Though I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge 9/11 in this space, with such an overwhelming amount of coverage I didn’t think I had anything to add. Then I considered my time in Berlin and Munich a couple years ago and got to thinking about xenophobia and the way we view history.
People wonder how to explain 9/11 to children and students without offending them and with sensitivity. Honesty would be asking a lot. The US suffered the destruction of two monumental buildings, crowded and symbolic, but there was a prelude. Dresden was eradicated and major city centres like Cologne, Munich, Berlin were bombed beyond recognition, but it goes without saying that Germany waged no small amount of warfare themselves. This makes sympathizing confusing at best, impossible at worst. It’s easier for us decades later to forgive Germans, but not so for people who lived close to it. In the words of Mordecai Richler in 1966, “Germany is still an abomination to me.” People’s opinions of what provoked 9/11 seem to depend on their sympathies more than historical accuracy, but the case of Germany is considerably more clear cut. Accordingly, I didn’t know how I would feel when I arrived in Berlin.
I heard Germany had changed a lot, but what exactly did that mean? Perhaps I’d only be spat on or beat up. What would I think when I first laid eyes on some hulking blonde, blue eyed Aryan type? Would I innocently ask him for directions, or wonder where his grandfather was during the war? What might he be thinking? Better not abuse this kike or he’ll tell some lawyer and there’ll be yet another stain on our national reputation. Perhaps, but perhaps not. This nice tourist looks lost. I didn’t want to believe the former, but I’d be lying to say it wasn’t somewhere in my head. In any case, it didn’t stop me from going.
We met Dutch tourists who laughed when I told them the Bahn (subway) was cheap, as they never paid. From that moment on neither did I. Maybe it was out of financial self-interest, but Germans had extended this courtesy to Jews before and I convinced myself they owed me.
I toured the city by foot and saw the remarkably imposing Nazi architecture of the Luftwaffe’s former headquarters (our Scottish tour guide said ‘it’s still evil, home now to the tax revenue’); Kathedral Bebelplatz where Jewish books were burned; the unmarked plot of grass under which Hitler was buried (unmarked so neo-Nazis don’t make pilgrimages there…in fitting symbolism, residents bring their dogs to piss and crap on the grounds); a massive sculptural installation consisting of six thousand stone tablets called “to the murdered Jews of Europe” located just metres besides their parliament; and many other testaments of the horrors that happened. So how did I feel at the time? I wasn’t angry, bitter, sad, or depressed. I was fascinated and I was thirsty. Whatever I felt about the past, I was positive the Germans wouldn’t do it again.
I got the overwhelming sense that German’s felt tormented by their history, but were absolutely determined to move ahead. Hell, they were already moving beyond the Berlin wall, which fell during my lifetime. Later in Munich, I spoke to some local kids over a Stein of some potent brew who, without knowing I was Jewish, volunteered their eagerness to leave Germany. “Hitler ruined it for us…we are ashamed.” My advice was not to let something out of their control ruin their lives…just don’t do it again.
One day I encountered the tall blonde German I feared. He was a tour guide in Berlin’s Jewish Museum. With conspicuous excitement he asked the group of German teenagers, “and vat is vun stereotype of ze Jews?” Hands didn’t exactly shoot up. Someone whispered inaudibly and the tour guide’s smile lit the room. “Money lenders! Bankers! Good. Do you know how zis came to be? You see, Christians were forbidden from exchanging money vith interest, so ze Jews were forced to, you see?” Maybe those Aryans aren’t so bad once you get to know them. The innumerable Holocaust museums were as detailed and thorough as the Nazi’s own documentation—no coincidence. There’ll never be too many museums and monuments, yet you couldn’t really expect Berlin to have more. If the Germans can confront their history, so can anyone. Yet it can be hard to attribute blame when both sides suffer, as Mordecai so poignantly put it on a visit to Dresden in 1978: “I vacillated between being upset by the bomb damage that was evidently wanton in some places and feeling that it was not enough.” Frequently with worrying superficiality, people denounce or support decades of American foreign policy in one sentence, trivializing history and missing the point.
Unless there’s a breakthrough in medicine, 110 years from now everybody currently on earth will be dead—it’d be needlessly tragic for those who are alive to be killing because they’re embroiled over our problems. If every country dealt as thoroughly and sincerely in their past as Germany, and was as resolved to move forward without being crippled by victimhood, the world would move on. Upsetting Muslims and Americans is the only proper response when upsetting things have happened.
I went to Germany to learn about history and I did. Germany felt compelled to face their demons (as monstrous as they were), but they ambitiously built back their cities day and night. It’s easy to play victim, and it’s hard to blame people for not getting over real grievances they’ve suffered, but it gets you nowhere and it halts all progress. I should have paid a couple Euros to ride German trains.
The Mordecai Richler quotes were excerpted from:
Shovelling Trouble, “the Holocaust and After.”
Belling the Cat “Germany 1978.”