Thursday, November 24, 2005

'Du Bist Deutschland' and the Tragedy of German History

I went to Technorati a short time ago and noticed that among the top ten blog searches in the past hour has been those for "Du Bist Deutschland," which means, "You Are Germany."

I have a soft spot for Germany, because it's the Lutheran movement's ancestral home, because my first parish was composed of the descendants of German immigrants, in a community where German music and culture were still revered, and because we have several German acquaintances and friends, including the family of an exchange student we hosted several years ago. At Christmastime in 2001, my daughter and I spent a week there and I enjoyed being able to preach at a Lutheran congregation in the northern village of Trappenkamp then. In addition, I've enjoyed close friendships with several Germans who live in this country.

Du Bist Deutschland is the tag line of an enormous PR-campaign designed to help Germans feel good about being German. But a problem has developed. A photograph has recently been discovered of a 1930s-era Nazi conclave in which a banner emblazoned with the motto, "Denn Du bist Deutschland," meaning, "Cause Your Are Germany" is shown. This evidently has caused a major controversy, calling the continuation of the entire campaign into question.

That German spirits need lifting is more than probable. Blogger Jeff Jarvis, a recent visitor to Germany, has written of his sense that Germans are depressed, and not just economically. Germans, Jarvis asserts, are sad. I agree with him.

Of course, Germany's high unemployment plays its role in this national malaise.

So too, I think, does disappointment that reunification has not proven to be the source of unmitigated joy that Germans probably hoped it would be, even though the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, comes from the East.

Another factor is the ongoing contraction of German social policies, a process that is both necessary and likely to be accelerated in the future, whatever happens to the "grand coalition" just taking over the German federal government.

But above all, the key source of German depression, I think, is its Nazi past. Repeatedly in conversations I have had with Germans through the years, they've expressed ambivalence about anything like national identity.

On New Year's Eve night in 2001 in Schleswig-Holstein, we all laughed and enjoyed ourselves. But when an innocent song extolling the virtues of Germany began playing on the stereo, one person asked that the song be skipped. When I asked why, I was told, "Because it reminds me of Hitler."

The song had nothing to do with Hitler or the Nazis. But for many Germans, it has become an article of faith that national pride must lead inevitably to gas chambers and war. (When this is understood, it also helps one see why Germans frequently question the actions of the American government which, for better and worse, often reflect a reasonably confident national self-image.)

This suppression of nationalistic feelings, coupled with the massive influx of Turks, has given rise to a backlash in Germany in the form of a small, but vocal neo-Nazi movement. Its existence, and the shame most Germans feel about its existence, only adds to the sensitivity Germans must feel over the PR-campaign's possible echoes of Nazi beliefs.

The tragedy of German history is that the German people, a group initially bonded together more by language than common ethnicity, has had little historical experience of national identity apart from an aggressive martial spirit and of course, the unspeakable travesty of the Holocaust.

Nationalism, Germans feel, has gotten them into trouble in the past and brought them shame. The overwhelming majority of Germans, understandably, while being completely willing to remember their past, wish to leave it behind in order to forge some new life. But even sixty years after the end of World War Two, Germans have apparently still not figured out what that new life will look like.

The Du Bist Deutschland campaign was designed, in part, to help Germans build on the positives of their past, a history that includes Bach, Beethoven, and Einstein. The discovery of this photograph from the Nazi past, sadly, brings the whole project into question.

[One of the best histories of Germany I have found is Germany: A New History by Hagen Schulze.]


EuroYank - Virginia Hoge said...

You amaze me! Your insight and manner of writing about this topic is the best I have ever had the pleasure to read.

Every sentence and thought is true!


Mark Daniels said...

Thank you so much for the very kind words.

Blessings to you!


Clarsonimus said...

That is all so true! The whole "let's feel good about Germany" thing is hilarious - and sad at the same time.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for dropping by and for the conifrmation of my observations.