Tale of Two Germanys

This is a plaque at the entrance of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The Palace is the site of the historic Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII.

Germany is an economic miracle.  There’s no other way to describe it.  Think of it.  In the last ninety years, Germany lost two wars, sixteen per cent  of their population was killed as a result of the wars, their industrial base was decimated, they became a pariah in the eyes of the world, their national identity questioned, and were occupied by the armies of the countries who had defeated them.  Many of their leaders were tried, convicted, and either executed or imprisoned.  They were a pawn of the cold war and lived as a divided county for thirty years and then endured the pains of unification.  And yet….

Germany is number fourteen in population at about eighty two million, but has a nominal GDP of $3.3 trillion which is fourth in the world.  They are number two in exports with $1.33 trillion, which believe it or not, is more than we export from the US.  Germany has a well deserved reputation for their high quality products in a wide range of industries from automotive to optics to high tech.  Beyond economic factors, Germany has a number of other qualities including a beautiful topography and robust supply of natural resources which make it an attractive place for its citizens, trading partners, and tourists alike.  Food is not one of them…unless you like sausage.  It has a tradition of education and the arts equal to any other country in the world and a legacy of artists, writers, and philosophers that is universally recognized.  And yet…

As I strolled around Frankfurt in the comforting light rain, I couldn’t help but think what it must have looked like sixty five years ago.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, most of central Frankfurt was more or less obliterated by Allied bombing in 1944 which also killed about five thousand of its citizens.  One wonders, whether that would have been considered a criminal act had we not won the war.  More on this later.

Cicero said that an unjust peace is better than a just war, and in the abstract, I would agree.  It just doesn’t seem to apply to what Hitler instigated in 1939.  I, like you, studied the war in my school days, and since, I’ve read more than a little about WWII, but until this trip, and this time in my life, I never tried to understand or articulate the principles that motivated Hitler, the National Socialist Party, and the Germans to do what they did.  Back to the Nazis….the actual party name was translated as the National Socialist Democratic Workers Party or NSDAP.  Hmmm?  Why is it that the most tyrannical of political institutions always have “Democratic” or “Workers” in the name?  Looks like they would work in “Republican” every now and then.  I’ve searched the literature for a succinct articulation of the raison d’etre for Nazism, and I’ve come up with my own short list.

It goes like this:

Aryans as the Master Race:  Alfred Rosenburg, the putative theorist of the Nazi Party, espoused the theory that Aryans derived from Atlantis as a warrior people living on the Germanic plane and were direct ancestors of the early Germanic tribes.  Hitler, writing in Mein Kamph, opined that it was essential to keep the Aryan strain pure, else it would be diluted with the impure blood of the darker races of Southern Europe.  He also noted that it was necessary to guard against allowing weak members of the Aryan race to propagate for the same reason.  There’s lots more of this bs, but it’s so weird that I refuse to even mention it.

Anti-Semitism:  This is way over my head and has pretty much been wrestled to ground by far more nimble minds than mine.  I will only say that the seeds of Hitler’s virulent form of anti-Semitism which ultimately led him to his “final solution” were sewn during his stay in Vienna starting in 1907.  Vienna was the hot bed of anti-Semitic thought in those days, and he clearly drank the cool-aid while there.  He also came later to the view that European Jews, and German Jews, in particular, were to blame for the fall of the Weimar Republic.

Lebensraum:  A literal translation would be habitat or living space.  As Hitler demonstrated beginning in 1939, the Nazi policy would be to kill, deport or enslave Polish, Russian and other Slavic populations, who were inferior, and repopulate the lands with Germanic peoples.  In short, he needed more land, particularly lands to the east, for Germany to grow and prosper as the master race and natural rulers of the world.

It was for these objectives that Germany ignored the Treaty of Versailles, trampled the Mutual Non-Agression Pact with Russia, and ultimately pursued a strategy which resulted in the death of between sixty and seventy million people in Europe, including almost ten million of his own people.  You know the rest of the story.  The allies defeated Germany, Hitler killed himself, we tried and convicted many of the leading Nazi figures at Nuremberg, and Germany rebuilt itself.

As I traveled on through Germany to Nuremberg and finally to Munich, I continued to wrestle with the contradiction of the Germany of WWII and now.  The duality of Germany’s nature still eluded me.  Many would say that the rise of German militarism in the 1930’s was motivated by many complex factors including the demise of the Weimar Republic, but their ultimate behavior remains inexplicable.  Telford Taylor, assistant chief prosecutor and one of the leading figures of the Nuremberg Trials , said, “…the gas chambers, mountains of corpses, human lamp shades, shrunken skulls, freezing experiments and bank vaults filled with gold teeth…were the poisoned fruit of the tree of German militarism.”

I guess it’s possible to understand the killing of one or two or even a thousand, but sixty thousand, or six million or sixty million defies the imagination.  The Nazi atrocities were so monstrous, so enormous, so outside the realm of human experience that it’s hard to believe they happened, much less comprehend why they happened, even when confronted with the hard evidence.  But it’s real.  They did those things and more.

Now as I walk through the large outdoor market near the Marienplatz in Munich, I can’t help but wonder if the group of twenty something young men could have been in the SA or Gestapo, or if the prosperous middle-aged man walking by could have conducted the medical experiments for which the Nazis became infamous, or if the street sweeper might have been a guard at one of the concentration camps.  I feel some guilt in having such thoughts, and my mind wanders to the bit of religious dogma that first gave me pause with Christianity.  In Exodus is written of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children and on to the third and fourth generation”.  In that I refused to accept this biblical admonition, I suspect, then, to blame succeeding generations of Germans for acts committed by their fathers and fathers’  fathers, makes no sense either.  I certainly cannot lay blame on my wife for the institution of slavery because her ancestors were slaveholders as were many, if not most, of the early settlers of Texas.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors and while true, I much prefer the admonition of Maya Angelou who wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be un-lived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.

Perhaps we will have the courage to not need to relive the history of Nazi Germany again.

I liked the Germany a found on this trip, perhaps it was because I stopped trying to relive history or it may be because I had my eyes and mind wide open.

Remembering Germany

Even if your first instinct is to not like Germany, it’s hard to sustain that feeling. Whatever else you may say about it, it just seems to work.

Back in the day I used to spend a lot of time in the Fatherland.  General Motors  (actually, in Germany it was Adam Opel Motors) had it’s headquarters in Russelsheim near Frankfort and I had to pay hommage to the muckety mucks as well as deal with our own folks there from time to time.  Almost all my previous time here has been work related with little time for tourism or idle observations.  Not so now.  Well, technically I’m working for the next couple of days, but not like I used to work.

I arrived yesterday after a surprisingly nice flight on AA to a new terminal at Frankfort am Main.  Why can’t we seem to manage new terminals at our aging airports in the US.  Been to LAX lately?  How about JFK?  By the time I’d checked in, tried the breakfast buffet and taken a short nap it had started to rain…which it pretty much did for the rest of my stay.  Some things never change.  But a lot has changed here.  One can’t help but notice.  On the surface, Frankfort looked pretty much the same.  Lots of tallish glass buildings of dubious architecture.  Large apartment blocks of undistinguished character, and a few attempts at capturing the  look and feel of pre-war Germany by doing the Hansel and Gretel type rehab.

As I’m sure you remember, Frankfort was 85% destroyed by allied bombing in the mid to later stages of WWII.  I mean bombed absolutely flat.  One bombing raid conducted by the 8th Air Force of the United States was credited with killing 5000 people. Not to mention creating a lot of piles of brick.  I can only speculate as to whether the bombs distinguished with much precision the difference between those wearing uniforms and those not.  But back to the future.  They rebuilt (with our help) and now Frankfort is a booming financial center with a population of over 700.000.  While it’s only fifth in size among German cities, it may be first in influence due to the concentration of both German and foreign financial institutions located here.

Ok.  We all know the general characteristics of Germany and the German people.  It starts out….it’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  The German people are humorless, overweight and overbearing.  They wear funny clothes and little felt hats with a small feather.  They drink barrels of beer and eat the fatty parts of pigs stuffed with potatoes and large, lumpy noodles.  Germany itself is populated by large cars driven too fast and highways, (autobahns) that accommodate a form of kamikaze driving technique.    The trains run on time but their language is unintelligible to anyone not named Goethe.  Their art runs to the bizarre from horribly depressing paintings to sculptures that even the artists don’t pretend to understand.  Germany has lots of trees and rivers which are more or less appreciated in the abstract.  Germans pretend to enjoy them, but what the really like is sitting in a huge beer tents in October (or any other month) knocking back unending quantities of lager (which they call Pils for pilsner) and eating pigs knuckles served by heavy but fetching beer maids who can handle up to 8 liters of  suds at a time.

I know all of this sounds negative, and perhaps I have overgeneralized just a bit about Germany and Germans.  There are many good things here as well.  There are big, fast cars and…well, there are a lot of big, fast cars.  And oh, yes there is the money thing.  They are solvent.  For a country of slightly less land mass than Montana they are have become the 4th largest economy in the world at about $3.3 trillion.  Montana, on the other hand, is 48th in the US at $36 billion.  Montana has more oil and elk though.

I didn’t intend for this to become a tutorial on things Germanic, so let me get on to my impressions after a 20 year absence. In no particular order:

1.They now have bacon on their breakfast buffets….and fried eggs.  I know this may not seem like much, but I was used to the buffet ladened with mystery meats, soft cheeses, wilted lettuce leaves, and soft boiled eggs.  In the old days if they tried to offer what passed for bacon, one was  well advised to cut a wide swath around it.

2. One kg of vine ripened tomatoes (2.2 pounds) costs 1 Euro.  That’s about $.70 per pound compared to $2.99 at our local Whole Foods.  So they are doing something right.  On the other hand, petrol is about $10.00 per gallon.  Hmmm.

3. Trains and train stations.   You know what I’m going to say here.  They are fantastic.  Since it was raining yesterday and the museums are closed on Mondays, I decided to look over the train station.  Yes, I know that doesn’t reflect well on my imagination.  The bottom line….I didn’t want to leave.  I could live there.  Restaurants and food stalls of high quality and amazing diversity.  Books shops and newsstands that have to be seen to be believed.  I could buy a magazine or a newspaper from pretty much any place in the world.  Post office, bank, video arcade, beer garden, wine bar, grocery store…it had it all.  And it was clean, well organized and absent of homeless people trying to cage money.

4. Food.  Let me say three words about German food.  Sausage, sausage, sausage.  I’m a man who never saw a sausage he didn’t like and there’s a lot for me to like here.  I stood and watched a vendor at a sausage (wurst) stand serve his customers.  You could get any one of a dozen different offerings chopped, on a bun, on a stick or solo.  With mustard, mystery sauce, dry flavorings or plain.  Wow.  All for the price of a tasteless 7-11 dog at home.

5. Speaking of dogs, they don’t have many.  I couldn’t figure this out for awhile until I read the small print in my Frommers.  They tax dogs.  I don’t know how much, but it must be significant.  Compared to Paris, Frankfurt is a relative dog desert.  And, get this, they have banned 13 breeds who the Germans have determined to be “attack breeds”.  That is to say they are too aggressive for polite society.  I guess they learned something from the War.  Oh, I almost forgot, they have identified another 29 breeds that are almost aggressive and require that these be muzzled before they can face the public.  Is this a great country or what?  If they could only keep the remaining ones from barking and sh**ing on the sidewalks.

6. Diversity.  This was never a big objective of the Germans, but they’ve got it in spades now.  In the old days, all you saw around here besides a few tourists and American business men were Germans and Turks.  The Germans were here because, well, they were born here, but the Turks were brought in in the 50’s to supplement the German workers that had been lost in the war.  They needed someone to do the heavy lifting, and it was the Turks they chose.  One small problem though.  They forgot to figure out how to get them out after they let them in.  But now,  this place just reeks of diversity.  All hues of color, all manner of language and culture, a regular smorgasbord of foods.  I’ll betcha that Adolf is absolutely spinning in his grave….if he has one.  I must say, I like it a lot better now.

7. Language.  Unfortunately they still speak German here, but they speak a lot of other stuff as well, and their English has improved.  Well, at least the Turkish guy at the front desk spoke it well, and even with a New Jersey accent.

I’m sure I’ll figure out some more items of interest as I travel around the country, and I’ll be glad to share it with you as well, but you will be in control of the delete button.  I’ll be going to Nuremberg next and I’ve been boning up on my limited knowledge of the infamous Nuremberg trials.  That’s just a teaser to keep you tuned in.


Gary in Germany.