Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 3: Landscape, vision and the future

This piece is the third and final in a series on my recent trip to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office. In this last installment I offer some final thoughts on the experience and look at the enduring memory of fascism and totalitarianism in Germany.

In Frankfurt, Germany ornate craftsmanship and modern construction stand side by side. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In my mind, Germany has shifted on the map. No longer simply another piece of terra incognita seen solely through the lens of WWII and the Shoah, it now feels much more real to me.  Perhaps this should not come as a surprise - after all, a place known only through photos and descriptions, a culture never experienced, is like a bygone era - the things it produces can be studied and dissected, but hard to truly understand without the experience of being there. Over the course of 7 days, meeting people, seeing important historic and cultural sites, and simply walking the streets of Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany became much more a concrete reality and less of an abstract idea to me.

Sections of the Berlin wall remain to remind citizens and visitors alike of the damage that totalitarianism has wrought in Germany, Europe and many other places around the world. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 

I think that it was largely the physical landscape and architecture I encountered which caused this change in perception. Walking the streets of Berlin I was struck by many aspects of the built environment, from the imposing facade of the Reichstag, to the life and color of the Berlin Zoo and the expansive green space of the Tiergarten. There were some old, beautifully crafted buildings which evoked the grandeur of Berlin before the war, standing beside much newer construction - both serving as reminders of what happened there seven decades ago. In fact, it felt like everywhere I turned, there were reminders of the impact of the Nazis, the war, and in Berlin, the legacy of Communism and the Cold War. In this way, the buildings constructed after WWII are as much reminders of what Totalitarianism brought to Germany as anything else, rising up as part of the rebirth of cities after the conflict.
A section of the Berlin Wall which once divided East from West Germany still stands where it was placed. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In Frankfurt, especially, I was fascinated by the post-war construction, much of which was done by companies owned by German Jews, adding a complicated and compelling twist to the story of the city's renaissance. The integration of various forms of commemoration around the Shoah into otherwise ordinary elements of city life, from the Stolperteine set among the cobblestone sidewalks, to educational signs placed at bus stops, demonstrated Germany is clearly not attempting to hide the damage and horror of the Nazi period. The same goes for the legacy of Communism in East Germany, which still appears to play a role in the consciousness of the united country, with some cultural differences persisting between the cities of the east and the West. For me, as an American, to stand beside a section of the Berlin Wall, was deeply moving and intellectually very interesting. For those who may have risked everything to get across to the West, or lost family members who tried, I imagine the feeling they get standing beside these towering chunks of concrete and barbed wire is much more visceral and chilling.
Heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War two, today Frankfurt is a thriving city and a major center of economic activity in Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Before I went to Germany I read the book “The Germans,” by historian Gordon A. Crag. Well-written and engaging, one of the areas where Craig probes the psychic landscape of the country is in looking at the role of memory and nostalgia in German society. Gordon’s work suggests that in some ways Romanticism, and a sentimental longing for, and idealization of, a past that never really existed, contributed not only to feelings of xenophobia and intolerance, but the violent nationalistic ideology that was at the heart of the Shoah. Craig notes how during the period of economic distress and social upheaval which prevailed in Germany following the first World War, that Romanticism and some of its darker qualities proved highly attractive in German society. He also notes that such a resurgence was not without strong roots, writing, “These were manifest in a burgeoning antimodernity and cultural pessimism that became particularly insistent during the Willhelmine period, made some contribution to the coming war, and survived it in more virulent, and tragically, more seductive forms.”

Craig puts forth the idea in his work that it was a combination of fear, escapism and utopianism that contributed to xenophobic violence on a massive scale. The idea that this distortion, this willingness to fly from reality toward a more ideal and self-fulfilling form of reality, was not doubt deeply destructive for Germany and the rest of Europe. But it might have been otherwise, as Craig later notes in his book, “It is possible that the economic and political problems of the Republic, however intractable they appeared, might have been amenable to rational solution, but these intellectuals refused to place their undoubted talents at the service of reason.”

I’m sure I will continue to think about Germany and my experiences there, and perhaps I will even visit again one day. But as I sit now and think about the things I saw and experienced, I can’t help but think about them in the context of Craig’s analysis – that when faced with seemingly impossible tasks, Germany was all too often, in its past, eager to turn away from reason and decency, instead plunging headfirst into a Romantic mirage, a shimmering image of a nostalgic neverland which does not exist. I think this is a pretty fair assessment of how Germany has dealt with difficult issues and responded to crises in the past, but today, in the Stopersteine’s, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the rebuilt synagogues and Jewish community centers, bus stop signs, standing remnants of the Berlin Wall and many other instances of the preservation of reminders of difficulty realities, there does appear to be a turning toward reason and away from the dangerous Romantic political ideas which caused the murders of millions of innocent people in the last century.

The generations of Germans who have come after the Shoah, and those righteous individuals who risked their own lives to save others in the war, stand out as exceptions to Germany’s brightest minds who might have saved Europe from the cataclysm of World War Two. They have done the exact opposite of what Craig describes in pre-WWII Germany, literally altering the landscape, in ways both obvious and not, to reflect not an idealized romanticized past that has no room for the “other,” but a realistic reflection of what happens when people believe in (and act on) such dangerously misguided ideas. In these actions and intentions they have given Germany another chance, another opportunity to act differently the next time. In this sense these memorials and reminders stand in testimony, calling out to all who see them to resist violent ideology, anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. As long as these things remain a part of the physical landscape they will continue to call out – the question we must ask ourselves, the question only history will be able to answer is, when the time comes again,  what our answer will be. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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