The first time I ever set foot in Deutschland was 1987. I went to visit my friend Eckehardt, a beautiful West German man who’d helped rescue me in China a few months before. Eckehardt was one of the kindest, most heroic people I’d ever met. Yet I couldn’t stand to be in his homeland. Everything– the linden trees, the brightly-painted medieval houses, the lively beer gardens – struck me as sinister, suspect, and unforgivably unfair.
What had happened inside those historic buildings, I kept wondering. Where did those train tracks lead? Every time an old man or woman walked by, my mind began reeling: “What were you doing 45 years ago? Which of my relatives were you helping to murder?”
After two days, I had to high-tail it out.
Since then, I’ve returned to Germany a half-dozen times. Though my uneasiness lingers, each visit has gotten easier. First, the demographics have changed. It’s now 65 years since WWII ended. A sizeable portion of German grandparents have been born after the war.
And I’ve changed too. I have family members who refuse to set foot in Germany. One won’t even change planes in Frankfort Airport. I completely understand this. But as a post-war baby, I’ve had the luxury of developing hopefulness and idealism. And I’ve decided that I don’t want the Nazis to have the last word.
I want my generation of Germans and Jews to write a better, next chapter.
I’m not saying we should ever forget – or forgive – the Holocaust. But we’ve all been impacted by the genocide. We’re all aware of the Evil. So let’s follow it up with Good. Let’s be able to tell our children that once, Germany committed unspeakable atrocities against the Jews – but now, just decades later, look: descendents of both Nazis and their victims are hanging out together in nightclubs, collaborating on world aid projects, and building beautiful museums together. While people are capable of monstrousness, we are also capable of extraordinary humanity. We have the capacity for both. Never forget either.
And so, I go to Germany and engage. I stroll along its rivers, joke with its locals, visit its museums. Maybe I’m naïve. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
And few cities, it seems to me, have more first-rate intelligence right now than Berlin. It used to be East vs. West. Now it’s a brilliant union of contradictions, a metropolitan Janus looking both backwards and forwards.
Berlin today is quirky and dynamic, filled with innovative new glass architecture, graffiti art, museums, night clubs, and cutting edge-fabulosity. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a citizen anywhere over 35. Even the older people are hip, riding their bicycles, recycling their trash, going to film festivals. Everyone seems to have the funky sneakers, the little Scandinavian eyeglasses, the ethnic scarves.
Yet it’s a city of scar tissue. Berlin doesn’t shy away from its hideous history for a minute. Memorials to the Holocaust and the Cold War are everywhere. It has literally embedded the directive “Never Forget” into its sidewalks. Brass cobblestones dot the city streets, naming the individuals who were arrested, deported, and murdered by the Nazis there.
There’s the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Jewish Center at the Neue Synagogue.” Track 17. Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Daniel Libeskind’s Judisches Museum. (Yes, in some ways, the very concept of a Jewish Museum is icky and unnerving – it seems to reduce Judaism to a specimen. But what’s the alternative?) There’s the extensive “Topography of Terror” exhibit documenting in painstaking detail the rise of the Nazis and their extermination machinery.
Germany’s brutality and culpability are presented unflinchingly: Jews didn’t “die” in the concentration camps. They weren’t “killed” or “exterminated.” Plaques read bluntly: “Murdered by poison gas.” No euphemizing in that.
At several sites, a clear analysis is given of the circumstances that enabled Hitler to come to power: a combination of terrible economic times, endemic racism, and a trumped-up fear of Socialists and Communists – all of which the Nazis exploited. When they seized power illegally in 1933, they insisted they were doing this to “save” the homeland from “dangerous socialists” – their name for the legitimate, democratically elected government at the time.
Bombed-out churches, bullet-holed buildings, and open spaces have been left standing as they were in 1945, looming as a constant reminder. Even the Neue Nationalgalerie, filled with modern art, displays black-and-white reproductions of paintings that were seized by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” then burned or auctioned off.
Add to this Checkpoint Charlie. The Stasi Museum, the Stasi prison, the DDR Museum, and “The Story of Berlin” — which includes a guided tour of a nuclear fallout shelter – and it’s almost a little much.
It’s almost, dare I say, overkill?
But that’s exactly appropriate.
The Holocaust, as a friend of mine reminded me in Berlin, was uniquely evil – a systematic, state-sponsored genocide that was meticulously designed and implemented for years with industrial efficiency across borders against a peaceful, helpless minority. “The reminders should be overwhelming,” she says. “It should never be easy to witness.”
Even so, Berlin’s mea culpa impressed me. Let’s face it: genocide has happened before and elsewhere. While the Holocaust may be the definitive evil, plenty of other atrocities have been committed throughout history. Yet few countries have ever owned up to their crimes the way that Germany has.
In Berlin, I didn’t find myself looking around anxiously, wondering What happened here? Are the people aware? Are they even sorry? The city itself makes it clear: Everything happened here. Yes, the people know. And wow, are we ever sorry.
For the first time in Germany, I felt something like hope.
Two days later, however I returned home. A book review I’d recorded for America’s National Public Radio had aired on “All Things Considered” while I was away. The book was The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. I’d begun the review by comparing the strengths of this biography to those of the President. Both, I said, seemed “even-handed, eloquent, and beautifully packaged.” That was it. One sentence. The rest of my critique was mixed.
The first response I received was titled: Jobama Rectum Sniffer. It called our President “a treasonous n***ger,” told me to get my head out of his ass, and ended: “Safeguard the Constitution, Strive for the Death of all Domestic Marxists.” Another read: “You’re an idiot.” On the NPR website, I was called a “drooling liberal” who should invest in sturdy “knee pads.”
I then read that threats against lawmakers had increased threefold this year. I read the speeches being made by far-right pundits and politicians calling Obama a radical socialist. I read about the Tea Party protestors.
I reflected upon everything I’d just seen in Berlin.
It’s no longer the Germans I’m worried about.