Follow by Email

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.