexing interest in maintaining the idea that Germany is a dangerous, habitually violent Nation. In 1999, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship under which I proposed to explore many of the ideas raised in this essay. I wanted to illustrate that America has distorted the historical record about Germany by creating a stereotypical understanding about Germans that fixes all inquiry on World War II. My application was denied on "political grounds." It was too inflammatory. Apparently, the American government did not want me to disturb the fabric underlying German-American relations, or to expose the embarrassing cultural myopia that plagues most Americans' understanding about Germany. In America today, many still equate Germans with Nazis, thanks in large part to the endless media bombardment that reinforces that connection.

In hindsight, I am happy that I did not receive funding from the American government. I have given up on America's ability to conduct fair foreign relations. Perhaps Obama will restore some of America's credibility on the world stage. But I doubt he will influence the endless tide of negative press and media about Germany. Only time will tell whether the historical distortion about Germany will ever subside.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

Many run-of-the-mill Germans, so to speak, would have been just as shocked to enter the concentration camps as the Allied troops were. The perpetual bashing of Germany says less about Germany than it does about America (and the other nations that do this).

World War II was our national "Super Bowl" in the rhetorical sense. It spawned the "greatest generation", the concept of the perfect war, the concept of perfect evil in Hitler. We like our rhetoric clean, so we want a perfectly clean point of comparison. If there were anything at all redeeming about Germany, or I should say even anything short of pure perfect villainy, we would lose our magic hot-button, our rhetorical "easy button" and be forced to describe what we mean. Every time someone says "well if you follow that logic we wouldn't have fought WWII", "XYZ is the next Hitler", "XYZ is bad but he's not Hitler", etc. etc. this is reinforced. Our points need to be made in 30 seconds, 100 words or less please, and there is no room for complexity, subtlety, or non-conventional thought.

I am curious that you characterize a nation that supports health care for all and has Marxists in their parliament as a contrast to National Socialism. This sharply defines what I believe to be one of the fantastic (as in - this will be a lot of fun going forward) disagreements between you and I. I see Marxism and socialism as closely intertwined with many of the worst things that happened under National Socialism.

A government that is potent enough for infinite good is potent enough for infinite evil. It's like harnessing fission, and then being shocked when someone builds a bomb with it. And then the scientists moan - but I only MEANT it to be used for peaceful purposes. In my opinion, governments should be diffuse, and only strong enough to carry out a limited number of functions agreed upon in advance - but certainly strong enough to perform those functions effectively.