Ger­man his­tory af­ter the Holo­caust

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields


choir from a sub­ur­ban Chicago high school came to the Jewish Mu­seum in Ber­lin not long ago to sing in com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 68th an­niver­sary of Kristall­nacht (“the Night of Bro­ken Glass”), re­call­ing the pogrom in 1938 when the Nazis broke into houses and stores, de­stroyed more than a 1,000 syn­a­gogues, mur­dered 91 Jews and ar­rested more than 30,000 Jewish men. It was a bru­tal fore­shad­ow­ing of the Holo­caust to come.

The Chicago teen-agers sang songs in Yid­dish, He­brew and English in­ter­spersed with nar­rated rec­ol­lec­tions of Jews who sur­vived the Holo­caust, talk­ing of their lives and losses. Beau­ti­ful young voices soared on hymns and spir­i­tu­als from slave times, pow­er­ful mod­ern protests against prej­u­dice old and new. Ger­man school­child­ren pep­pered the Amer­i­cans with ques­tions in a lively di­a­logue af­ter the singing.

The Ger­man hosts de­scribed the oc­ca­sion as “sen­si­tive and evoca­tive,” but one of them told the Amer­i­can teacher who ac­com­pa­nied the choir that it was too bad that the kids hadn’t taken note of an­other im­por­tant an­niver­sary that fell on the an­niver­sary of Kristall­nacht. Nov. 9-10 marked the 17th an­niver­sary of the fall of the Ber­lin Wall. The visit­ing teacher con­ceded rue­fully that he had been un­aware of all that.

Th­ese bright and earnest Amer­i­cans had stud­ied minute de­tails of an­tiSemitism in Ger­many dur­ing the decades of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but were ig­no­rant of the his­tory of Ger­many in the years af­ter the war, of the yearn­ing for free­dom that led or­di­nary peo­ple to con­front Com­mu­nist tyranny and that even­tu­ally led to the tum­bling of the wall.

How un­for­tu­nate that class­room time is rarely given to the his­tory of a di­vided Ger­many be­fore the Iron Cur­tain fi­nally col­lapsed. All over Ber­lin tourists are re­minded of the fate of the six mil­lion Jews who died in Hitler’s “fi­nal so­lu­tion.” But the grim his­tory of Soviet tyranny in East Ger­many — and specif­i­cally in East Ber­lin — is only now get­ting the tourist at­ten­tion it de­serves as many Ger­man mu­se­ums have be­gun to doc­u­ment life in the po­lice state from 1949 to 1989.

A Wall Mu­seum ex­poses the chill­ing ef­fects on Ber­lin­ers on both sides of the wall as well as those mur­dered try­ing to es­cape from East Ger­many. Af­ter the wall fell, the Ger­mans planned a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion of 2,000 years of their his­tory, to re­place a tawdry East Ber­lin mu­seum whose mis­sion was to guide the Ger­man Demo­cratic Repub­lic to­ward a na­tional iden­tity shaped by the “virtues” of so­cial­ism. In June, the Ger­man His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum at last opened in the beau­ti­fully ren­o­vated Ar­mory on Unter den Lin­den in the heart of Ber­lin. Its ex­hi­bi­tions be­gin with por­tray­als of the Celts, Ro­mans and early Ger­man tribes and move for­ward through the 20th cen­tury to the present day, deal­ing with the con­trast­ing ways of life in the Com­mu­nist East and the demo­cratic Fed­eral Repub­lic in the West. The pain of na­tional uni­fi­ca­tion gets its due.

A small mu­seum a few blocks away on the River Spree is de­voted en­tirely to life un­der so­cial­ism in East Ger­many, in­clud­ing the ter­ror inside the com­mon­place. One ex­hi­bi­tion il­lus­trates the work of the Stasi, the se­cret po­lice who spied on ev­ery­body. Books by Or­well and Kafka were banned be­cause they cut too close to re­al­ity. Vis­i­tors can even eaves­drop on con­ver­sa­tions as the Stasi did, with hid­den mi­cro­phones. The Stasi, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, em­ployed more than 90,000 full-time em­ploy­ees and more than twice as many as in­form­ers. (Other mu­se­ums ex­pose the sin­is­ter Stasi bu­reau­cracy and prison.) Vis­i­tors to the Ger­man Demo­cratic Repub­lic mu­seum can also sit in the cramped so­cial­ist car of metal and plas­tic called the Tra- bant (“Trabi”); junk though it was, there was a wait­ing list for six years and the car cost 7,400 Ger­man marks in 1962, a price equal to the an­nual salary of a skilled in­dus­trial worker. East Ger­man ado­les­cents who couldn’t get cov­eted Amer­i­can jeans had to be sat­is­fied with baggy syn­thetic im­i­ta­tions made with typ­i­cal so­cial­ist skill.

In one sad pho­to­graph il­lus­trat­ing so­cial­ist day care, five tiny girls and boys sit in a row on a col­lec­tive potty, where they must stay un­til all have fin­ished their “busi­ness.” A Freudian crim­i­nol­o­gist blames this potty rit­ual for an out­burst of adult “right wing ex­trem­ism” in 1999, but you don’t have to mis­read Freud to rec­og­nize cruel col­lec­tive con­form­ity.

In trendy post-mod­ern in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles, Ger­man “cul­ture” in its broad­est sense is por­trayed as a sub­sti­tute for pol­i­tics. But th­ese mu­se­ums make clear that Ger­man cul­ture, past and present, whether creative or co­er­cive, pas­sion­ate or pas­sive, per­mis­sive or doc­tri­naire, lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive, is al­ways po­lit­i­cal with a strong cul­tural im­pact, some­times for bet­ter and of­ten for worse. Amer­i­can teen-agers won’t want to sing about that, but they ought to un­der­stand its im­por­tance.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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