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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Disfigured Mask of the Human Being by Karla Poewe

DW-tv recently aired Mathias Haentjes’s film called Mein Germany – US-Soldaten im Trümmerland. Seen from the perspective of former US occupation soldiers, especially the photographer Tony Vaccaro, it tells the story of Germans and Americans learning to know one another despite the atmosphere of political re-education and paranoia about hidden Nazis. Another name for the film might have been Romance in the Rubble – Defeated German Women Leading American Soldiers Astray. The film is original in that it manages to show happy postwar cityscapes despite ruins. It is upbeat and, except for one scene, free of downtrodden refugees. Most notable are the many laughing children.

And yet, the whimsical script jars with Vaccaro's images of brutal military destruction. Even the mounds of brick and cement are romanticized, however, by cinematic intrusions as when shapely legs peddle across the screen, the maiden's skirt flying. Why is not Iraq this way, or Gaza, or Bosnia, or Dafur, or any number of other postwar venues? The answer is simple, no slim German Fräuleins. Just kidding.

What were the postwar years like? Let me shift briefly to three German perspectives from people who lived through them.

Conditions were bad. While Western Allies doused Germans with collective guilt, Eastern Allies hounded, imprisoned, and killed them. Philosopher Karl Jaspers remembered how in the summer of 1945 posters were hung up in all towns and villages. The posters consisted of pictures and stories from Belsen and the crucial statement, “You are the guilty!” Horror gripped many who had indeed not known this, Jaspers wrote, and something rebelled: who indicts me there? No signature, no authority—the poster came as though from empty space. Likewise, the chronicler Karl Wind of the town of Andernach in the Rhineland reported how depressed the mood was. Some people told him that they no longer turned on the radio. It only spoke of the individual and collective guilt of Germans that they had to recognize and accept it, that they had only duties now but no rights that they must atone for what was done and prove their worth. But nothing was said about the hundreds of thousands of innocent women, children, and old men who burned to death from the bombing.

Between May and August of 1945, “wild expulsions” took place. They were called “wild” because they took place before the three major Allies, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met in Potsdam to discuss the “humane” transfer of the defeated from former German territories in the East to the rump of Germany in the West: “wild” also because the rage against German refugee women and children exceeded comprehension. In his “East Prussian Diary,” an unnerved physician Hans von Lehndorff, a Christian of the Confessional Church, asked himself. What is it that we are actually witnessing here? Is it simply an expression of natural savagery or of revenge? Of revenge perhaps, he thought, but in a different sense. Does not the creature revenge itself here against the human being in one and the same person, the flesh against the spirit that was forced upon him? … And these indoctrinated children, fifteen, sixteen years old, that throw themselves like wolves upon women without knowing what it is all about. This has nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do with any particular nation or race – it is humankind without God, the disfigured mask of the human being.