Time passes. Each new generation faces new challenges.
Wars and Their Leftover Discontents
From what I've been told by friends and acquaintances, a fair number of Germans these days probably have to deal with the problem of Nazi grandparents. This can be painful, particularly as the elderly can be a bit hazy on what year it is. The family checklist probably runs sort of like this:
- Go through Granny's album. Remove photos of the Führer. Also hide pictures of Greatuncle Rolf looking adorable in his Hitler Youth outfit.
- Do the same with the record collection. One of the verses of that old national anthem is illegal. You can keep the Donkey Serenade. Rudolf Friml only offends music lovers. (According to my GI dad, there was a copy of this horror in every home in 1945.)
- Put a rein on political discussions. Any sentence that begins with, 'When I went to Nuremberg in '34. . . ' is definitely dangerous.
You don't have to be in Germany to have this experience. It happened to me here in western Pennsylvania. On election night. A bunch of us were sitting around the Italian restaurant, having our monthly German conversation evening. The talk turned to the election because the restaurateur had the TV on for the returns. Some younger members of the club – by which I mean some of us old hippies – expressed concern. We were beginning to fear the worst, which happened. But 86-year-old war bride Gerlinde was unconcerned, even when somebody compared the winning candidate to Hitler.
'Ach,' she scoffed. 'But Hitler was a perfectly wonderful leader.'
Dead silence. Have you heard the expression 'no one knew where to look'? This is what transpired. Then a local native – a retired college professor – cleared his throat.
'You can't mean that,' he said.
Gerlinde nodded vigorously. 'I mean it. Hitler was fine. It was that Eva Braun. She led him astray. Horrible woman.'
I suppressed a chuckle. The college professor excused himself from the gathering, muttering something about 'immigration' and 'Canada'. I haven't seen him since, because our next meeting was cancelled by a snowstorm. But you can understand my sympathy for the younger humans who have to deal with sudden flashbacks to events we'd all hoped were buried under the snows of many, many winters.
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?
Back when I was a student in Germany in the 70s, all my fellow students had to live with varying parental attitudes about the past. Coming to terms with this past was known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and it cropped up in the unlikeliest of settings. I spent an instructive four hours on a train once, listening to a man explaining how he'd been a convinced Nazi at 20, only to be cured by kind Australian farmers. His Messerschmidt was shot down, and he spent the rest of the war herding sheep in the Outback. He was really grateful. I loved his story, but I can't say the same for the other passengers in the compartment. See 'didn't know where to look'.
A lot of the people I knew had been victims of the regime. One lady at church told me about the time the Gestapo showed up at her East Prussian home. She'd just had a baby, and they demanded to know if it would be christened. She explained that Freikirchler didn't believe in infant baptism. The official snorted. 'You're on the list, anyway,' he informed her.
Others suffered horribly during forced migrations. One woman was psychologically and physically damaged from the winter of 1944-45. Hiding from Soviet troops in a manure pile during the worst winter of the century will do that. Another lost her newborn child on that march.
One man, a conscripted soldier, walked all the way back home to Bavaria from Siberia. It took him two years. Decades later, he told me his story while I was a Christmas guest in his home. Afterwards, we all gathered around the tree and sang 'O Tannenbaum'. I began to appreciate how much home and family meant to a Catholic survivor from Deggendorf.
Others were damaged in different ways. I got to where I could tell that my friends – and later, students – were struggling with the leftover notions of that bygone era. Like the young woman in my class who obviously couldn't see the whiteboard. It took a lot of talking to persuade her that her mother was wrong, and visual problems didn't make her an 'unworthy' citizen. She was so happy when she got that first pair of glasses. I cursed Social Darwinism and all its works and pomps.
I felt the same way that December in the Rheinuferbahnhof in Cologne. They'd let the hobos in because it was snowing. In return, the hobos sang carols to the waiting passengers. I was really enjoying that moment until some old man sidled up to me and said, 'In the Third Reich, we'd have known what to do with trash like that.' I glared at him until he went away.
Other young people had a sunnier outlook, due in part to their parents' coping strategies. One friend said he'd had a wonderful childhood. When I asked how his parents, a refugee couple from the east, had coped, he explained how they'd dealt with having to leave a toddler alone in a one-room apartment while they both worked. They'd baby-proofed the room, then left Reinhold tied in a seat with bungee connections to the four corners of the ceiling. By 'walking' his way around, the little boy could reach everything he needed: toys, milk bottle, etc. He claimed to have been happy as a clam. I knew his mother, a resourceful and generous-hearted woman. I could well imagine her coming up with this strategy in a world where they'd lost all their support network.
So yeah, the Greatest Generation (US term for those who fought and held down the home front) is dying out. And so are the victims, perpetrators, and liberators of Europe. Soon, World War II will exist only in history books. We ought to be careful what we say about it. We ought to try to get all the facts right. We owe it to the ones who lived it.
And that ought to be a lesson to us all: ideas have consequences. They also shape and mould us. Someday, we may find ourselves blurting out what we thought about the Cuban Missile Crisis, or 9/11. And some younger people won't know where to look.