Nine American writers and editors, back from a tour to Berlin and major West German cities, give their personal impressions of Germans today.
FOUNDED IN 1857
A poet wrote: Each age is a dream that is dying, Or one that is coming to birth. Twenty-two years have passed since the Hitlerian dream failed and Germany lost its second war of this century. Still, no new dream has come to birth. This is a central truth for Germany today, both West and East, and it helps to explain the heavy suspense surrounding the “German Question.” It is the big unsettled question in world affairs, and will still be ticking when Vietnam has been defused. It puzzles Germans at least as much as outsiders, and doubtless bothers them even more. Though a quarter century may be short in the sweep of history, it is a long hiatus between convictions or impulses, or whatever human need it is that when multiplied into the collective becomes the sense of national purpose.
Can the dreamless state continue indefinitely? Is some sense of purpose, of national direction, beginning to take shape in Germany today? If so, will it push outward, to a role in some larger European or international context? Or temporarily inward, to generate a new German nationalism that in the future will demand new adventures? Such questions, so obvious as to be inescapable, preoccupy all who think about Germany today.
They preoccupied all of us when, earlier this year, we traveled to Germany as a small group of American writers and editors to talk with politicians, educators, industrialists, bankers, writers, artists, and university students. Our sponsors were the Ford Foundation and Atlantik-Brücke, a Hamburg-based organization financed by West German businessmen and industrialists to further American-German and Anglo-German relations. Ostensibly we were a homogeneous lot — a Columbia professor and critic and his wife, herself a novelist and critic; two New Yorker writers with numerous political books to their credit; two novelist-critics who teach (at Syracuse and at Sarah Lawrence); an editor’s wife who is also a writer; the New Republic’s critic of the arts; editors of two monthly magazines (Commentary and the Atlantic); and a former Washington official who now writes and lectures (at MIT and Harvard) about contemporary social problems. Some of us had been to Germany frequently before, some as occupiers, some not at all. We carried with us varied preconceptions and prejudices and came home, as the following pages will show, with impressions that are mixed and yet fall, uncalculatedly, into a certain pattern.
A peculiar sense of movement, motion that did not necessarily mean change, rustled the grayseeming atmosphere. The new Grand Coalition had just taken office in Bonn. After the long postwar interlude of Federal opposition, the Social Democrats had entered into timid wedlock with the Christian Democrats; and Willy Brandt, the wartime anti-Nazi émigré who became Mayor of Berlin, was the new Foreign Minister, sharing the bed with Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who for twelve years was a member of the Nazi Party. The Rumanian Foreign Minister had come to Bonn to strike up a trade agreement with West Germany, the first wary gesture of limited reconciliation between Eastern Europe and the country the Communist propagandists daily call “revanchist.” The National Democratic Party, a far-right organization with neo-Nazi tendencies, had won 7.4 percent of the vote in the Bavarian elections, and the politicians were guessing that the party would collect as much as 15 percent later in the year in Schleswig-Holstein. This state and Lower Saxony — not Bavaria, as the overseas mythology has it — were the real wellsprings of Nazi support in the early thirties.
In bank boardrooms, art-hung drawing rooms, government conference rooms, and university meeting rooms of Hamburg and West Berlin, Düsseldorf, Bonn, and Munich, Germans of varied ages and persuasions responded to foreigners’ questions about these developments with a patient air that suggests: You seem to be more affected by this than we are. And indeed, it became plain during two weeks in Germany that while many Germans may be underestimating the significance of the NPD’s emergence and many — though not by any means all — may be making little of the elevation of a former Nazi to Chancellor, the reaction outside, especially in the press, has exaggerated the importance of these events. There is some reason to believe that the NPD may prove less robust than was feared, now that some of its leaders seem to have fallen out. And there is in the widespread acceptance of Kiesinger’s political past a justifiable sense of relief, a feeling that a healthy breakthrough has come, and that men may be more measured by what they are and where they seem to be going than by their pasts — a breakthrough for a large number of Germans who reached adulthood in the thirties and who have reasons, good or bad, for resisting the doctrine of mass guilt.
One of the most experienced American correspondents in Bonn asked a politician what kind of man Kiesinger was. “There were several types of us when the Nazis took over,” he explained. “There were those who had the guts and talents to leave and make lives elsewhere. There were those with enough guts to leave and who couldn’t or wouldn’t make it abroad, and returned after the war — like Willy Brandt. There were those with enough guts to face up to the Nazis and die in the concentration camps. There were those with perhaps slightly less guts who chose the army and a hero’s death. There were the cowards who ‘arranged themselves’ in one way or other with the Nazis. There were others who seemed to ‘arrange themselves’ but somehow maintained their integrity — Kiesinger was one of these.”
“And what of yourself?” the correspondent asked the politician.
“I?” he said matter-of-factly. “I was a coward.”
The politicians, businessmen, and diplomats of West Germany seem less concerned with these actions of and by Germany than with actions of others that may be affecting them. There is little public discussion, little show of hostility to the American involvement in Vietnam. “We may disagree with some of the modalities of your action there,” a young, intelligent commentator on foreign affairs remarked, “but we cannot object to a principle that we’d hope and expect to be applied here if the Russians went for West Berlin.” There is concern, though, that Washington, in concentrating so much of its energies and emotions on Vietnam, is drifting away from proper attention to the politics of Europe; and that in pressing for more bilateral agreements with the Russians and in pushing such projects as the nuclear nonproliferation negotiations, the United States is helping to bring true General de Gaulle’s repeated warning that the American commitment to Western Europe cannot be trusted.
The strong sense of reliance on the outside world, the sensation of being the creature of fate, and as one German diplomat put it, “no more the master of it than we have been masters of our past,” seems to run deep in West Germany. It is particularly striking when one reflects that even in its truncated state, West Germany today is greater in population and industrial power than any other state in Western Europe, and though lacking nuclear weapons (and insisting that it never wants them), it fields the most effective conventional military force west of the Iron Curtain. When the time comes, as it obviously will, for these heavy factors to be thrown decisively onto the international scales, the present generation of German leaders will not be around. The direction will be determined by the younger generation, the 25 million Germans who make up 45 percent of the population and were born after 1937. What they know of Hitler and Nazism, they know only from what their elders and their conquerors have told them. If younger Germans have at the moment any strong interest in world affairs — something that was little suggested in our talks with good-sized groups of university students in Hamburg, West Berlin, and Munich — it tends in the right direction. Those who care at all care mostly in the direction of integration with the rest of Western Europe; some of Konrad Adenauer’s commitment to the European movement has rubbed off on the younger generation. Few of them, as George Elliott suggests on another page, seem to project their country as a great world power again.
If the European movement stalls or falls apart before the adamancy of General de Gaulle, the hesitancy of the British, and the dishevelment of the Western alliance, the coming generation of Germans will be tempted (my word) or forced (their word) to consider other directions. If there are the beginnings of any other dream, this is not evident to the foreign traveler through West Germany today — not, at least, to this traveler nor to most of those whose impressions follow. Each paper is a response to a simple invitation: write about what happened to your preconceptions of Germans and Germany today. What surprised you? What did you find most interesting, most encouraging, most disappointing or disturbing?
Daniel P. Moynihan
I am not, I think, different from some others in this respect: what I bring back from Europe are impressions, for the most part, of restaurants and churches — a habit acquired from guidebooks, but by now a matter also of taste. It is possible to like that sort of thing, and over the years to get better at it, or at least more complex. We have little by way of either restaurants or churches in America, and those we do have are, in the main, imitations: capable of telling much, but pleasing little; at best “worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”
The north of Germany is, I would think, more like America in this respect than any part of Europe I have come to know. The food is plentiful and plain. And the women. And the churches. Especially the churches. Built like factories before factories: gray light seeping through gray windows, cold, unadorned, repetitive: places to get out of.
This can hardly ever have been more so than in the avenging winter of 1950 1951, when I was first there. The old war was scarcely over and a new one seemingly determined to begin. I had been called back into the Navy, part of an abortive effort to set up, as we later gathered, some kind of united North Sea command. Complications arose, and Bremerhaven sent us on tour: to Hamburg to stay at the Vier Jahreszeiten and prowl the Reeperbahn, to Berlin to drink at the Kempinski and to wander about gazing at the emptiness of the Eastern sector. (One recalls an Englishman summing up: “Nothing here but the handwriting on the wall.”)
This must be the route for Americans on tour. It is just the one we followed this time. That, and the times being somehow alike, made the differences come through more insistently than they might.
Mankind counts heavily on the permanence of things, and is rewarded for doing so. In north Germany in 1950, however, it was hard. Impermanence was everywhere. The churches were empty and the restaurants filled. After dark both Hamburg and Berlin lurched into a kind of frenzied Brechtian caricature: the drinking brutal, the human beings damaged, spoiled, the mass dancing a form of immolation. And in the midst of it all at three thirty in the morning, heavy men and their heavy wives and small children sat around in nightclubs watching with sad intent the juggling and the striptease. As dawn came on, the fighting and vomiting began in streets too cold for it.
This is over. Life is in working order again. People stay home, save their money, and take vacations. The restaurants and cafés are busy, but in an unanxious way. Dutch oysters and French cheese have improved the menus, but rather as they do at the Hilton Wherever: without rousing the least sense of wonder, much less gratitude.
And so one’s mind kept insistently going back to the question that is always there, What do they think about what happened?
Not what do they say? And certainly not what do they say to an American? But what do they themselves think?
There are no clues in Hamburg. They aren’t in that business, really, and perhaps shouldn’t be asked to be. But then Berlin, and the first indication; a deeply troubling one.
Somehow, from the outset, the symbol of Berlin in ruins was not the Reichstag, or the bunker, or the Brandenburg Gate, but the wreckage of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche on the Kurfürstendamm at the center of the life of the free city. Everything came together here. “High Hohenzollern” — a great stuffed building, belted, sabred, and bemedaled. Built as a memorial to the great King of Prussia, Caesar of Germany. The place for a Prussian officer to be married, surrounded by Junkerdom and gazed upon by golden mosaics of decent grenadiers killing Frenchmen, and ironclad knights exalted in a mystic union of violence and virtue. At the end of the war only the tower and a few ruined walls were still standing. It was perfect.
They have spoiled it. All but the tower has been cleared away, and on the one side, they have placed a campanile about two thirds the remaining height of the older steeple, and on the other, a flat pentagonal building that serves as the missing nave. In the ruin of the old church a statue of Christ (apparently salvaged from the statuary of the original edifice) has been set up at street level in a kind of grotto-shrine arrangement. Spotlighted at night, with a few flowers at the base, and with one arm missing, it is infinitely sad and helpless. In any event religious. The new buildings are neither. They are merely pretty: international airport style, a pleasant, undemanding gathering point for persons on a long journey, that will be equally undemanding and painless. Soft blue light inside. On a Saturday afternoon, immensely fashionable young persons are joined in matrimony, with coach and four awaiting. Too eager by half, Berliners tell you the new structures are known as “the lipstick and the compact,” but it is not at all clear how far they have thought through that image.
All the more then the shock to find that several miles away, in a surpassingly ordinary housing development named for a local politician, the Catholics have built what may well be the great church of this age, Maria Regina Martyrum.
The banality of evil. There is little to note about the Paul Hertz Siedlung (settlement project) save that it is a few blocks from the similarly unprepossessing Plotzensee prison where the victims of the Nazi regime were executed, and the leaders of the 1944 plot were hung with piano wire from meat hooks while moving pictures were taken for the Führer. At a meeting of German Catholics in 1952, the Bishop of Berlin proposed that a church be built there in witness to those who perished “for the rights of God and of conscience.”
The church, finished in 1961, evokes a concentration camp in the presence of grace. One enters, through a single iron gate, onto a large prison yard. The bell tower is a guard tower. There is no possibility of intimacy within the enclosure; the yard is large and empty; one is alone. Across the expanse, huddled against the dark wall like prisoners awaiting roll call, are the Stations of the Cross, gathered into seven groups, cast of fiercely striated, encrusted black bronze from which somehow faces and gestures emerge. Golgotha appears as a slight rise in the stone floor of the yard. Nearby there is an outdoor altar, with a crown of thorns for a base.
The church proper is a large rectangular box set down on a pair of upright slabs within the yard. This rectangle is at right angles to that of the prison yard itself, and at one end rests on and extends slightly beyond the wall against which the Stations of the Cross are located. Above the entrance formed by the two slabs is a great golden abstraction, The Woman of the Apocalypse. One passes through a plain foyer and directly up a stairway to the empty nave. Le Corbusier wrote of his chapel at Ronchamp that “the key is light and light illuminates shapes and shapes have an emotional power.” Just so here, save that there are no shapes, no emotions. Only concrete walls, thrown up hurriedly, the lines of the rough board forms very much present: a place for persons of little consequence and less permanence. The dim gray light seeps in with neither interest nor comprehension. Behind the altar is a vast, brilliantly colored painting from which the eye of heaven peers out. “I wouldn’t,” a friend said, “want to get married here.”
Below, in the crypt, there is no light at all, seemingly, only the glow given off the dull gold walls and the all but unbearable Pietà. Done in the manner of Henry Moore, it is all the more rending for just that reason: something the age has learned to do well is here brought to the point of timelessness. Mary utterly alone; Christ broken and failed.
In the crypt are three graves, representing those in whose memory the church is built. Prelate Bernhard Lichtenberg, who, in St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, publicly prayed for the Jews and other prisoners of the regime, and who died on the way to Dachau; a layman, Erich Klausener, who was murdered early in the regime; and a Jesuit, Alfred Delp, who died with Von Moltke at Plotzensee. Only Klausener’s remains are present. With their unfailing talent for the contemptible, the authorities in the Eastern sector refuse to release Lichtenberg’s body; Delp’s ashes were scattered by the Nazis. Banality will not be stayed; in a setting of ineffable simplicity, a French pilgrimage has placed one of those hideous black and gold plaques: “ À nos camarades . . .”
Perhaps the final triumph is that of the individual in this setting of annihilation. The church and all its embellishments are unmistakably the work of individual and very different human beings. The building is by the architects Hans Schädel and Friedrich Ebert, the Stations of the Cross by Herbert Hajek, The Woman of the Apocalypse and the Pietà by Fritz Koenig, and so through a series of triumphant artifacts. Only two things are not new. In a confessional chapel at the back of the nave there is a small wooden statue, The Suffering Lord, of the fifteenth century, and on the main altar a carved Madonna and Child from the fourteenth century, south of France. To see either is to know that we have lost something.
It is a place of implacable understanding, but also of hope. The church is a memorial to martyrs. But surely also it is an act of atonement by the Church itself, which did not fail them, but failed the great masses it ought to have led, and failed itself. And Him. This thought is not to be found in the guidebook, but it is there, inscribed on the Ambrose bell, “Yet I have to act and to prefer God to the Emperor.”
As I write, one learns that by mistake yet another village has been destroyed in Vietnam.
I was much struck by the fact, or what seemed to me to be the fact, that even the most thoughtful of Germans show little concern about, and even little
interest in, their own institutions and the present condition of their society. To be sure, they talk endlessly and morbidly and guiltily about the past, but when they speak of the present, they speak not of what has been done and left undone in the Federal Republic but of what is happening elsewhere that may affect Germany. Their attitude seems in many ways the reverse of ours. As American power in the world increases and is increasingly used for good ends and bad, the American intellectual looks inward. He is today primarily concerned with the failure of his own society to fulfill its own promises to its own people. He is likely even to insist that our involvement in Vietnam has its origins in certain defects in American society and in the American character. But the German intellectual, whose country has little effective power in the world, looks outward. The anxieties he experiences all have to do with what other countries are doing and not doing. De Gaulle is thwarting German hopes for a united Europe. The Americans and the Russians are creating more difficulties for the Federal Republic by making bilateral deals that may serve to damage the German economy. And so on.
A good many Germans are, of course, disturbed by the possibility of a rapid growth of neo-Nazism —the alarm was far greater than I had expected it to be — and the Kiesinger government has assigned the highest priority to electoral reforms that will, it is hoped, lessen the danger. But most of the people I saw treated neo-Nazism not as a problem of German society but rather as a problem of diplomacy and foreign policy. When one inquired about it, one heard a good deal of talk about De Gaulle, about the need to get the British into the Common Market, about the responsibility of Americans not to go so far with the Soviet Union as to lead Germans to think that reunification will never come or that it will come only on SovietAmerican terms.
Though I heard no one put it quite this way, the common view seemed to be that it was up to the West to curb the growth of German nationalism by helping the Federal Republic implement its foreign policies.
One heard, though, little about the role of the German press, about the educational system, or about any other aspect of German life. Yet surely such matters are relevant, and at least a few Germans know it. The educational system, some think, is terribly implicated, not so much because of what goes on inside it as because of what does not. The worst thing is that it offers education to so few. The Federal Republic lags behind most of Europe and even behind East Germany in education beyond the primary level. Only eight years of school are required, and the majority satisfies the requirement and quits. Of this mass, a Bundestag deputy said twelve years ago, “This is the material from which you carve dictatorships. And we know how.” Nothing has changed, nor, I was told, has the matter ever been regarded as suitable for serious public debate.
But there are other circumstances — largely unconnected with De Gaulle, with the United States, or with any foreign power — conducive to the growth of nationalism. Nationalism is, after all, an ideal of sorts, and as far as I could tell, it is about the only ideal around these days. The Federal Republic has managed to create two decades of affluence and political stability, but in a society that seems to have no aspirations beyond greater affluence and continued stability. Its political life is even less stimulating than its intellectual life, which does not begin to compare in richness with that of the Weimar Republic. “Consensus” is the dominant principle, and the people seem to think it an admirable one. Nationalism seems to be about the only form of dissent there can be.
It is, of course, impossible to speak of anything in Germany today as having no connection with the policies of other countries. Other countries decreed that there should be two Germanys, and both Germany’s are still occupied powers. In the Federal Republic, there can scarcely be an aspect of life unaffected by the influence of the United States. Those few Germans who are critical of their own society begin with the complaint that it allowed itself to become Americanized. And it has indeed been Americanized, with a vengeance. One sees it in the rebuilt cities, and one hears it in the rhetoric of a politician like Chancellor Kiesinger, who struck me as having, in style at any rate, less in common with German leaders from Bismarck to Erhard than he has with someone like, say, George Romney.
And the intellectual and ideological penetration has likewise been great. The shibboleths of democracy and the welfare state heard in Washington are also heard in Bonn, and the same American trash that dominates our best-seller lists dominates the German ones as well. But the kind of selfcriticism that flourishes here along with the trash hardly seems to exist in Germany. In part this may be because so much critical energy has been preoccupied with the past. But I suspect it is also largely because the educational system does not produce an audience ready for self-examination and equipped to undertake it. The German daily press, when it is not being combatively nationalistic, is as complacent about German life today as the New York Daily News is about life in New York City.
And this kind of complacency has a certain amount of justification. By the standards nowadays applied by critical Americans, there is not much to complain about in the Federal Republic. There is no poverty worth mentioning. There are no slums; we leveled them with bombs and thus enabled German city planners to go about their business without having to agonize over what to preserve and what to demolish. And the race problem was, of course, settled long ago. The educational system may seem to stand in need of improvement and enlargement, but the Germans lack the same stimulus we had — education for participation in an industrial economy. Their industrial economy seems to work quite nicely with its large number of grammar school graduates. It is doubtful if any country could get increased educational budgets passed simply by arguing that it might be a way to curb backward political dogmas.
A handful of German intellectuals seem almost desperate about the future and think it not at all impossible that fascism could return. Others think that unless the West is more understanding and helpful than it presently is, there will be a certain increase of neo-Nazi nationalism and that this will have the effect of making the consensus politicians bid a little higher for nationalist votes. They do not see all this as heading Germany back to 1933 but as a major obstacle to rational accommodations with both Eastern and Western Europe. I hardly see how this analysis could be wrong. And if it is right, then the future does look rather grim, for increased nationalism in Germany would stir up anti-German sentiment in both the East and West, which in turn would further inflame the nationalists, which in turn . . .
The Grand Coalition may find a way out or may even be the way out. Its existence is an acknowledgment of the failure of parliamentary democracy. But it has been obvious for some time that parliamentary democracy is in trouble throughout most of Europe, and Germany is not alone in seeking alternatives.
The Kiesinger-Brandt government is at present showing a flexibility that was lacking in the Adenauer years. I am inclined to think that not much can come of its policy of “building bridges” to the East, but the policy at least represents a break with the Hallstein doctrine, which decreed that the Federal Republic should have no truck with governments that recognized the regime in East Germany, and which was as self-defeating as some of our doctrines relating to Cuba and North Vietnam and China.
But if there is to be a way out for Germany, I think it will have to come not through “building bridges” or any other changes in German foreign policy, but through a confrontation with the realities of German society.
Such were my own prejudices that it was only because I was being sent to Germany in a group, on a “mission,” that the trip seemed possible to me. But it was soon clear that it was not I alone in our company who had prejudged Germany and the Germans. Everywhere we went and whomever we talked to, students or government officials, publishers, bankers, or industrialists, the questions we asked were unchanging, as if forced from us by some unyielding inner compulsion: what did it mean that the National Democratic Party (NPD) had gained such notable strength in the recent elections? What did it mean that Kiesinger could be permitted his Nazi past but Willy Brandt not permitted his emigration? However disparate our temperaments or our political emphases, we were plainly a group made coherent by our shared suspicions of Germany’s capacity for political health. While we might consciously undertake to be rid of the fears that had been bred in us in the Hitler years — for, after all, the premise of forgiveness is mandatory — we had not forgotten, nor could we forget, that we were in the country which had been able to devise, and implement, Nazism.
The direction of our inquiries, polite as we might make them, could scarcely be lost on our hosts. Nor did it seem to surprise them. Indeed, it was to become for me a most painful aspect of our tour that the Germans were quite prepared to be put on the defensive by their visitors, that they expected to be looked upon with suspicion, and had in consequence developed a personality which would contain it. How to describe this personality? I thought of it as a kind of layer cake — plausibility on top of denial (in the psychoanalytical meaning) on top of guilt on top of carefully masked anger impossible, obviously, not to be angry when one is constantly called to moral account even by people to whom one is offering friendship. At any rate. I came to feel of the Germans that, victims of the complicated game of concealments which they play even with themselves, they are the least resonating of people; it may be that they somehow know this of themselves and wish they could change it. In their cities, too, there is this awful core of deadness. Hamburg, Berlin, Munich — despite their energy, enterprise, prosperity, these are wholly unreverberant cities, their streets and buildings seem not to breathe. The modern architecture of Germany rises, to my view, like a monument to extinction: denying the past, it already memorializes the future.
The exceptions, whether architectural or human, were bound to be momentous. Bonn is as if transfused with the blood of new peoples, all the foreigners who make up the international center; yet curiously enough, it was only in Bonn, itself so cosmopolitan, that I was able to re-create for myself any sense of a pre-Hitler Germany. If the hotel we stayed at in the capital was well below the best German standards, I could find it a relief to be outside the usual circuit of propitiation; there was something reassuringly overt in the fact that one of our party found a charge of two marks on the bill because his wife had accidently broken a tencent ashtray on the reception desk.
Or again, it was overtness that made the peculiar genius of the Church of St. Mary of the Martyrs in Berlin. Situated in a working-class residential section of the city, this monument to the Catholic martyrs of Hitlerism tells its story with pitiless clarity: its courtyard reproduces the approach to a concentration camp; its interior is stark and terrible in its modernity, the eternal Church symbolized in a single piece of traditional sculpture, a fourteenthcentury wooden Virgin standing quietly at peace near the bare altar. Here, because there was no attempt to disguise, only the wish to confront, the full awful truth of the recent past, one might indeed feel fortified for the future.
And among the people one met, there was at least, if all too briefly, Günter Grass to promise a continuing German life of natural awareness and conscience. Until this encounter and again after it, except when we were among the very young, I had always the impression that the people we met were engaged in a sub-hysterical effort to demonstrate their courtesy, virtue, civilization — and perhaps not merely to their questioning guests but also to themselves.
How much my uneasy — in fact, my quite unhappy — impression of the national character had to do with the official, or institutional, nature of our social arrangements, it is hard for me to tell. By and large I don’t know the American opposite numbers of the kind of people we were introduced to in Germany. I have tried to keep it in mind that it is not to congressmen or to the top industrialists and bankers of my own country that I look for confirmation of our political well-being — I never meet them.
This would imply, of course, that my most trustworthy judgment of German life would rest upon my response to the students in the various universities, for here I could make direct reference to my American experience. The differences between the students we talked with in Hamburg, Berlin, Munich were extraordinary. Hamburg constituted an almost embarrassingly elementary lesson in the hierarchical structure of German life, including the cultural life; it was here that my husband’s explanation that yes, he was a professor of English at Columbia, but only one among a couple of dozen full, associate, and assistant professors of English there was received as if it were a rather tasteless joke. The Free University in Berlin, on the other hand, was not only marvelously familiar itself, down to the last Maoist accent, but also the only place we went where our anonymity was successfully surmounted, no doubt because we had been identified and vouched for by a member of the faculty who had taught for several years in the United States. Everywhere else, coming as we did as representatives of the free American life of intellectual speculation, we had manifestly baffled our hosts; since a parallel class seems scarcely to exist in their country, they never knew if and why we were actually worth their efforts of self-validation. With touching confidence, the left-wing students in Berlin turned to us for help with their problems in civil liberties (not that they use the term): their most recent, wholly peaceful marches of academic protest had been broken up and their leaders arrested; the offices of their student clubs had been raided and their membership lists confiscated by the police. Suddenly, for me, the smallest gesture of solidarity which we might offer these students in the defense of their right of protest took on historical dimensions. In Munich it was the sad, sweet profundity of student feeling that most strongly communicated itself, what seemed to be an almost tragic awareness of the uncertain moral foundations of present-day German society.
From this varied if limited sampling of German youth — even from the Hamburg group, behind whose intensity about academic achievement one could perceive the need for ballast in their rough sea of political bafflement and disappointment — I took great heart for the German future. Surely the young people of Germany carry an emotional and moral burden unmatched in history: they have to live with the knowledge that their parent generation, and often their own parents, perpetrated the worst atrocities on the record of mankind; they have the responsibility of correcting a past they had no part in creating. It seemed to me they carried this heavy weight with dignity and fortitude. They were never ugly; they were concerned neither to defend nor castigate themselves; they were grave and self-respecting; except for a few Berlin politicos, they had no easy answers. As a democratic nation among other democratic nations, Germany must finally count on them. I hope, I think, it can.
My overwhelming impression of Germany today is that it is close to impossible for anyone, American or German, to get a true impression of what this country is like and where it is going. It’s not that things are moving so fast. On the contrary, they are, on the surface at least, hardly moving at all. What creates so much difficulty is the inescapable tendency to look at everything in terms of “ the German problem.” And this itself, I suspect, means that one is starting not with a problem, but with an answer, or set of answers. That such answers might disagree with one another is less important than that they proceed from the same assumption.
The assumption is plausible enough: that the German future can only be read in terms of the German past. This proposition imposes itself upon us almost automatically, as one of those universal truths that the human mind cannot do without: a nation’s destiny, like an individual’s, is rooted in the past. As someone who once had aspirations to be a historian, I cannot bring myself to doubt this. And yet, when I look at Germany today, neither can I bring myself to affirm it without qualification.
For if ever there was a nation that is déraciné, uprooted from its traditional ties and anchorages, it is post-war Germany. This is a floating national entity, ever so gently swaying and bobbing on the river of time, so that the visitor, relaxing amidst the excellent food, fine wine, and genial company, is astonished to discover himself suddenly dizzy with seasickness. Landing at London Airport after a flight from Munich, one’s overwhelming sensation was relief at setting foot upon firm ground again.
Whither is Germany drifting? Maybe the Good Lord knows. The Germans certainly don’t; and neither do I.
I had last visited Germany, for about a week, seven years ago. Returning now, I found it even more “American” than before — and then Germany was by far the most American country in Europe — but also somewhat more “German.” Let me explain.
Over these past two decades, the style of German life has been “Americanized” to an almost incredible degree. People read American books, go to American plays, listen to American music, dress in American fashions, eat American foods, speak and understand the American language, follow and comprehend American affairs, are eager to visit the United States, all to an extent without parallel anywhere else in Europe — including, I should say, Britain. It’s almost as if, literally taking the date 1945 as “the year zero” (a common expression), the Germans decided there was no longer any point in being German and opted for being something else: being “Western,” or “European,” or simply “modern.”
And in a way, that is what did happen. I have no doubt that if, during this period, Western statesmanship had been able to create some kind of larger political community, the Germans would have promptly merged into it, happy to be disburdened of a past they find even more incomprehensible than shameful, relieved to be committed to a future that, whatever its shape, would not be German. But no such larger political community emerged; and the Gaullist “European union” now being grudgingly fabricated, precisely because it is a union of nations, is of no real help in this respect. The Germans are left with their history and their identity; and they have no idea what to do with them.
It is this quite new concern with, and attentiveness to, the problem of being German that I found particularly striking. Thus, among many of the young, there is a new and passionate determination to come candidly to terms with a subject they used to prefer not to think about: the Nazi past. Many observers regard this as a good and healthy enterprise. Maybe it is, if it can be successfully done. (How does a human being “come to terms” with the fact that his father was a soulless murderer, or an accomplice to soulless murder?) But, healthy or not, it does represent a turning inward of the German mind and eye and conscience.
And such a turning inward can, of course, take less commendable forms. I am not one of those who are violently agitated by the rise of the NPD, with its neo-Nazi flavor. History rarely repeats itself so neatly — and, in any case, as Karl Marx observed long ago, when history does go in for reenactments, it tends to convert what once was tragedy into lugubrious farce. On the other hand, the fact remains that it has never been easy to be German without being, in a very special way, intensely nationalistic. Such nationalism needn’t be Nazi — and the memories of the Nazi catastrophe are still so vivid that it is most unlikely to be. But it is nevertheless depressing even to contemplate having to cope with the phenomenon of German nationalism, any kind of German nationalism, all over again.
I suspect that a great many Germans, perhaps a majority, find it depressing too. Which is why one is so hard put to give any kind of confident interpretation of German happenings today. What superficially seems a “revival” or a “resurgence” or a “reawakening” turns out, upon investigation, to be little more than a making do with shreds and tatters of the past to cover an embarrassing nudity. The new, vociferous anti-Nazi and the new brazen apologist for Nazism are neither of them “natural” responses to a historical condition. They are both symptoms of, and reactions to, a failure: the failure of Western statesmanship to rid Europe and the world of the possibility of the Germans ever again being German — bad German, good German, indifferent German — at a time when the Germans themselves wished most fervently to deny this possibility to themselves.
This failure, of course, is not yet permanent and definitive. But it becomes a little more so every day, as a true European political union becomes an ever more distant goal, and as the United States becomes more preoccupied with Asia, less interested in Europe. With what consequences? ft would be presumptuous to surmise. The continued existence of a German nation, with its own power and policy, need not be the certain disaster that many, looking backward, are ready to predict. It may not even turn out to be a disaster at all. But I feel strongly that whatever happens, future generations will see the twenty-year interregnum, 1945-1965, as having presented a golden opportunity to move beyond nationalism, an opportunity that was thoughtlessly frittered away.
If I mistrust most writing about the relation between one’s preconceptions and one’s actual experience of a country, it is because I mistrust myself, no matter whether I feel that my own preconceptions have been fortified or shattered. The only time I was ever in Germany prior to 1967, I was passing through en route to the Salzburg Festival of 1961: I stayed, as I usually must, in cheap hotels and pensions; my memories are of people who were often either subservient or surly.
On this more formal occasion I was a guest in hotels which, if they were not always the finest, were certainly among the most expensive; and never once did I encounter overdeference or rudeness from their personnel (who were in any case often foreigners, imported to relieve a labor shortage as obvious in East Berlin as in West). I take this to mean that I was living better, and not that German manners had changed in five years. Perhaps they have, but I am in no position to know.
It is necessary to be clear that there were entire segments of the German populace that the invited group of which I was a member never got to meet, or even observe. I refer to workers: iron workers, steel workers, auto workers, coal miners. I refer to labor officials (save for one union attorney, engulfed in a sea of Düsseldorf tycoons), I refer to pensioners and schoolchildren, peasants and refugees, and the adherents of the unrepentant Right.
This was only natural. Aside from the fact that our hosts were for the most part members of the affluent and the educated classes, we gravitated toward those with whom language would not be a barrier. In consequence we often found ourselves chatting with people whose English was more elegant than ours; and it was not at all unusual for our new acquaintances to introduce us to their English or American spouses. In this part of the world, and in this milieu, you cannot always be sure, even by glancing at his name tag, whether the gentleman with whom you are discussing the German character is himself a German or an American. Or a Jew — Or all three —
Given such an atmosphere, I discover in retrospect that I have been reflecting more and more on the image of the German not as it seems to him at home or to those who visit him in his homeland, but rather as it seems to those other nationalities that encounter him as he ranges the world — or more accurately, all the world but East Germany. Perhaps this is because we Americans are obsessively concerned with how we appear not only to visiting English and French novelists, but to those among whom we travel as tourists and traders, soldiers and scientists. And all of us who have spent any time in Europe in recent years are aware, maybe with a secret sense of relief, of how the vulgar American has been supplanted, whether in France, Italy, Spain, or Yugoslavia, by the vulgar German. The prime object of contempt is no longer decked out in loud shirt, sunglasses, and cigar; now he comes on the scene in lederhosen, bearing a Baedeker — or in a Mercedes, bearing a Leica.
I was not unaware that Germans, particularly of the younger generation, were sensitive about this. When last I lived in France, one of my village neighbors was a young German woman, an artist, who was in constant dread of the periodic visits of her parents. The news of their impending arrival from Düsseldorf in the chauffeur-driven Mercedes, its trunk stuffed with goodies for their bohemian daughter, was enough to throw her into a fit of depression and shame — and understandably.
So I was not too surprised to observe that several of the skits of a good Hamburg political cabaret focused on tourism and the often ludicrous or loathsome image of the German abroad, even though I was somewhat surprised at the unremitting self-ridicule, every bit as “anti-German” as the sketches one finds in such English theatrical entertainments as Stop The World—I Want to Get Off. But I was profoundly moved by the experiences abroad of young Germans as they recounted them to me in a number of different cities, and in differing circumstances. I should like to set them down here with a brief comment in conclusion.
The first was a strikingly good-looking youngwoman, quite reserved, who had recently been a student in New York City (as essential a port of call for German intellectuals nowadays as Paris used to be for young Americans). After a time, she had started going out with a Jewish boy; they had a good deal in common, they were strongly attracted to each other, and they began to take each other very seriously. “Then one day someone, on purpose, left a clipping on his desk. It was about the death camps and the crematoria, with all the details, and about how Germans were trying to pretend that it had never happened. He wanted to put it aside, but he couldn’t — and since it changed things for him, it did for me too. We stopped seeing each other ...”
The second was also a young woman, but very different, extremely outgoing and gay. Her long blond hair was still bleached, she explained, from exposure to the desert sun. “I got back not long ago from Elath, on the Gulf of Aqaba. I went out to Israel from curiosity, to spend a couple of months on an engineering project, and stayed two years. If I could have gotten a scholarship to Technion, I’d be there still, but they’re giving me a stipend here to earn my architecture degree. Afterwards, after I’ve visited New York, I’ll be going back to Israel— I figure I’ll stay there four or five years. I can’t think of a freer or more exciting place. Sure, I bumped into quite a few young Germans there. Too many of them come on with this guilty expression, you know, repenting for their parents’ sins, and the Israeli kids take advantage of that, riding them. It’s only natural. But I’m not like that. When I got there I said, I’m no damn German pilgrim, I’m Hedda, I came here to work hard and have some fun. If you like me, fine. If you don’t, too bad.” She threw back her head and laughed. “They liked me, all right — a lot better than they do those UJA-niks who fly over for a week to see where their money is going.”
The third was a somewhat older, but still youthful social psychologist. He had been sent on a trip to seventeen different countries by a slick magazine to do a series of articles on the German image abroad. “Would you like to know what really took me aback, particularly in the Middle East and the Far East? It was that in one country after another they really preferred the negative stereotype of the German as brute, militarist, and sadist. They reacted to both American and Soviet propaganda exactly counter to the intent of the propagandists. In an Arab country the Americans ran off a film on May Day in the two Berlins, showing the West Berliners relaxing on their holiday, gardening, boating, strolling, and the East Berliners grimly marching in uniform ranks, flags flying, bands playing, orators shouting. It was the East Berlin scene that the Arabs preferred, all too obviously. In Southeast Asia, the Communists ran off a film purporting to expose the continuing strength of Nazism in West Germany; it was the old newsreel clips of the faceless goose-steppers and the marauding storm troopers that brought the Asians up in their seats, laughing and applauding. . . .”
The new generation of Germans, pondering and weighing these matters, are enormously attractive. To me they are as appealing as the best of the young Americans, whom I love very dearly. But it would be too easy to conclude that the future is theirs, and that we and our children need only attend the attrition and inevitable disappearance of the guilty generation, whose very existence must make us uneasy, if not ill, until the last of them has passed from the face of the earth. For Germany of the 1960s may be physically new, but its wounds were not merely subcutaneous hemorrhages to be erased with the prick of a pin or even the passage of time. Its soul too has been bruised, and this is a damage which will not be readily overcome by the new generation, who ought not to be envied either their affluence or their passage through a mistrustful and uncomprehending world.
With what expectations does someone like me go for the first time to Germany? I am a Jew, an American — and old enough to have spent my adolescence on the passions of World War II. During the war and after, I was a member of that now all but vanished collectivity called the Zionist youth movement. Thus, confronted by issues of life and death, even from so shadowy a distance as the American Middle West, I was a Jew foremost. I still am.
What, then, did I expect? And what did I want? To see a country full of once frenzied and now lobotomized madmen held in check only by the gluttonies of a great prosperity that one would not resent so much if it were indeed serving that purpose? Probably there was something of this, some small corner of an earlier primitive vision, still left at the bottom of consciousness. But I was too old, too subtilized by the turning of questions this way and that in too many arguments, to believe the satisfactions derived from the refinement of hatred.
Was it, therefore, to “discover” on the other hand that Germans are merely ordinary human beings? In other words, to “forgive” them? Probably there was something of this as wellt. One wants to forgive, not because it is virtuous to do so but because it is convenient, the lifting of a great burden. Forgiveness is the policy of my government, the habit of my friends, the unspoken assumption of the world all around me. And how tiresome to be forever resisting everything, to walk around with a purity of grievance to which I am not even, strictly speaking, entitled; in short, to be so predictably and so eternally this troublesome, boring, nagging Jew.
But whether these people were monsters or human beings, I had a fear of them, the kind of fear that one wrong word, one previously encountered intonation, one automatically set signal could turn to quivering, blood-pounding rage. The question, before I set out, was quite simply, would I (and should I?) go through my entire first two weeks on German soil without making some scandalous gesture of retribution?
As it turned out, during most of the time we spent in Germany, our feelings about the country rarely came into play. The word had gone ahead to Hamburg; we were “somebodies” and to be treated as a most dignified delegation. We were trotted around, welcomed at hotel luncheons, greeted at rathauses, given tickets to opera, concerts, theater, introduced to mayors, municipal senators, professors and students, Bundestag members, and even Chancellor Kiesinger. We were left to no chance encounters, no accidental, untidy experiences.
Thus no gestures of retribution, no assertions of any kind, rose to one’s impulses. One’s purpose got located, so to speak, outside oneself: in the struggle against fatigue and the violent stomach disorder that afflicted each of us in turn; and in the need to make some preliminary sense out of the incredible muddle that is current German speech and thought, public and private. For after all, if you cannot understand what a man is saying, you cannot even arrive at the point of testing your reaction to him. And the Germans I found to be in a muddle about themselves that made my own muddle about them seem as nothing. Their confusion seems to cover everything from the future of German foreign policy (which, as enunciated, seems to me to be based on a theory that one overcomes contradictions by multiplying them) and the meaning of democracy, to the nature of individual, personal aspirations. Germans, even the most sophisticated and clever of them, seem to be drowning one another beneath outpourings of moral, social, and political language whose terms have no precise referents in any conceivable experience. If Nazi Germany was, as they used to say, the land of Wagner, Fichte, and Nietzsche, then present-day Germany is the land of Hegel-turned-sour. To hear sincere and responsible people maintaining sincerely and responsibly that the elevation of a Nazi Party member of twelve years’ standing to the office of Chancellor in effect constitutes proof of Germany’s repudiation of Nazism because people did not then take Nazism seriously and do not do so now; or to hear, as we did more than once, an earnest and educated young person attempting to make a distinction between Nazism in the thirties and Nazism in the forties for the purpose of reflecting some sort of credit on the former; these are experiences so baffling that they take hold of one at a place far below the level of judgment or even of emotion. I found myself thinking, What is the matter with these people? quite forgetting who they were, or who I was, or the possible meaning of the relation between us.
One thing, at least, was made clear about “these people” from the first moment: they are obsessed with Nazism. Some few Germans that I met would agree. Most would, and did, respond to mention of the Nazis with extreme irritation, self-pity, claims of innocence, attacks on the sins of others, references to their sufferings during the war; and the young, of course, by announcing the year of their birth. But what they say they feel does not matter. Only two things can liven up a truly boring conversation in Germany, make the silent voluble and the phlegmatic lively — a question about reunification or a reference to Nazism.
There was, what with the perpetual round of polite occasions and the effort involved in just pinning down the denotative meanings of words, no time to get further with this obsession of the Germans than merely note it. In fact, I did not want to go further, because it occurred to me that this must be a very complicated matter, and I was not seeking a sense of complication.
Nothing, as I was to learn only two days before leaving the country, could have been further from the case. Nazism all of a sudden became a simple phenomenon to understand, and the Germans’ inability to cope with it even simpler. This is what I learned, or let us say, relearned, during a one-hour visit to Dachau concentration camp, which is a twenty-minute drive from Munich.
We had planned to go to Dachau, my husband and I, from the first. Before we left New York, our German hosts had thoughtfully and methodically provided us with a checklist on which to make known our particular interests among things to do and sec; and at the bottom, where the blank was left for “Other — Please Specify,” we had, with a slightly unpleasant feeling of triumph and more than a little aggression, scrawled “Dachau and Buchenwald” (the flourish in the act revealing itself through our failure to remember the fact that Buchenwald is in East Germany). You wish to know what kind of people we are so that you may more appropriately entertain us? Very well, then: we are concentration-camp visitors.
Gestures of this kind define one only abstractly. When it came to it, I was not pleased to be making the visit. For where can one go after one has visited a concentration camp (not the worst, we were told, not really a killing camp, not really gassing, mostly shooting, and only, so far as we know, around a hundred thousand killed there)? How does one make conversation with the Germans one has yet to meet? Or perhaps one would feel nothing and so have to confront the problem of whether one was not oneself “dehumanized.”
But the visit turned out to be easy. You could feel nothing (and in truth one felt very little) and still get the message. Let me describe the place, what is left of it. Dachau, like, I suppose, all the other camps in West Germany, has been “cleaned up”; its barracks taken down; a chapel of each of the three major faiths constructed on the grounds; its mass graves marked with tasteful memorial plaques, planted with good lawn, and bordered with neat flower beds; its gallows replaced with a marker; its administration building converted into a modern, well-lighted museum of horrors; and everywhere the memorial wreaths with ribbons identifying their donors.
The camp abuts a highway, not a main artery, to be sure, but not a backwoods dirt road either. Your car goes along the road, and right there, just beyond the shoulder, are the barbed wire, the watchtowers, and the ditch, now drained of its water. Beyond the neatly graveled enclosure in which once stood thirty barracks housing some eight thousand men, a pathway takes one across a little footbridge (over a second canal of water) and into the killing area. Here there are two one-story structures, one tiny, one about the size of a wellequipped stable (the size is crucial). The tiny structure houses only a single oven, Dachau’s first crematorium, later superseded by three ovens in the other, clearly newer building. This building contains three small gas chambers, one larger one, the three aforementioned ovens, and a small antechamber to same.
My first reaction was disappointment. The other members of our party, there were six of us in all, were offended by the way the camp had been fixed up, prettified. I was far more taken aback by how unimpressive it was, really, to be there. The camps, I realized then, had come to loom in my imagination as vast, seemingly endless places, commensurate in some way with the amount of eternity they had brought to pass in those few short years. (I am told that Auschwitz does, topographically and architecturally, somewhat approximate its own nature.) But Dachau is small, one might almost say cozy — in any case, completely and terribly accessible, traversible, at a brisk pace, in ten to fifteen minutes. Driven by that urge that has something about it of the pornographic and certainly a great deal of the obscene, I was in a hurry to see the gas chambers and the furnaces. These, too, I imagined to be vast, my mind pulled out of proportion by a jumble of figures once at my command: so many hundreds, thousands, in a day, a week, a month. But with all the talk of German efficiency and order, I had not reckoned on German efficiency and order. No space or elaborate equipment was needed, not even for the dispatch of millions. The gas chambers are not great halls into which thousands marched, expecting to take showers: ceilings at most seven feet high, the smaller ones less wide than the spread of a man’s arms, the larger one — I had to think it — about the size of my own kitchen. Passive or resisting, people had to be pushed into those chambers — in order to fit. To be sure, Dachau was not a major killing center; it is said the gas chambers were not even used. But they were designed to be used. Clearly, if it is done properly, killing need not take up more than a minimum time or space. And the ovens are just exactly that, about the size of old-fashioned bread ovens. The real point about these ovens is that each body incinerated in them had to be placed, by a pair of human hands, onto a sort of cradle and then slid through a very small door.
All of this is something I was quite capable of imagining about murder Nazi-style when I was twelve years old, and no longer capable of imagining by the time I had reached the age of “reason.” It is also something the Germans know, no matter what they did then or say now. They were there. Or their mothers and fathers were there, which is more than good enough. And there is nothing incomprehensible about it: under the Nazis a great number of Germans were beastly people who murdered millions of their fellow humans and took some kind of pleasure in doing so. They also tortured them, and took some kind of pleasure in doing so. And for so much murder and so much torture there had to have been a great lust for hatred.
Which is to say that Dachau was not the product, as our theories of totalitarianism have so persuasively had it, of a monstrously rational “system” in which those obedient to the “system” set out to “exterminate” classes of abstract “unpersons.” It was the penal institution of a society given up to the blackest urges of mankind, in which men were permitted to starve, torture, shoot, gas, and incinerate other men who had fallen under their power — and in which they did so, had to have done so, with gusto.
The proof of this lies in Dachau itself, in its intimacy and personalness. The machinery of Nazi killing is a machinery devised for men to use on others like themselves, and not, as the special explicators of twentieth-century terror have maintained, for the riddance of a pest, the establishment of a “new order.” Nowhere in the process was there a provision for the distance, the detachment, necessary to create even so much of physical euphemism as can be found in an ordinary hospital.
Nazism, then, was not some shudder in the great march of history, not even, as the usage is properly applied, a real ism. It was, exactly as we were told by the most lurid movies and nonfiction best sellers of our childhood, an outbreak of madness. Walpurgisnacht.
Perversely enough, I left Dachau feeling easier than at any time during our trip about the future of Germany. My rage at the Germans was now direct, and in an answering way, of human proportion. With a madman one knows how to deal. He is to be restrained, and then one day he will die, leaving those after him concerned for the health and happiness of his children.
George P. Elliott
Before accepting the invitation to take this trip, I had not appreciated the depth of my prejudice against Germany and non-Jewish Germans (yes, my best friend was one). National Socialism was so self-evidently vile that my detestation of it could spread to most things German without disturbing my conscience. To be sure, if the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis could justify my anti-Germanism, then the crimes of Stalin and the Communists or of Mussolini and the Fascists would have justified an anti-Russianism or an anti-Italianism which I never felt; but this contradiction I had left uninspected, indeed unnoticed.
Likewise, I did not appreciate the extent of antiGerman prejudice among my acquaintances, who think of themselves as alert against prejudice wherever they find it, until I observed their reactions to the news of my forthcoming trip. Some, to be sure, congratulated me on the chance to have a good time and see the world, and others unintentionally troubled me by congratulating me for being a “cultural observer,” part of a “cultural interchange,” the way it says in the Times, stuffy. But there were also plenty of hecklings and knowing leers: “So, you like the gravy train so much you’ll ride it even to Germany, will you?” There was the friend who had declined the invitation to be of this party and who vigorously insisted that I would hate Germany. There were those who did not respond at all when I told them I was going. Especially there was the lovely woman, intelligent, very liberal, Jewish, though none of her family had been persecuted by the Nazis, as decent a person as 1 know, who said that two years ago when traveling with her husband and children they had driven into Germany one fine day to see what it looked like, nothing happened, only the map told them this pleasant countryside they were driving through was German, she felt acutely uncomfortable, almost panicky, they managed to eat lunch, but then they turned around and drove out fast. I knew and know little about the birth and nurture of presentday American anti-Germanism, though I am sure there is more to it than the Nazis’ crimes. But that it is of some consequence I have no doubt.
When I arrived in the Hamburg airport, my natural state of expectancy was heightened by an intense consciousness of the prejudices I was smuggling in. From airport to hotel, nothing confirmed them. Within a couple of days they were confused; and two weeks later when I flew from Munich they were in a desperate tangle, those that had not died or gone into hiding. I am not sure how many have survived; but those that have are no longer as they were, can never again be as they were.
Maybe I was bought? We went first class. We ate well, and two or three times better than that. I learned in considerable detail, what I had heard in general, that there are many superb German white wines, especially the Mosels. Arrangements were managed excellently: for example, one of us had said he would like to meet Kiesinger, and Kiesinger we met. Our hotel in Hamburg, the Vier Jahreszeiten, was near perfection. But I think I am harder to buy than that. I once was sent to Hollywood for a week first class, and because of that trip I thought less well of Hollywood, of those who paid my way, and of myself for having gone.
Insofar as I was a tourist in Germany, I had a splendid time. It was a pleasure to be a member of the group, which took on a happy life of its own for the two weeks. I went to three great museums I had not known before, and looked till my back ached. For a conventionally staged grand opera, Hamburg’s Don Giovanni was excellent. At the Kammerspiele in East Berlin I saw incomparably the best-staged opera of my experience, a work I had not heard of before, Monteverdi’s The Homecoming of Odysseus. Perhaps, opera productions being what they usually are, this sounds like faint praise: this performance was as imaginative a theatrical production as I have ever seen on stage. At the other end of the scale, in Munich we saw an empty, pretty-pretty performance of Hansel and Gretel, and at the Reeperbahn in Hamburg a girly show which is to striptease as striptease is to the Rockettes. We listened to fire-breathing Maoist students, to smooth-talking legislators and cabinet ministers, to mayors in rathauses, to bankers and publishers, to former SS men, to the Chancellor; it wasn’t exactly fun, but now I’ve done it. The Fasching ball in Munich was like The Cheetah in Times Square, only bigger and with wild costumes and makeup. Going to a nightclub in East Berlin was like stepping into a time machine: in palm beach suits the band played fox-trots and waltzes, the ballroom-dance dancers were corseted with respectability, and a Rumanian torch singer belted out “Stormy Weather.” (No beer was served: the joint was much too tony for beer.)
Well, naturally I am grateful to those who made such experiences possible, and these experiences and that gratitude did their share to change my view of Germany. But they were not the main things. The main things were thinking about Kiesinger’s membership in the Nazi Party and listening to Professor Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker.
It is easy to understand how Kiesinger as an ambitious young man, Catholic and therefore antiCommunist and at least latently anti-Semitic, joined the Nazi Party when it came to power, and it is not hard to believe that, when he realized he had thrown in with criminals, he withdrew from active politics into what he calls internal exile. Moreover, practical democratic politics being as they are, it is quite possible that this winter he was the best compromise candidate available as coalition Chancellor. But head of state is also a highly symbolic position, as President Kennedy’s assassination reminded the world. On our trip we were told — how accurately I do not know — that Willy Brandt had been inacceptable as Chancellor because he had gone into literal exile during Hitler’s regime and of course that no former Communist could ever make it. From America, it had seemed to me sinister that the new Chancellor was a former Nazi; in Germany, it seemed only corrupt and corrupting. But I thought there and I think here that it is important symbolically that the chosen head of state should be a man who had ignobly compromised with blatant social evil. If nothing else, this fact must surely breed cynicism among young Germans. Of the ills afflicting the young these days in the West, none seems to me more corrosive than the cynicism which they evidence in a thousand ways. Knowingly to feed this cynicism, much less in so profoundly symbolic a way as Germany is now doing, seems to me inexcusable. Then I reflect on the highest models for political behavior and aspiration that we in the United States afford our young people . . .
Weizsäcker has been a physicist of the first rank and is now a professor of philosophy at Hamburg University. His father was the Nazi ambassador to the Vatican and after the war was sentenced by an American tribunal to imprisonment as a war criminal. Professor Weizsäcker, an active member of the Lutheran Church, was primarily responsible for the declaration which eighteen leading German physicists made in 1957, that they would refuse ever to turn their knowledge of nuclear physics to military use. In my view this is the best possible political action physicists can take as physicists; it has not been taken by any sizable group of eminent physicists in our country, whose government honors Wernher von Braun and Edward Teller. For an hour and a half on our third day in Germany, Weizsäcker addressed us and answered our questions. He spoke to our occasion, and since he was not only intelligent in the highest degree but also morally clear, since he knew what he was talking about and believed what he said was true, his words became my guide for thinking about Germany. The crux of what he said was an opinion; everywhere I went I listened for it to be confirmed or opposed; in one form or another it was confirmed without exception by students, teachers, literary people, high officials, bankers, businessmen. Germany has given up all thought of being a great power again. I came to realize that the secret core of my anti-Germanism had been fear of its aggressive power. I hope it is true that it has abandoned that evil dream, and in this hope I view the again resurgent neo-Nazi nationalism as archaic, a vicious but leftover stupidity. I fear it less than I fear our own nationalist extremism, for, however uneasily, the United States is the greatest power now. If we go mad, we will wreck the world.
The feel of Hamburg I found to be more American than the feel of any other European city I have been in, as to a lesser degree Germany felt quite American to me. Germany dreams our dreams, especially our dream of wealth. To graduate from a Gymnasium Germans must study our language for nine years. A book that does well here frequently does well there, apparently in considerable part because it did well here first. They dance to our tunes: I saw two little chambermaids who could not speak English skipping hand in hand down a hall singing a waltz from My Fair Lady, To make his mark, a young German intellectual must pay his visit to the United States, just as before the war a young American physicist who intended to make his mark had to have “studied in Germany.” Now I understand how it could have been that so many American soldiers right after the war, having chafed in alien England and alien France, immediately felt at home when they occupied Germany.
To think about present-day Germany is, for me, to think about present-day America, and my refusing to think about Germany was also a refusal to think about America. I know of nothing more interesting to think about than this America which I am part of and which is part of me, and few things more scary. The Germans were the most dangerous a generation ago, and we are dangerous now in many of those same ways. I’m glad I went.
I dream quite a lot about Germany. I have spent much longer periods in other countries than the two weeks I spent in Germany without a comparable effect on my night life. The difference cannot be solely because of Germany’s political past; I visited Austria in 1960, a country that had been more densely Nazi than Germany, without a similar result. There is obviously something special between me and Germany. Another indication of this is that during this visit (my first), I often had the feeling that our party were the first outsiders in Germany since World War II, and even at times that I was making the trip alone.
In these dreams of mine, I am German: not German-Jewish, which my immigrant grandfather was, but a non-Jewish German in Germany today. Most of these dreams are nightmares.
I suppose that these self-dramatizations, during the trip and now nocturnally, come from several sources. First is my early inheritance of admiration for things German. (For an illumination of this state of mind in German Jews, see Gershom Scholem’s article in Commentary, November, 1966.) Blanketing that admiration is the subsequent Hitler history. I suppose further that I took this visit so personally because I remembered that early admiration; and I knew what had happened to my German relatives in the thirties and what would have happened to me if I had been there; and because I expected to find in Germany what in fact I found.
What intelligent American, of any background, would not find his preconceptions of Germany substantiated? — that Germans talk a good deal about democracy; that the talk seems rooted less in political reality than in misapprehension, fantasy, a desire to ingratiate, and also a desire to cover up less democratic realities in their present political life; that there is a large residuum of former Nazis in important posts of every kind; that there is a group, particularly of the rather old and rather young, who resent Germany’s loss of position; and that there are a number of artists and intellectuals who are bitter about the insufficient change in post-war Germany. All these assumptions proved true, of course. This supported my recurrent illusion of a voyage of private confirmation. What gives me the bad dreams is the fact that many of the preconceptions are now embodied, personified. Now they are not ideas to me but individuals, many of whom I liked very much. They speak, they have lives. They have, out of personal and political history, their sides of the question. Not justification, but their sides of the question. And the totality of the experience persuades me that as in nineteenth-century Russia it was a kind of fate to be Russian, so today it is a fate to be German. It is to be both a legatee and a condemned man, an inheritor of past high achievements, past horrors, and present discouragements, unwilling (unless you are ready to commit suicide or renounce self completely) to divest yourself utterly of pride, of love for the best in German tradition, yet tied to your countrymen more by community than by confidence.
This sense of fatedness, of contradiction, of being a member of a body that one cannot leave although there is much in it to detest, was epitomized for me in the best German intellect I met on this trip, Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker.
After meeting von Weizsäcker I read his book The Relevance of Science, which he wrote in English. (It consists of the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1959-1960.) In it he says:
I lived under a dictatorship for twelve years. I did not behave like a hero, but I studied the functioning of the system. . . . Weapons are useless if people are not prepared to use them; propaganda is one of the main methods to prepare them for their use. Perhaps one mav dare to go a step further. An integrated personality may be able to resist propaganda.
In conversation it becomes clear that he has small faith in the existence of that integrated personality in West Germany. We may doubt that Germany has the disruptive power in the world that it used to have; still for a German of troubled conscience and mind, this lack of faith is part of the German fate.
Von Weizsäcker was the first to mention a matter that was later mentioned by many others. Asked to explain the low level of German intellectual-artistic achievement after World War II as against the high level after World War I, he attributed it chiefly to the “loss of intellectual substance” even before 1939. He estimated that half the outstanding German artists and intellectuals of his youth were Jews. The same reason, sometimes with a higher percentage, was given by educators, political figures, film and theater people to explain the post1945 slump in their respective fields. A visitor immediately suspects a desire in many of these people to impress with penitence. Still the facts of certain pre-Hitler names and of the post-war results lend credibility to the contention. The irony is that a small percentage of the population — half a million Jews in a pre-war Germany of 70 million — were persecuted as disproportionately influential, and now they are lamented, at least publicly, because their influence is lacking.
To turn to some of the arts in which I am specially interested, it is indisputable, whether because of the absence of Jews or not, that the theatrical arts (in which Jews were once prominent) have not flourished since the war. In the German film there has been a good deal of activity but not much work of merit. On this trip I kept asking what German films I ought to see. Only one was recommended: Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von Gestern, which shows some gifts but is a slavish imitation of Godard. Every German city has at least one theater — Munich has twenty-four— but no one I spoke to (including an experienced critic) was greatly excited about any one theater or director, and there has been no post-war dramatist of consequence, possibly excepting Rolf Hochhuth. The one West German production I saw, A Streetcar Named Desire at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus, was about as good as a competent American resident theater production.
There are large regional studios that prepare TV films. I visited two, in Hamburg and Munich, and was astonished by their size and equipment.
Yet the people whom I asked said that most TV drama is uninteresting. While I was being shown around Studio Hamburg, my young escort told me that the spirit of Lessing, who lived in Hamburg for two years, prevails there. “His ‘moral view’ of drama is still with us,” said my TV guide, as we watched the filming of episodes from a domestic comedy and a private-eye serial.
Still the factor of the loss of Jewish artists is obviously an incomplete explanation. The immediate, puzzling anomaly is that, unlike the theatrical arts, post-war German literature has been important in several ways. German novelists, poets, essayists, and serious journalists have not only been both prolific and distinguished, they have become the focus of the best progressive spirit in the country. Such different writers as Grass, Walser, Eich, Enzensberger, Böll, Schnurre, Bachmann, DönhofF, Leonhardt — none of them Jewish, I think — form a collective voice: candid, critical, compassionate, and angry about Germany today.
But for me, their anger and love and strong doubts set the seal on the antinomy of the German fate. Germany, whose Nazi period is usually explained by the country’s previous history, cannot escape the consequences — the German consequences — of that Hitler history. Some of those consequences, it seems to me, are its very economic success, single-minded and somewhat stupefying and aggrandizing, and, following from this success, further resentment by many Germans of their lowered position in the world hierarchy. Germany may (as von Weizsäcker said) have abandoned its dream of becoming a Great Power, but there is still plenty of trouble that can come from the afflatus of wealth. And the atmosphere of self-satisfaction must inevitably increase the bitterness and despair of the best German spirits. (Imagine how Grass and others like him must have reacted to the recent censorship, by the German film industry, of the British thriller The Quiller Memorandum, set in Berlin today. Originally the villains were neo-Nazis. Now they are nondescript, and the German audience is free to assume they are Communists.)
Need an American add that — particularly at this moment in our country’s history — he does not speak from a moral Olympus? But not a very high hill is required to survey German morality, recent and present. That moral conspectus is shared by many German artists and intellectuals, some of whom I met, famous and obscure.
At the last it is they, the dissatisfied, whom I remember most vividly, not the dislikable Germans or the likable but bland. It is the dissatisfied who bear the chief burden of the German fate. It is they who (I guess this is what’s happening) are probing my long-buried sympathetic ties with Germany and are plaguing my dreams.