Recently, I spoke with a German, who is my same age. He said something poignant in a relatively casual conversation,
“It’s very strange to be told, as a child,” he said, “that you’re guilty.”
“Wow.” What a statement. Seems like a heavy sentiment. But honestly it’s pretty common here because of Germany’s well-known role in WWII. He said he enjoys talking to Americans because they don’t carry this burden of guilt and you can feel it in the lightness of their personalities. And truly we don’t. As Americans, we are always the good guys and WWII was our victory. It’s a time that we celebrate, with the music and dancing of the time with period clothing. We actually have WWII festivals in the US. They are delightful with airshows and live orchestras and reenactments. The WWII generation in the US are called The Greatest Generation. I often find myself realizing what a luxury it was, as a child, to get to feel like my team was good and just, filled with saviors and heroes, etc.
It struck me how strange it must be for the modern-day Germans that in the footage and in the movies and in all the re-tellings of the WWII story, it’s their people that everyone is being liberated from. They were the bad guys, they know this. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. For them, it seems like, WWII is a marker on the time line that they are relieved to get further and further away from each year.
I remember first learning about WWII in school. I scoured the library shelves, devouring book after book about the holocaust, searching and searching for a real reason for such a cruel, calculated genocide. I bet the German kids probably had/have the same horrified reaction when they learn about it. And then finally, after years, one just finally accepts that cruelty and hatred, indifference and prejudice are real things. Often fear based, they are not very rational.
Then, one night, not long ago, we watched Django Unchained, a Quentin Tarantino film about slavery in the US. That night maybe I got a taste of the way the Germans feel about World War II. It’s with embarrassment, disgust and disbelief that we look at some parts of our past. And it doesn’t really matter how long ago it was because the sentiment is the same, Can you believe that we really treated people this way? Degraded them? Abused them? Bought and sold them? Treated them like they were not really people and that was ok? And then I realized that long after slavery officially ended, the abuse and the marginalization continued through the civil rights movement and beyond. Even today we’re still dealing with the heavy issues of equality, freedom and safety for all.
Anyway, it seems that one of the ways Germany deals with this burden is to air many programs on television about WWII and the Third Reich. This way it will be impossible to forget. There are also numerous laws in place and it remains a subject that hardly anyone jokes about. But for me it’s hard to see those programs on TV all the time. Because Germany is a country filled with citizens who continue to carry the burden of the Holocaust as a reminder of their own heritage, they are faced with the challenge of moving forward, while respectfully looking back in order to avoid being the center of a nightmare ever again.
Just last week, the world celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There was a televised event at Auschwitz where survivors told their stories and discussed other relevant aspects of this part of history. The entirety of the program was aired here in Germany more than once on numerous channels for a few days.
As I listened to the speeches from the Auschwitz survivors, what struck me most, aside from their indelible hope, was that almost all of the speeches ended with a discussion of Human Rights. I heard survivors say again and again that after these horrific events the world knew it was imperative to respect all religions, creeds, cultures, and genders.
But I got to thinking and I am still wondering: Where are we, collectively as a civilization of humanity, with this imperative?
It seems we have changed some policies, and we embrace political correctness, but the question remains: have we really changed our minds? Surely we will not forget the holocaust, but what have we really learned? Have we changed the way we think about all people? Or have we just moved on to marginalizing and abusing different groups? Do we seek revenge? Are we just?
Some of these questions were born in me but some of them have arisen as a result of the very polarizing and somewhat disturbing posts I’ve been reading on my facebook feed everyday. The feed is brimming with opinions and language that don’t sound like they respect every creed, culture and gender at all. Issues with the police and then recently a new movie which seems to have a very polarizing effect on everyone. As far as I can tell the story celebrates a man, who was a sharp shooter in the middle east. In the film he is hailed as a hero, but it sounds like he said eerily familiar things –Things that sound eerily similar to some of the things the Nazi’s said. I haven’t seen the film, but I read about the person on whom it is based. I understand that war is war, and that there are new threats to our way of life all the time. But, I’m not convinced that under any circumstances these type of words or actions are ok. As a result of seeing the film, people are taking sides (at least on facebook) over whether the man was a hero or a savage. It seems like this film has created an environment of fear–where support for the film fuels both patriotism and hatred towards an entire religious and cultural group. To me, this kind of thinking is dangerous and illogical.
Some of the friends I’ve made here in Germany and some of the families that have been warmest to me are Muslim families. Syrian, Afghani, Tunisian and Ethiopian, they are people of faith. They are living their lives, walking the walk, talking the talk. They wear their headscarves because they believe that it is right even though wearing them fully identifies them as Islamic women and foreigners. Nevertheless, they are brave. Doesn’t this sound like the way we are encouraged to be as Christians?
I understand the argument that says radical Islamist extremists are today’s Nazi’s. And I understand the fear that the world is standing by, allowing it, the same way they did 80 years ago. But I am afraid that the world is lumping all Muslims together and in the process damning lots of innocent, lovely people. Is persecuting Muslims because of the extremists any different than persecuting people of other faiths for the same reason?
The current polarizing climate in religion and politics, in criminal justice and militarism doesn’t allow people to be both supportive and constructively critical. It doesn’t allow us to judge a person based on the content of his character, it forces one instead to judge on appearance. Isn’t this something we’ve been trying to get away from for decades? This intense polarization is damaging and it doesn’t treat all people with dignity. When in the course of human events has this us and them attitude ever proven positive?
We are all people. We all deserve a certain level of respect and dignity and there is no need for this categorizing and labeling and grouping of others or of ourselves. We are not a world full of individual groups divided by the arbitrary. We are all just people. We all have bodies and brains. We all need food and water and love. We need to be motivated and feel like we contribute. Wherever you’re from– we have these things in common–In my mind, when everyone takes a part, then the world is colorful and delicious and interesting and diverse. Nature abhors a vacuum and works best when it’s connected in a functioning, diverse system. Shouldn’t it be the same way with people?
My main point is to say that this kind of calculated hate is not only the German people’s heritage, it’s the whole world’s burden to bear, because hate and calculated cruelty has been played out and continues to be played out in every society.
The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is a good time for all of us to take stock, to see where we are as humans, and decide if it’s where we want to be.
The truth is that fear is still a method of power mongering. The world has not ceased to be a scary place.
In our personal lives and our public lives, in our politics and our prose, whether we see ourselves as “good guys” or “bad guys,” we need to honor and preserve the dignity of life and respect for one another, for all people. It doesn’t matter if everyone isn’t doing it— we (collectively) need to do it. Or we didn’t really learn anything from the holocaust and that is almost as bad as forgetting. Never again shouldn’t have a qualifier.The lessons of the holocaust should be applied across the board. Never again means never again, not just for this group of people, for all people.
Please note: This post isn’t my typical fare. It’s a little more serious than normal. But I think it’s important. Please remember that these are only thoughts, they are my opinions and my observations, however informed or uniformed they are from your perspective. I understand that maybe I’m alone in these thoughts and I accept that but I also know that it’s possible that others share these concerns.