May 2009



I’ve been contemplating history of late.

There’s been so much interaction with history in my life, of late, that I could spew out on the subject for hours, uninterrupted. Naturally I would probably be repetitive, but there are a lot of cross-thematic links that have been mentally cropping up of late.

Buchenwald and Heart Mountain have been at the center of my ruminations over the last month, with a bit of the Berlin Wall thrown in for good measure. Some of this is driven by Obama’s impending visit to Weimar, but many of my thoughts result from day-to-day living in Weimar. It centers my conflicting and frustrating thoughts about history. Weimar is, after all, the Goethe-center, and Goethe is, in many respects, the center of good German philosophy and good German virtues.

Goethe found Weimar, and its environs, to be ideal for thinking and writing. It’s charming city and superb surroundings are what I appreciate. I like to imagine that Goethe would take a walk down the Goethe Wanderweg in the afternoon, read a book in the evening, and then the following morning retire to the Weimar Office for 4-5 hours of solid writing—much like me. Pretty baristas (Unless, he, like me was served by people he’s uninterested in: Me by pretty lasses; he by handsome men) served him cups of coffee and he could get through the morning without needing to refill his inkwell, much like I get through the morning without needing to recharge my laptop.

(and at 1,600+ words, if you want to continue reading, and you’re not already on the post page, please click through…)

Of course, Weimar is much more complicated than the simple picture I paint. Home, virtually by accident, to German Democracy’s establishment (the Weimar Republic) after World War I, Weimar is also home to Buchenwald—a Nazi concentration camp that housed thousands of undesirables. Thousands upon thousands died in its harsh conditions—and I can hear, in my head, the recording of CBS Radio Reporter Edward R. Murrow as he told Americans about what he saw in the hills northwest of Weimar.

The Nazis had a sick sense of irony and humor: Buchenwald’s location was chosen in part because of Goethe’s love of the area. Goethe must have spun in his grave whilst one of his favorite spots was defiled.

I get incredibly frustrated when thinking about Nazis and Buchenwald—what gave these people the right to judge other people based upon immutable traits. Few people choose to be Jewish (most are born into it, although one can convert), few people choose to be Christian (most are born into it, although one can convert). Racially speaking (a human construct that, in reality doesn’t exist), nobody can choose to be German: either you are, or you aren’t. In terms of citizenship, one can, of course, choose to become German.

As I’ve noted before, one problem Germans face is that individually not one of the I have met here in Germany had anything to do with the Nazis and Buchenwald, yet collectively there is guilt: Germans cannot escape history.

It’s not my history, so I am not guilty, but I have been guilty by association. When I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, for New Year’s Eve, one of my friends was explaining the expatriate concept of me to a local—the fact that I was an American but that I lived in Germany. Something got lost in translation and I got the Nazi salute. It was a stark and brief hint of what it must be like to be German: again, individually innocent, collectively guilty.

Of course, Americans are hardly innocent.

I will not apologize for America’s use of the nuclear bomb in Japan during World War II: I’m a firm believer that the nuclear bombs saved lives, both Japanese and American. It’s an argument that one could get lost in for hours.

An undebatable American blemish is the Japanese Internment Camps it built during World War II. I was reminded of this by an article I recently read on the Casper Star-Tribune’s website concerning Heart Mountain in Wyoming—one of 10 Japanese internment camps where US citizens of Japanese descent were sent.

Certainly the conditions of Japanese Internment Camps were far better than the condition of Nazi Concentration Camps—but they had a lot in common: harsh conditions, inhospitable environments, and armed guards. And both reflected xenophobia about fellow citizens and immutable characteristics.

Contemplating Buchenwald and contemplating Heart Mountain makes me frustrated—I cannot go back and change history. It’s impossible. I had these emotions long before I actually visited Buchenwald—something I’d managed to avoid for nearly five years. I ended up going out there with CQ during his visit to Weimar.

Buchenwald packs an impressive emotional wallop—and even today, rapidly approaching one month on, I am still not quite sure how to process everything I saw at the site—and some how we even missed some of the most daunting aspects of the camp. The cruelty toward fellow man, regardless of the specific characteristics that got them sent to Buchenwald, is awful. The conditions unspeakable and there was a complete and total lack of empathy and compassion toward fellow man at Buchenwald.

Obama’s desire to visit Buchenwald is admirable and decent. From my perspective as an expatriate, Obama is making all the right moves. One can quibble about some of the specifics, but its my impression that rather than trying to right specific Bush wrongs, Obama is setting broad objectives and putting into place a framework that will eventually set things right. Obama offers incredible eloquence (I’d love to meet his speechwriter—what an amazing job to have), along side technical science driven policy formulation. The faith-based exercises of Bush don’t stand a chance in this environment.

A Queer Note: I’ve seen and read that the gay rights movement isn’t that happy with Obama. The leaders are welcome to their opinion, but I respectfully disagree. The broad changes made by the Obama administration right now will facilitate change later. Furthermore, with respect to the specific issue of same sex marriage, the contest is broadly over: I believe that same sex marriage will be legal in all 50 states within a decade and that the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned by the courts—provided that that Obama’s judicial nominees are decent. Obama shouldn’t waste his political capital on the specifics of this issue. (And I might note that the California Supreme Court Decision is technically perfect. The odds that gay rights activists could overturn Proposition 8 were so slim as to be nonexistent. The only thing of interest was whether or not pre-existing same sex marriages would be allowed to stand.)

I hope that while visiting Buchenwald that Obama is able to share my experience: standing in the heart of the camp, surrounded by the foundations of what was one overstuffed and inhumane housing. I stood there, surrounded by the vastness of empty space, feeling the wind, and hearing birds chirping away. It’s a beautiful spot and I could see why Goethe enjoyed walking through the forest. Reconciling the chirping cheerful birds with the foundations of a “medical” clinic where Nazi “doctors” euthanized people is impossible. I contemplate it without resolution.

Now that I’ve visited Buchenwald, I’m also of the mind that a trip to Heart Mountain might not be a bad idea. Again, Heart Mountain was no Buchenwald, but it was a heartless destination for Americans of Japanese decent. There is an effort afoot to preserve the remains of Heart Mountain and to build an interpretive center at the site in the vicinity of Cody, Wyoming.

One of the things that I admire the most about America and, for that matter, Germany, is that history is not readily run from. Germany memorializes Buchenwald and the Holocaust. There’s comprehensive education for children, maintenance of the historic sites, and acknowledgment of the past. The Holocaust has forced Germans to be introspective in a way that is admirable. What characteristics and traits allowed it to happen? Could it happen again? How can it be prevented from happening again?

America is at its best when it acknowledges and respects the negatives of its history: enslaving Africans, disrespecting and ignoring peace treaties with Native Americans, and the unjustified imprisoning of American citizens who happened to be of Japanese descent. The victors write history with scant attention paid to the perspective of the losers, except in a few places like America. Today’s America not only allows the losers to write their own perspective on history, it is actively encouraged. Universities offer history courses centered on the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, and woman—to name a few. Loud voices are given to perspectives that would be lost or subordinated in other societies.

History is a nuanced thing. I can honestly say that my understanding of history and its shades of grey have substantially increased since moving to Germany. So while I was aware of the minority perspectives in American history prior to moving to Germany, I didn’t fully appreciate how rare it is to find these histories—nor did I really understand America’s role in world history.

There really is a difference between learning about the Berlin Wall as a high school student sitting in a classroom 5,067 miles from where it (had) existed, and from walking down the double row of bricks that outline where the wall once was, imaging the death-strip on one side and a graffiti covered wall next to free citizens on the other.

I could, of course, go off on the insanity that was the Berlin Wall, but I’m already exceeding 1,600 words.

Thanks for indulging me.

History is not bunk.

3 comments to History

  • You’re right. History is best painted in shades of grey, rather than black and white.

    I get rather annoyed with the way in which Nazism is often viewed, by Germans and non-Germans alike.

    Hitler and the Nazis are almost beyond discussion–the ultimate embodiment of evil, their villainy inexplicable, past our understanding. Hitler held the nation in a hypnotic thrall, or ruled it by fear, or simply whipped up some black magic with the aid of Lucifer.

    In the end, we lose sight of the fact that these atrocities were not committed by Hitler alone. he needed the consent of ordinary people; some frightened, some willing, some gleeful and cruel, some cynical, some pragmatic. A good many actually believed they were doing a highly moral thing. They were human. We are human. Would we have done the same?

    If we look more closely at the human aspects of who the Nazis were and what they did, we see many more parallels to very recent history than we might find comfortable.

    Any attempt to work out how it could happen, I dare say, may need to bring a level of empathy to the Germans of the 1930s and 40s, and to the Nazis themselves, which we find distasteful. But it may be the only way we can keep this episode of history from repeating itself.

  • It seems you and I came away with a similar view of Buchenwald. I may have said some things that may have given a different impression but the short version of it all for me was seeing just how inhuman people can be to other people.

    I also agree with your view of the California Supreme Court ruling on Prop 8. They made the correct interpretation – the people voted for discrimination, and at some point they will realize the mistake. I’m still not convinced that the federal challenge to it filed recently is as altruistic as the people filing it think. They are setting up a US Supreme court case, and I’m not sure that Prop 8 will be overturned there. I think the case is about 5-years too early, at least. I also think the new Prop 8 reversal being proposed for the California ballot is about 5-years too early as well. The Proposition passed during an election with a high Democratic turn-out, and it’s well known Democrats tend to stay home during special elections, and this might back fire by getting a new overturn proposition defeated by a larger margin.

    It’s been an interesting time for human rights in this world the past 100 years or so (or even back to the US civil war). Perhaps we’re nearing a logical end where people are people are people, soon.

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