I leave later this week for ten days in Germany. It was not my first choice of vacation destinations, but a Nice Jewish Boy of my acquaintance got a two-month gig working at a German newspaper and asked me to keep him company.
This is my first trip to Germany; it’s the only major Western European country I have never visited (and by “major” I mean that I’ve missed out on the teeny-tiny charms of microstates like Andorra and Lichtenstein). Truth is, I’ve never been able to give Germany a fair shake. I’ve been told constantly that I shouldn’t hold present-day Germany responsible for 1940s Germany, even though 1940s Germany killed every single member of my family living in Europe at the time. I’ve been told that post-war German culture is pacifist and liberal-minded, and to be fair, nearly every younger German I’ve met—and I’ve met a lot professionally—fits that description. More than one of them has told me, either obliquely or forthrightly, that they are horrified and ashamed of…y’know…and since Germany is not that way any longer, I should try not to dwell on the past, and instead focus on Germany as it is now.
I am not entirely convinced. I tend to subscribe to Faulkner’s famous aphorism: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past,” which I find even more resonant for Jews than for Southerners. History has shown that evil has an extremely long half-life; its effects don’t simply disappear in a generation and a half. Americans are still struggling with the toxic racist legacy of slavery, even though it was abolished 145 years ago, so when someone tells me that Germans have vanquished racial hatred less than 70 years after committing widespread genocide…I have my doubts. Even Germany’s Prime Minister admits that “multiculuralism has utterly failed” there. Germans continue to elect members of the white supremacist NDP party to local office. Recently, a prominent economist gained significant popular support for his bestselling, eugenics-flavored book about how Germans are being “dumbed down” by immigrants genetically predisposed to lower intelligence (but apparently us Jews are “of higher intelligence” because we all “share certain genes.” Gee, thanks, dude.). A 2010 study by the center-leftist Friedrich Ebert Foundation reported that 17% of Germans felt “Jews had too much influence” and 13% of Germans said they would welcome a Führer (yes, that means what you think it does) to “rule with a firm hand.” The study concluded that extremism in Germany isn’t relegated to the fringe but is found, “in all social groups and in all age groups, regardless of employment status, educational level or gender.”
If the recent election cycle in the US taught us anything, it’s that wackjobs and political extremists can become way more mainstream and attract way more takers than you might expect, particularly during hard times. Knowing that, and seeing how the politics of hate work in my own culture makes me even more leery of a country that succumbed so completely to them, and within recent memory. I can’t shake my native Jewish paranoia that I might wind up in a scene like this famous (and oft-censored) musical number from “Cabaret”, where you’re hanging out in a nice beer garden and everything seems lovely at first and then becomes…very, very scary.
That said, I believe that prejudices should be put to the reality test. I have learned from past travel experiences that pre-conceived notions can disappear quickly once you take them on the road. I’ve fallen in love with places I thought I would hate (Mississippi) and wound up loathing places I thought I’d love (the Bahamas). I will take pictures and let you know how it goes.
I am also gratefully accepting all recommendations of things to do and places to eat in Hamburg and Berlin—especially Hamburg, since that’s where I’ll be spending most of my time. Vielen danke!