February 2008


Innocence Shattered

There comes a point in everyone’s upbringing when they realize some truths about the world around them—and that often these truths are rather unpleasant.

The first time I can remember this happening to me was back at Park Hill Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. As is with traditional with American elementary education, it was a rather “ra-ra” education, at least when it came to American history.

Obviously America was the greatest country on the planet, ever. From the moment we had thrown off the shackles of British Oppression, we could do no wrong. We’d saved the world from the Germans (twice) and we were going to be victorious over the evil empire (the Soviet Union, that is), and everything worth inventing had been invented in this great land of mine: telephones, television, and teleportation.

This idea persisted until one cold day when, in short order, slavery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were discussed.

To help us understand our past one day that all the white kids had to wait to use the bathrooms until after the black kids; hang up the black kids coats, and drink from the “whites only” drinking fountains that were (as I choose to remember this day) located at the opposite end of the school from our classroom.

There was, naturally, a sense of moral outrage by the white kids and a victorious aura from the black kids.

I don’t remember what the Latinos, Native Americans, or other non-black-and-white kids did that day. Latinos were probably forced to stay on the playground, Native Americans, trussed up, and the rest deported to whatever land they originally came from.

Mortified with American history I immediately understood that I was for equality and equity and I’ve never wanted anything but that for my country. To aid my cause, I joined the Democratic Party as soon as I legally could and started voting accordingly.

I bring this up because these moments happen elsewhere. I am sure that Australian kids grow up thinking they live in a great country until they realize that the founders were all prisoners from Britain and that they treated the Aborigines like shit, only having gotten around to apologizing this month.

Meanwhile in Germany, I can only imagine that the sense of outrage and disgust is even greater. After learning about all the great things your country had done (BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Bayer, and beer, to name just a small smattering of things), you are then confronted with Nazism and the holocaust; things that individually you are in no way, shape, or form guilty of, but because you’re German, you are automatically guilty.

Randomly, I’ve experienced guilt by association. As it turns out, unless one is familiar with it, expatriatism is difficult to understand and explain, particularly in another language in a noisy bar. In Guadalajara, Jay was trying to explain to somebody that we were all Americans but that I lived in Germany to a local at one of the noisy bars. I got the Nazi salute from the local.

As an outsider, I can say that from everything I’ve witnessed, I think it is safe to say that German children and adults are educated about their history. There is no attempt to whitewash, decorate with flowers, and ignore history. While wandering the Deutsches Historisches Mueseum in Berlin, the rise of Nazism and everything that followed takes up an astonishing percentage of the floor space. The museum covers from 100BC to 1994AD and, by my estimation, gives more than 10 percent of the floor space to an era that lasted less than one-percent of the time-span the museum covers, including a model of Auschwitz. Add in countless holocaust memorials; major, minor, famous and anonymous; and one realizes that Germany is a country that isn’t in denial about its (relatively recent) past.

However, I have to admit that I am amused by elements of Germany’s teen-set; especially those who bravely march out into public wearing anti-Nazi messages—sometimes small buttons, sometimes large patches sown onto the back of their jackets.

Of course Germany still has a Neo-Nazi element that occasionally attempts to tell the world that Hitler was right about the Jews and that the holocaust didn’t actually happen (which seems a bit internally contradictory to me, but whatever); however these elements are on the fringe and make public protests rather infrequently.

Not every teen is afflicted with the urge to wander the streets making known their opposition to the Nazi-era government or the possibility of a return to said governments—I see such teens maybe once a month.

They make me wonder what it would be like to wander the streets of America wearing an Abolitionist’s button.

2 comments to Innocence Shattered

  • Here here!

    I really really like the blog. Hurray!

  • sarah

    In the young leftist queer world there is a lot of travel and communication between Germany and other places like Poland where Nazi threat and violence is a very real everyday threat for some people. So maybe it is to show solidarity for their friends living there.