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Friday, August 27, 2010

Continuing the Discussion: Antje and Karla

Blame it all on Darwin, I mean the use of race, nationality, and the idea that competition between the sexes is a key evolutionary mechanism with the consequence that man has ultimately become superior to woman. The National Socialists played with it and gave it a slight twist, namely, the idea that competition between races, nationalities, or ethnic groups is a key evolutionary mechanism with the consequence that Nordic man has ultimately become superior to all else.

It is a great achievement that civilization, by means of World War II, decisively defeated Darwin’s twist—Darwin’s twisted cross. That defeat is an empirical fact achieved by the phenomenon we have largely overlooked—I mean, allied Cooperation.

Here I must refer readers to a fascinating paper by Kathleen Boiling Lowrey published in Anthropology Today, vol 26, no 4, August 2010, pp 18-21 entitled “Alfred Russel Wallace as ancestor figure.” Lowrey puzzles why it is that Darwin won the upper hand in evolutionary theory when anthropological research shows overwhelmingly that not competition but cooperation is the more powerful mechanism behind human evolution. She finds part of the answer in the following: (a) Darwin’s explanation was more congenial to his era than was that of Alfred Russel Wallace, and more importantly (b) while Wallace was by far the superior fieldworker who spent years living on his own in the Malay archipelago he was rather spiritual. Wallace “considered the lush complexity of human thought a serious mystery, one inexplicable within the necessity-driven framework of natural selection” (ibid:21). In other words, while Darwinian evolution answered the question, “Is this all there is?” with “Yes,” Wallace answered “No.”

When Antje responded to my last post, she showed that she was a superior fieldworker and being such brings valuable insights. Regarding the question of nationality and collective guilt of “the German”, she addressed her peers as follows:
So next time you talk to somebody about their nationality or their country you should realise that the moment you do that, you jerk them right out of who they are and force them to look at themselves from the outside and through your eyes. You force exteriorisation on them. That’s not a horrible thing to do, not for you anyway; but know that you always lose a bit of the person you were talking to when you do that. As a result, you will never know them for who they are, you will only know them for who you want them to be: Foreigners.

Wallace by being a superior fieldworker went beyond mere empathy; he became aware of what he called “aesthetic sensibility” as the marker of humanity. He did not force “exteriorization” on them nor impose on them racial or national homogeneity. He saw their depth and beauty and the individual variation thereof. Most amazingly, “Wallace attributed this definitive human capacity to some sort of higher power.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Response to Antje's Responders on Being German by Karla Poewe

The three responses posted on Antje’s Blog are very thoughtful. Most people remember pasts because their lives were destroyed in some way or another and they need to understand what happened and come to terms with it. Unfortunately, the politicization of memory has complicated what should remain simple, namely, the fact that memories are personal, limited, and powerful. This simplicity is destroyed when following wars, victors demand reparations, rectifications, retaliation and universal blame. Much later occurs the construction of official histories and their memorialization. One of its consequences is that perpetrators and victims become permanently associated with specific peoples.

Even before that politicians, be they representatives of the victors or of the defeated use memories selectively to achieve certain ends, for example, the settling of borders (like the Oder-Neiße), or the pacifying of new neighbors (like the Soviet Russia), or dismantling of industry (as in the Ruhr Gebiet), and so on. The chaos of postwar years is more or less forgotten—by all that is but the general suffering and deprived population, the evacuees or refugees. Many of these are silenced.

The guilt that many Germans feel has not to do with a genetic predisposition, but with postwar indoctrination, education, and with lower motives like exclusion or denigration.

Let me give one personal example. More than four decades ago when I was in my twenties, an immigrant, and university student in Canada, I was nominated for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. I passed successfully the essay stage and went for a final selection interview. The interview was held in a hotel in downtown Toronto. Once there, I was welcomed and handed over to an interviewer. We sat down. I was unbearably nervous, but also excited to talk about my favorite topic at the time, Levi-Strauss’s anthropology. Then the interviewer rolled up his shirtsleeve. You can imagine what went through my mind. But it was not that, rather, he showed me a number tattooed into his arm. “Do you know what that is?” he asked me. “No,” I said, then stopped, hesitated, thought, and surmised that this must be what people talked about ... it can’t be I thought. I still feel my eyes burning as I looked at him. As if from a great distance, I heard him say, “Sometimes two cultures meet, and they clash, and it’s fatal.” My heart pounded, pounds now, as I tell it. I got up and left.
I cried all the way home. Why? He had all my personal information. He knew I was born 1941 and a toddler at the time of the worst mass killings of Jews. He knew, and he did that when I was most vulnerable, and as an immigrant desperate for financial help. Well, he had his revenge. He demanded guilt and he succeeded in receiving it. He was wrong in what he did, even in what he said. And I should have answered back. Instead, I felt numb and choked up.

Total defeat, even when necessary as it was with the Nazis, is an existential condition. It marks us for life. I do not wish it upon anyone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Response to Antje Bednarek's Being German

Response to Antje Bednarek’s Being German.

By Karla Poewe

Antje Bednarek, a friend and colleague of a younger generation, wrote some thoughts about how she, having grown up in the former GDR, feels about being German. In her words, “solitude and silence are chronic conditions for me whenever I am faced with the German past and the Second World War.” When she wants to enter that past and Germany’s guilt directly rather than through countless publications, she does so by way of her grandmother’s stories. During her puzzles about that past (read Holocaust) and guilt (read collective guilt), she mentions Schlink’s work “The Reader.”

I want to talk about Schlink in a moment, but before I do so, I must make potential readers aware of a book that, although written by a British historian, has already moved beyond the German Schlink. The book’s title is “After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation” (2007). It is by the historian Giles MacDonogh. The book is a factual account of the past only now including the first postwar years and most interesting, it includes a full chapter on the history of Guilt. The reader is shown how it was formulated, made collective, imposed upon and rejected by very thoughtful Germans of the time. When MacDonogh titles a subsection “Fringsen,” I still hear my Grandmother’s consolation when I told her, filled with guilt and remorse, that I had stolen coal from a moving train. “Ach was Kindchen,” she said, that is only “fringsen.” Read what MacDonogh has to say about it on pp. 368-369.

Here are my thoughts about Schlink’s thoughtful novel, “The Reader.” In my view, the main point made by Schlink is that there is no escape from the Holocaust, even when according to Pascal Bruckner’s “Der Schuld Komplex” (2008), French students, for example, have lost interest in the topic.

But according to Schlink there is no escape from that past. How does he convince his readers of it?

First, the story does not allow any escape from that horrible history through, for example, Christian faith. Faith is silent, almost shockingly so.

Second, the story does not allow an escape from that historical past through love. The love of the reader for Hanna is dead. His use of smell is symbolic here. Love of the main character for other women did not work either.

Third, there is no escape from the history of horror through philosophy. His father's blatant failure to give wise advice is telling here.

Fourth, there is no escape from the history of horror through the law either. Look at the sections describing the trial.

Fifth, there is no physical escape. The monuments to the horror do not enlighten nor free the narrator—or the viewer looking at them.

In other words, the post-war generation is trapped in the history that the war-generation created, hence the sense of general numbness that overcomes readers of the novel.

Finally, Schlink raises the question, what are we of the post-war generation to do? Is the answer nothing? Can it just be nothing?

To find an answer, we have to step outside of the book and look at the author. Schlink did do something. He wrote a book about it. That perhaps is the only hope, that and what one of my students said, namely, that there is a relationship between the book and millions of readers who are thinking about horrors committed by one generation with which future generations have to cope.

There is, however, another way as my friend, the late Frank Eyck, astutely observed, and it lies with the first point that Schlink rejected. The whole of Western history from the time of Christ, and before him the Hebrew prophets, was a rejection of collective guilt in favour of personal, that is individual, guilt.

Thus while there can be no forgetting of the past there can be forgiveness and the recognition that not all Germans participated in, or were even aware of, the Holocaust. As a child, I certainly was not. What I knew was bombing, hunger, acts of violence, and being a witness to death and rape. To impose guilt upon a generation that was too young to have participated in the horrors of the Nazi regime is to indulge in the psychological torture of people who were tortured physically years before. At least the Russians recognized this.

They took their revenge brutally and immediately. But, then they sought reconciliation by forgiving Germans who were either too young to have been Nazis, or who had valiantly resisted the Nazis. Is it not ironic that an officially atheistic state (the former Soviet Union) took a Christian approach to the issue of guilt while the “Christian” West continues to seek pagan revenge on Germans? In the process, we are ignoring the fact that we are repeating history. After all, National Socialism grew out of a pagan milieu that sought revenge on their “perceived” enemies. To personify, revenge simply never gets it right.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cocooned in Guilt:

The Consequences of having been German Children during and after WWII

Written and Posted by Karla Poewe, August 24, 2010


Defeat makes children of war invisible. After the Second World War, it was as if the Allies conspired with guilt ridden postwar German political elites to ignore, indeed, forget a whole generation of people who were severely traumatized by the consequences of bombing, expulsion, rape, hunger and homelessness. Now those children are grown up and retired and the cocoon of guilt within which they lay dormant burst open. The taboo still exists, but it is circumvented in many ways.


The events that triggered the flood of memories in Germany and the uncountable publications that followed it did not only have to do with the fact that war children had grown older. Rather, following the Kosovo conflict of 1998, the 9/11 tragedy of 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people remembered World War II as if it happened yesterday. Television pictures of refugees fleeing bombs were sharp reminders of our past and they raised the haunting question, are we sleepwalking into another war?


In other words, in Germany at least, relatively recent conflicts touched off debates about childhood memories of violence and deprivation. However, repeatedly, just when they surfaced, knowledge of the Nazi massacres of Jews blocked them. The crimes that Nazis committed first made one speechless.

That is how I often experience it. Likewise, Harald Welzer says as much in his book Täter, 2005, (Perpetrators). At times, he wrote on p. 12, he lost the courage to explain so overwhelming a phenomenon as the mass murder of Jews in the East. Most people do not even want to look at it anymore. Jörg Friedrich expressed similar thoughts when, in his case, he looked at the documents and pictures that captured the remains and corpses from the Allied bombing raids.

To be frank about it, sometimes when I read the unpublished documents about the expulsions and tortures that German women and children, as well as broken soldiers, had to endure after WWII was over, I experience myself screaming soundlessly. A similar suffocation overcomes me when I read about the fate of the three million Russian soldiers who were left to die by the four million German soldiers because, of course, there were no means to feed them all in a war that should not have been started.

Furthermore, there is no experience bitterer than that of repression in an open society. The soundless scream makes my eyes burn at the same time that pain consumes my body. – Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream captures best my childhood memory of a burning sky and a path of no return because the crime was done – and by people among whom I was born. Perhaps that is why recent German popular writers as well as serious researchers and therapists often compartmentalize their work into two parts: the Nazi past and the War past, as if to lift the shadow of the first so that light might fall upon the second.

But lifting is not removing. The indisputable central tragedy of the Second World War, preceded by the bitter betrayal of especially assimilated and liberal German and European Jews, is and remains their destruction in what we call the Holocaust. In 1936, when he hoped that a catastrophe could yet be averted, Peter Drucker pointed out in his moving article about The Jewish question in Germany, that the race theory of National Socialism was a new and original doctrine of salvation and a new weapon of moral ostracism and economic boycott. It consisted of the dogma of an “ineradicable, biologically stronger, Jewish hereditary disposition” only to eradicate it in the name of the dogma of the “natural biological” domination of the Nordic race. When reality overtook this fantasy, there remained formidable depictions of war crimes and the silence of and surrounding German war-children.

The term war children refers to millions of German children, born between 1935 and 1945, who were bombed out or forced out of their homes in the former East provinces of the “Reich.” At the end of the war, these civilians, including mothers of these children, were the first to experience the revenge and punitive measures of the Red Army. For these refugees the war did not end until 1949, indeed, not until 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Most war children were either orphans or half-orphans. Overwhelmed bureaucrats or marauding Soviet soldiers forced orphans through internment camps much like a heavy storm might force fallen leaves through abandoned tunnels. Alternatively, distraught mothers who had themselves become free game raised fatherless children. And if it had not been for churches and church institutions and the brave efforts of Pius XII and the American Bishop Aloisius J. Muench, many of these uprooted would have joined the more than two million people who died during the expulsions or who were deported into Russian forced labor camps to serve another illusion—that of Stalin.

Prisoners of war in Russia served as “living reparations.” On little food, usually watery, tasteless cabbage soups, they cleaned huts, shoveled sand, felled trees, collected stones or mined coal. They did deadening work that benefitted no one and their only steady companion was what Herta Müller in her new book (Atemschaukel) called the “Hunger Angel.” Icy coldness cut, hunger tortured, fatigue burdened, homesickness paralyzed, bugs and lice bit. Children wasted away. And when the men developed dropsy or lung gangrene, when they reached the state of skin and bones, they were sent “home” – to the rump of what was left of Germany.

My father was one of them. He returned from Russian imprisonment end July 1947 and died May 20, 1948, barely ten months later. That is how it was.

I was born January 1941. Like thousands of others, I ask myself what determined my childhood more, Nazis or bombs and hunger. The fact is bombs and hunger, war and flight determined my childhood; only in North America did the Nazi past determine my teens and adult years. The last (i.e. the Nazi past) overshadowed the first (i.e. the war childhood) and, as said, silenced it. Because Nazi crimes were so horrendous, writing about them eclipsed for decades the task of analyzing the fate of war children. But what has the obsession with Nazi crimes brought us? In a twisted way, it has brought us more war, which people, children then, who experienced the last one, do not want. Bombs and fire burned into our bodies the recognition that nothing whatsoever can justify war because it is directed primarily against civilians—no matter what military strategists and their historians say otherwise. War is a mirage of ultimate control that leaves civilians with the stark reality of arbitrary chaos: a Guernica, which breeds, if it breeds at all, revenge. When Pope Pius XII condemned the revenge and retaliation politics of the Allies, he was a voice crying in the wilderness.

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To be continuerd.

Monday, August 23, 2010