What I am about to say may be a bit unprecedented, but I’ve recently found it necessary to stand up for a group still known to many in the global community as the Nazis. Yes, you have understood me correctly. German speaking, kraut-eating Nazis. Even they need to be understood! That this what this column is all about, after all: promoting cultural empathy. Now it’s time to empathize with something we never thought we could understand.
Let’s look at this word: Nazi. Unless we have been living with Osama bin Laden in a cave for the last 70 years, this should be a term we all are familiar with. Originally a political group that swept most of Western and Central Europe into its grasp and in the process also succeeded in systematically exterminating some six million Jews, the Nazis were the face of evil.
Today things are different. Especially in America, a country that has little tangible connection to the hardships of the Great War, people hand out the title “Nazi” as freely as candy on Halloween. In our modern culture everyone we don’t agree with becomes a “Nazi” or a “fascist,” even the guy at the 7-Eleven that wouldn’t let me read the latest edition of Playboy without buying it first. We have, in effect, begun to bastardize the title from its progenitors.
While there are instances where the neutralizing of the terms Nazi and fascist do play beneficial roles in social development, this is not the case when it comes to American culture. In German culture, for instance, the word Nazi carries a specific and significant burden. This word necessarily weighs heavily upon the German collective consciousness. It is a cross that their children’s children’s children still have to bare. In recent years, however, we have begun to see what the Germans might call the Verblödung[i] of the word. In the novel Faserland by Christian Kracht, the narrator characterizes someone watching him eat yogurt as a “Nazi.” Is this an overstatement? I think so. But it is an intentional one.
The transformation of this term is important for German culture, for it allows the present day people to emancipate themselves from their history. It allows contemporary Germans, a people with no personal connection to the Third Reich who are fighting for their own new identity, to distance themselves from their past. It’s a bit like Robert Downey Jr. playing his most recent role in Tropic of Thunder (a comical role, at that) in blackface. We must acknowledge our questionable past, but we must also reinvent it for ourselves. If we don’t, we cannot progress.
This is something the German people are still having trouble accomplishing, with little help from American culture, I might add.
Especially as Americans we need to be careful as to how we learn to bind Nazis with the present. In many ways, our position on Nazis and WWII comes from a perspective impossible to compare to that of the Europeans. Yes, we do currently host many European immigrants who fled during that time. Yes, we do have a large Jewish population. Yes, we did send soldiers to Europe to fight and die at the hands of the Nazis.
But I still see the collective American WWII experience as one of distance and relative safety. We may have had friends and family in Europe fighting, but the fighting itself was always radio broadcasts and oceans away. We did not have to fall asleep to the sound of bombs falling. We did not have cities destroyed. We did not ever personally hide as Jews and intellectuals who were hauled off in raids, and we certainly did not have to pretend that the ghettos and concentrations camps were not in our backyards.
These are things that create immense separation between how we understand the war and the way Europeans understand it. Just as we could not expect any non-American to feel the same way as we do about the attacks of September 11, we can’t expect to have the same appreciation for what happened over there in the 1940’s. Not as a collective.
The problem is that we attempt to understand these things firsthand, to remember things that we cannot possibly remember, and we therefore look to the media for help. Though looking at our past is one way to progress, our current methods are not achieving this goal.
If I look back in time and reviewed the mainstream books and moves I have ever read or watched about German culture, I wonder how many I would find that were not directly related to the Third Reich.
In high school Elie Weisel’s Night, was on our required reading list. In fact, it still listed weekly in The New York Times’ non-fiction bestsellers list. This, of course, makes sense. It’s a very well written personal account of the Holocaust. It serves an important function in terms of learning about and then remembering the mistakes of the past. But why isn’t this book enough? Why are contemporary writers still almost exclusively covering this topic when they write about Germany, even authors who were not alive to experience it? Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, for example, deals with Jewish extermination some 60 years after the end of the Holocaust. In contrast, I can’t think of one book I have read by an American author that discusses post-war Germany without coming back to its infamous history.
Our relationship to this Germans-as-Nazis myth becomes even more ridiculous when we look at the movies that make it over to America from Europe. Three that stick out in my head from the last few years are the Academy Award-winner The Counterfeiters, 2004’s Der Untergang (Downfall), and a film I saw in 2006 called Elite für den Führer (Before the Fall). Like the books I mentioned, these three movies all take place during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. What is more important about these three films, however, is the levels of success they had in Germany; two of these movies had little success to speak of. How can it be that these films have made such a splash in the United States?
We did not live the war, yet we want to know about it. In our quest to inform ourselves, however, we have overstepped the boundary of appropriateness and transformed the Holocaust into a type of spectacle. Yes, we watch movies about the Holocaust to remember the terrible things that happened under the terror reign of Adolph Hitler, but I would argue that we really watch these movies and read these books as voyeurs.
It fascinates us that something so grotesque on such an immense scale can happen, and this fascination fuels our desire to keep reading and keep watching and keep seeing. But how many times can we read the same story? How many times do we need to see and read it before we get it? Before we understand that it is a bad thing?
I would argue that we probably only need to see the Jews get put in the gas chamber once before the moral implications become clear, yet I’ve watched versions of this fate happen multiple times in multiple formats. Yes, it’s terrible, but let’s also show the situation some respect.
Does this help us to remember? Sure. But it also traps German society underneath its net. Even the people of Europe still hold a grudge against the Germans. When traveling outside of Germany, I have been advised a number of times by my German friends to speak English rather than German.
“Our language is still bad to them.”
We need to remember to remember, but we also need to remember to forgive, to move on. Otherwise, it all becomes a vicious cycle where, in the end, nothing has progressed.
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