Issue Date: June 3, 2005
Germany's unspeakable collective grief
By MICHAEL SCOTT MOORE
On a calm spring day in Berlin recently a horse with a dead-looking soldier on its back clopped across the cobblestones of a leafy neighborhood. The soldier wore a gas mask and slumped forward on the horses mane, or wobbled dangerously in the saddle.
Berliners are used to unusual things, but this was bizarre. People scowled from cars and cafés. Kids ran excitedly behind the horse (Hes not a puppet! Hes real!), and the occasional homeless man walked up to give his opinion.
The rider belonged to an art-action group called the Heavenly Four, which wanted to celebrate the defeat of Nazism with a dramatization of a satirical song by Bertolt Brecht. In The Legend of the Dead Soldier, an infantryman killed in World War I is dug up by a medical commission and sent back to the front.
Hes the soldier that Germans always dig up to send into another war, said Michael Wildmoser, a tall, young urban engineer from Bavaria who helped organize the event. We want to warn against war in general.
Mr. Wildmoser and his friends belong to a lively wing of a debate in Germany over how to remember World War II that reaches far beyond the anniversary of V-E Day. The Heavenly Four name refers to the Allies who liberated Germans from Nazism on May 8, 1945, and liberation is the word used by any German who wants to admit the nations crimes and banish the ghost of Hitler.
The point of the Heavenly Fours event, in fact, was to counter a march in Berlin by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, which loathes the word liberation. The party tried to mount a parade in Berlin on May 8 to protest Allied crimes at the end of World War II. Berliners turned out in the thousands to squelch the parade; the National Democratic Party is even more alien to them than a dead soldier on horseback. Still, the partys conscious (and increasingly successful) idea is to make Germans feel like victims again, the way they felt after World War I.
This lunatic position would be easy to dismiss if the subject of wartime defeat werent so taboo in Germany. But the National Democratic Party speaks up, where other Germans dont, about the firebombing of cities like Hamburg and Berlin and Dresden between 1943 and 1945.
I think we speak for a silent majority, says the partys chairman, Udo Voigt. The current government wants to celebrate liberation [from Nazism] on May 8, but many Germans dont feel themselves liberated by the Allies. ... So we say: Were not celebrating. Enough with the cult of guilt. There is no collective guilt.
The problem with Mr. Voigt is that he speaks for a quiet, subterranean strain of German feeling. Not only civilians but whole segments of German civilization were incinerated in the firebombings; ancient cities like Dresden and Cologne were literally hollowed out. The destruction of the city itself, with all its past as well as its present, wrote the British poet Stephen Spender after visiting Cologne in 1948, is like a reproach to the people who go on living there. The sermons in the stones of Germany preach nihilism.
Whether the Allies could have broken the Nazi machine by demolishing supply lines and oil refineries instead of city centers was a controversy even in Churchills time. Some excellent German writers, like the late W.G. Sebald, have started to mention it. The problem for Germany is to outline its loss without pretending to be victimized.
Mr. Sebald points out that German literature, and to some extent German memory, draws a blank on the almost nuclear devastation left after the war. The images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness, writes Mr. Sebald in his final book, On the Natural History of Destruction. I was not surprised when a teacher in Detmold told me ... that as a boy in the immediate postwar years he quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm, [photos] brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg secondhand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography.
The resurgence of parties like the NPD -- which won 12 legislative seats in the eastern state of Saxony last fall, and keeps making offensive noises about a German Holocaust at the end of World War II -- can be explained, in part, by this shameful silence. The extreme German right stands for national pride in a nation that has very little national pride (still, after two generations).
Most Germans will tell you they mistrust patriotism; they grew up with the idea that Americans rescued them from Hitler, and any contrary opinion still has a ring of disobedience, bitterness, ingratitude.
The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, wrote Mr. Sebald, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived. Scarcely anyone can now doubt that Air Marshall Göring would have wiped out London if his technical resources had allowed him to do so.
And thats exactly the problem. Hitler had tried to erase a people; he would have gone on to erase London and Moscow and New York. And yet the towering moral shame still shadowing German pride is not enough to erase a collective, unspeakable grief.
Michael Scott Moore is a novelist and reporter living in Berlin. His first novel, Too Much of Nothing, is out from Carroll & Graf.
National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005
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