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.

A Life in Full

It’s hard to add much to the story told by the photograph. Some veterans of WWII live on, even today. It won’t be long until they will be alive only in our memories

About sixteen million of our fellow citizens served in the armed forces during WWII.  To put that number in perspective, in 1940 the population of the United States was slightly over one hundred thirty two million.  My long division is not so hot, but my now antiquated HP12C which never fails me calculates that 12% (give or take) of our total population wore the uniform and served in our defense.  Of those serving 416,000 died during the course of hostilities.  I’m sure that many others died subsequently as a result of injuries suffered during the war, but I don’t have that number.  In any case, millions lived on after the war.  They married or didn’t, had kids, found jobs, got college degrees, started companies, invented things, wrote books, succeeded and failed at endeavors too varied to recount.

One coming of age between 1942 and 1945 would be celebrating their 83rd-86th birthday if they’ve lived life in full and slightly beat the actuarial odds.  Increasingly they are not.  Just look at the obit page any morning and look for those of a certain age.  They are now dying at the rate of about one thousand per day, and if the numbers hold true, we will see the last of them sometime before 2020.  In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw wrote about those who grew up in the black fog of the depression years and went on to fight and die for their country in WWII.  These veterans were the sharp end of the spear, and they suffered and persevered in ways that we can barely imagine.  Often their stories were never told.

My father was one of those. I would like to tell his story, or at least the small part of it that I now know.  Born on November 23, 1921 in Victoria, Texas, he was the sixth and youngest child in a family of three boys and three girls.  I never heard my father mention his own father, but I heard in various family gatherings that he a) worked on the railroad, b) was a translator (his mother was French), c) died when my father was still in short pants, or d) left the family at a time and for places unknown. In any case, he was never a presence in my father’s life. My father was raised by his mother and two never-married, older sisters Carrie and Stella.  His brother Al was two years older and his brother Joe) was his senior by at least five years.

Art graduated from Victoria Memorial High School in 1938 or 1939.  I do not know his academic record, but I’d doubt that his mother and two motherly sisters would have let him get by with any gentleman’s C’s.  I know he played basketball and ran track (actually he was a pole vaulter).  I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that he played baseball as well.  I know nothing of his social life; whether he was popular, was picked on, was a teacher’s pet, or if he had an eye for the girls.  One thing I can be pretty sure of is that he never misbehaved or defied  any authority figure.  “What other people might think” was a guiding behavioral principle that overrode almost any other social precept.  Good grooming, proper speech, correct manners….these were principles that either came as a part of his DNA or was inculcated by constant reminders from his feminine dominated home environment.  Teach early, learn forever.

He told me once that he had a chance to go to Junior College, but for unspoken reasons did not.  There’s a two-year gap between his high school graduation and joining the Army Air Corps in 1941.  It seems he opted for military service before Pearl Harbor.  Perhaps he, like many, got caught up in the war fervor fueled by events in Europe, or perhaps he had nothing else to do.  Nevertheless, his patriotism or his ambivalence resulted in the most determinative event of his life.

He wound up at what was to become Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas for training prior to his inevitable trans-shipment to some theatre of war.  I can only imagine his first time away from the smothering love of his mother and sisters.  He discovered beer and music and dancing and willing girls with no chaperon.  And he met my mother.  I’ve seen old, faded photographs of them.  A  Lone Star long neck in one hand and one arm around the her.  She was quite beautiful in a fresh,maybe even naive way.  He was handsome and full of energy.  I faintly remember stories of an old dance hall on the edge of town named propitiously, The Hangar.  They married, I was conceived, and he went to war.  He trained for a period of time in Florida in B-26’s.  My mother and I took the train to see him when I was about three months old.  Shortly after our visit, his plane crashed on landing after a training flight.  Two of his crew were lost.  A precursor of things to come.

He got his flight wings, having qualified as a flight engineer and side-door gunner on B-26’s.  I dunno what a flight engineer does, but it sounds better than a gunner.  I remember a fading photograph of him in his war paraphernalia.  His youthful visage framed by his fleece lined bomber jacket, heavy boots, insulated pants, and an aviator cap complete with ear flaps completed the picture of an uncertain warrior.

He left for England in late 1943 before I was a year old.  After being shuffled around by the Army Air Corps bureaucracy and familiarizing himself with warm beer in the pubs of the English countryside, he was shipped to some remote airfield in North Africa.  He never told me what country but I surmised it was probably Tunisia, as it was the closest place in allied hands from which the U.S. could stage bombing runs to Sicily, the Italian mainland and later into France. About his stay in North Africa, I remember him saying little except that he “didn’t know the desert could be so cold.”  He said that he wore all of his clothes when he climbed in to his cot at night….and he still shivered until the sun came up.

His bomber jacket was an iconographic history of his war.  It was soft brown, wrinkled leather with a fleece lining, much scarred and stained; it not only told the story of his unit designations, but also was a record of his missions.  A small white bomb indicated each mission flown (and survived).  It was not without reason the the B-26 was also referred to as The Widowmaker.  He said he often wondered whether he would survive enough missions to cover all the available space with bombs, and would he then be able to go home.  He crashed again at the end of a long, dangerous run.  Fortunately they made it to the landing strip, but the crew counted over three hundred flak holes in their aircraft.

I have a yellowed news article that reported one of the major campaigns that his bomber group participated in.  It mentioned that he had one confirmed kill and two probables.  I don’t know if that was for a particular mission or for all of his missions.  He was awarded Air Medals, Campaign Medals, Unit Citations.  Before I knew better I used to play with them and pin them on my t-shirts when I could sneak them out of the cardboard box where they were stored.

In the eulogy I gave for my father at his funeral, I referred to him as a kind and tender man who was always sensitive to those around him.  My unspoken subtext was that I had always thought of him as lacking toughness.  Maybe not weak exactly, but never willing or able to tackle the really difficult tasks of life. It is, even now, hard to reconcile this image of him with the one that climbed into the fuselage of his B-26 day after day, cradling his .50 caliber machine gun, waiting for the clouds of flak that were inevitable and possibly fatal.

He lived through it all and came home.  Got a job, had a career, raised a family, helped others and worried what they thought about him.  A life in full.  A young boy, a student, a husband, a warrior, a worker, a family man.

I suspect that many of his sixteen million fellow citizens that served under arms had similar journeys, but unique to them. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  I only wish we could tell all their stories before they are gone.