Friday, June 5, 2015

Preparing for the complexity of Germany

This weekend I’m headed to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office and the German Consulate in Boston, to learn about contemporary Jewish life in the country. As part of a group of twenty Jewish communal leaders from around the world, I’ll have the opportunity to meet with scholars, journalists and clergy, as well as civic and community leaders, in an effort to get as holistic a view as possible of the country today. Or at least the best sense one can get in 7 days – but looking at the itinerary, which includes opportunities to explore both Berlin and Frankfurt, experiencing cultural and historic sites, it looks like the organizers of the trip are focused on providing a wide range of opportunities to see the country from many different angles.

When I first learned that this trip might be a possibility I spent a good deal of time thinking about how to prepare for it – whether I should look for a good history of the country, talk to others who had been there, etc. in the end I settled on reading the World section of the New York Times to see the latest news on what’s happening in the country and at the recommendation of the former director of AJC in Boston, I ordered a copy of an interesting book called “The Germans” by Gordon A. Craig, which offers a succinct, erudite overview of various aspects of German history and culture.  

One idea in this book that really caught my attention was Craig’s suggestion that the mass trauma inflicted by the 30 Years War (in the mid-17th century) was passed down from one generation to the next, finding perhaps its most horrific expression in the sense of obedience to central authority that abetted the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Another really fascinating aspect of the book was its exploration of how the German people themselves dealt with this inclination toward obedience following World War Two and the ways in which it influenced their sense of national identity, attitudes toward the military and ideas about political reform. I also spoke with friends who had visited Berlin in the last few years who talked non-stop about the vibrancy of the city as a major center of cultural and artistic creativity.

As I finish packing there are any number of thoughts going through my mind about what it will be like to actually be there and what I will learn from the local people, as well as our tour guides and my fellow participants. I’m also looking forward to having some time during the week to pause and reflect about what I’m learning and seeing, although I imagine that with such a packed schedule the bulk of my reflection will come once I am back in the United States. In 2015 the temptation also exists to retreat into smart phones and other electronic devices, something which I plan to try and avoid – I’ll be sharing some thoughts and photos via Twitter (@DanielELevenson) as the week goes on, and I may post short pieces on this blog, but as much as possible I plan to immerse myself in the experience and spend time absorbing everything around me.

Whenever I speak or write about Israel (the country other than my own which I happen to know best) I am always reminded of the intense complexity of the Jewish State and its people – so it is for other nation-states, especially in the case of those which have entered the modern era with a complicated and conflicted history, a category which clearly includes Germany. It is this complicated past and the ways that Germans navigate their sense of individual and communal identity today that fascinates me, something I look forward to sharing my thoughts on here on 36 Voices.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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