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It's Okay To Be Proud To Be German
Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada
Enough With The Nazis Already
As someone who is half-German, who also happens to be a history teacher, I often find myself in the position of having to explain to people that being German does not automatically mean that you are a Nazi. As the pall of the Nazi era lifts and because most Nazis are now dead, there is a great influx of movies and books that have recently come out to dispel the notion that all Germans participated willingly in the National Socialist Party.
This is true for my own family. Some of the history is murky, but before World War II began, my mother was born to a prosperous farmer in a part of Germany called Silesia that is now in Poland. At the end of the war, when my grandfather was a prisoner of war in Russia, my grandmother had to flee her homeland with her three young children and head west, a journey that many families did not survive. I recently spoke to an eighty year-old German expatriate who told me quite frankly, that most Germans were not in favor of the Nazis, but pretended to go along with it as a means of self-preservation. He ended up leaving Germany, however, to be a geologist in Australia.
And the truth is that many Germans, Poles, French, Italians, Dutch and others took heroic measures to hide Jews and keep them alive through the end of the war. I do not wish to offend any Jews who might be reading this, especially those whose relatives died in concentration camps. However, as my mother so vehemently says whenever anyone mentions the war and Nazis, "Enough about the war, enough about the Nazis-we Germans suffered terribly after the war because of Hitler. There was no food, there was no money and we were not allowed to talk about our own suffering because nobody wanted to hear about it! We wiped our butts with pictures of Stalin on the newspapers we used as toilet paper."
In the sixty-ish odd years since the war, there is a ray of hope for German children who suffered after the war. There is now a movement for "War Children", where children who grew up in that timeframe now feel that they are finally allowed to admit their own suffering. After all, they were not complicit in Nazi activities. A whole new generation of Germans has arisen since the war, who are highly conscious of their Nazi legacy and are finding ways to be proud Germans again.
I was sent to high school in Germany when I was in tenth grade and was privy to how Germans teach German children about the Holocaust. As a teacher who has taught about the Holocaust myself, I have used a variety of books, film and pictures to educate children about this period in history but also about genocide. I usually take an approach that does not reveal the total horror of the dead bodies and most visceral images associated with the Nazi extermination machine, but they certainly did in my German school. For a week, we were shown the most gory, horrific images depicting the mind-boggling amounts of dead bodies and how they were carted around, burned, buried and butchered. This shock-type of education certainly was done intentionally. "Never Again," was the basic message. It was received loud and clear.
Going back to my own mother's childhood, after moving West and avoiding being murdered and raped, and the firebombing of Dresden, they settled in a refugee community right on the former East German border, on the Western side. It was there that my mother grew up with her mother, sister, and brother. Their mother, my grandmother was a seamstress and they were luckier than most because she could earn a little money through her craft. There were other war refugees in the camp, many of whom were from countries like Hungary and Romania. They were all tough, hungry kids and stuck together while trying to have a childhood with East German border guards making their lives difficult at times.
Sometimes they smuggled little things back and forth over the stream that served as the border-things like cocoa, coffee and sewing items. One time, my mother and her friend Krista Brenneke were caught by the guards and herded to the little jail in a town called Stapelburg. Coincidentally, this happens to be one of the areas of Germany where George Clooney is filming the movie Monument Men. The jail was not more than a house with two rooms that served as cells with a large woodstove in between the rooms. When they got to the cell, it turned out that all of the kids in the neighborhood had also been caught. The youngest child was five, and the guards sent her home to tell everyone's parents that the kids were in jail. The parents were pretty unfazed, just glad to know where the kids were. The kids hid their loot in the large stove, and when the guards came in to check them for contraband, they shoved it to the back of the stove where the other kids took it out. And when the guards went to the other cell, they used the stove again to hide their goods.
The next morning, a single guard was sent to take the kids back home over the border. The older boys made the guard's life hell. They stuck sticks in the spokes of his bike and teased and mimicked him mercilessly. But they made it home with their items and of course, did it again many times.
At some time in the late forties, my grandfather was released from prison and came home. He was of the few German men who made it home with his arms and legs intact and able to work. He worked in the forest cutting down trees and used draft horses to carry the timber down the Harz Mountains. Eventually they bought property and built two houses, and that is where I spent most of the summers of my childhood, thinking Germany was the best place on Earth.
I grew up proud of my German heritage because I saw firsthand the cleanliness and quality of all things German. After WWII, with the help of the Marshall Plan and lots old blueprints, Germany was promptly rebuilt. Many towns, like Cologne and Berlin and Frankfurt, had to literally be rebuilt from the ashes and have become models of modern architecture. But many towns and cities that survived the bombings are medieval and beautiful and still very much representative of the old Germany. But the old Germany has changed. There are now progressive political parties, the National Anthem has been re-worded, people talk about how things have changed since the Nazi era, and the Berlin Wall has come down. The reunification or the “Wende” that came in 1989 with the fall of Communism was a difficult time for Germany as the two Germanys with two different political, social and economic policies merged together. It was an expensive time of rebuilding, with West Germans accepting their ‘backward’ Eastern European brothers, sisters, and cousins very slowly. Even my mother sometimes used the negative term "Ossies", to refer to the East Germans that came to the West.
What is most astounding to me about Germany today is that not only have they rebuilt and renewed and have become leaders in technology and the financial powerhouse of Europe, they have also taken on refugees as a way of somehow assuaging their war guilt to make up in some way for the atrocities they committed in the past. When I was getting a visa in Germany to get a work permit, I experienced firsthand how many refugees were trying to get into Germany. As the door to the immigration office opened in the morning, I was pushed and shoved by refugees - mainly from the Balkans who were escaping the trauma of their recent war. It was heartbreaking that I, as an American with a German mother had such an easy time, while many others were turned away for various reasons.
I am now in my forties and I have seen the face of Germany change. It is no longer a homogenous culture of blonde Aryans. It has become a melting pot of people from all over the world. There are Chinese, Turkish and Moroccan restaurants to name a few. Most young Germans speak English. German students love America and come here as students and Au Pairs, and in their way are great ambassadors for a new Germany.
I think the best recent example of the re-emergence of German pride was when they hosted the World Cup in 2006. Seeing the German flags and the happy Germans with their black, red and gold makeup in the stands made me proud as well. My mother was so happy that Germany was on the world stage in such a positive way and that they came so close to winning the Cup. The only other display of German pride I had seen before then was being there when they won the cup in 1990.
As an educator, it will continue to be my job to teach people about the difference between being a German and being a Nazi. If you look into some of the movies and books I have posted throughout my hub, my hope is that you watch Sophie Scholl, a true story of German students who resisted the Nazis by distributing leaflets about the truth about Nazis. It is a powerful, true story that will alter your view that all Germans were Nazis. I also urge you to read Everyone Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. It is a heartbreaking story about an ordinary German couple, who leave anti-Nazi notes around their town, risking their lives.
My mother came to America in 1970 and let her German pride show wherever she went. Whether it was the dinner dances she loved at the Germania club where she was the Polka dancing queen, or her insistence that Germany was the most beautiful country in the world, or how she called people who asked her if she was a Nazi ignorant, she never gave in to the notion that there was a stigma about Germany. But because of her childhood of privations, my sister and I endured some interesting things. We were ‘spoiled Americans’. We could not waste electricity, food, or water. If we were invited to a birthday party, she would find something around the house and suggest we give it as a gift instead. We would fight about why giving a friend a handkerchief was uncool. She had a garden, her own business, a larger than life work ethic and she often wondered what her life would have been like if she had been given an education.
In any case, I am proud to be German. The Germans have given us Thomas Mann and Guenther Grass. We have the Mercedes, the BMW and Dr. Hauschka’s natural beauty products. Let’s not forget Birkenstocks, beer, pretzels and bratwurst. German and English are grammatically similar languages with some very similar words. And lastly, more people in America have German blood than any other ethnic group.