Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Get Rid of Bad Guy-Good Guy Talk

Who are the good guys?  And who are the bad?  Today I was reminded again of how unfair it has been to Germany to call this a country of "bad guys".  But that's what's been happening again as Germany grows in might, growing so much it now has power to influence the direction of nations such as Greece.   

One of my teaching jobs is at the "Volkshochschule", a wonderful German institution, where adults can take courses all day long in everything from languages like English and French to sports like dancing and pilates.  It's sort of a publicly funded Y, the only comparable American institution I know.   My group today was a group of advanced level senior citizens who want to maintain their English levels.  I have never had such an open-minded, interesting, alert group of students as these.  They are consistently a joy to teach.

Today I mentioned to them, as a sort of starter to the lesson, that I had heard a program on the radio about an exhibition about forced laborers in Germany during World War II.  On the program, the announcer said that forced labor was another policy of the Nazis, similar to the concentration camps, created to exploit and dehumanize what they called the "underclass".  Some of the Jews lucky enough to escape extermination were among the thousands of forced laborers, but so were also Poles and Russians.  The announcer said that conditions were inhumane, perhaps not as bad as in the concentration camps, but nevertheless intended to debase these humans.  She said that the forced laborers were usually made to work on farms, and that these farms were all over the place, right under the noses of normal German citizens.  Farms were not off-limits to the public, as were the concentration camps.  Therefore, no one could claim ignorance about the inhumane treatment these workers were receiving.  Everyone knew, not only about these farms, but also about what was going on there.

As an aside, I want to say that the very fact that there is an exhibition about this aspect of life during the Nazi period, and that it is discussed in the media is something I find really positive about Germany.  I know of no other country that deals with the dark parts of its past as thoroughly, as openly, as does Germany.  I believe that the US would be spared much of the hatred it now receives if there were a sense of collective responsibility for some of the reprehensible things from our past.  Present evils such as the incarceration of people who haven't even been charged with crimes they're supposed to have committed, waning year after year on Guantanamo, would be so much easier to deal with if only politicians would admit and talk candidly about  the things we know to be true.  But no, it seems that my country has great difficulty admitting wrongdoing.  Those who do so, like President Obama, are scorned as being soft if they should admit weakness, or  "European" in their thinking (Mitt Romney accused this of Obama).  If that is what being European were, I say, more of it!  It was good to hear President Obama apologizing profusely for the killing by one soldier of 16 Afghan civilians, and a couple of weeks before that, apologizing for the US troops who inadvertantly burned a couple of copies of Islam's holiest book.  I wish my fellow Americans could be still freer in admitting some of the things they have done wrong. 

Well, back to my students.  I asked them if they knew about the forced laborers in Nazi Germany.  Yes, they all did, and they came out with story after story, some about heroism, others about their own struggles to survive.  Sometimes their stories reminded me of one I heard about my father-in-law, who, defying orders from above,  refused to blow up a bridge and a castle in France, risking his own life.  They are similar to stories I heard about my husband's great-uncle, who was incarcerated in a concentration camp for being a socialist.  These stories show me that there is much that is good about Germany that never gets noticed.  Even the German media, who is doing so well at uncovering Nazi sins, ignores the good that happened.

Marlis talked about her father-in-law, who owned a factory where forced laborers worked.  Some of the laborers were Jewish.  One day the Nazis came to the factory to round up these workers and send them off to the concentration camps.  Her father-in-law saw them coming to the front door and, knowing what their purposes were, sent his Jewish laborers out the back door, where they fled.  Another time he helped a Jewish family escape by buying a valuable rug from them.  They couldn't flee with a rug anyway, and so he bought it, giving them enough money to get out of Germany.

I asked if the Nazis knew how he was helping Jews.  Yes, they did know, but did nothing to harm him because they needed him and his factory to continue producing war materials.

After the war, Germany was divided into military zones.  Marlis's family was living in Leipzig, which was occupied by the Russians.  The Russians were especially vengeful for what the Germans had done to them during the war, and they were merciless, raping and killing civilians wherever they went.  Marlis's father, who had been a soldier, came back from prison camp and was living with his family.  One day the Russians came through, looking for her father.  Her mother quickly shoved him into a wooden chest.  The soldiers searched the entire house, but didn't think of looking into the chest.  The very next day, the family left Leipzig, moving to the Cologne area, where relatives lived.  But the relatives weren't all welcoming to this family from the east.  One in particular didn't like Marlis's father, so refused to let the entire family eat from their food, of which they had plenty in their garden.  Marlis says that she went hungry many days, happily playing from morning till night among the rubble from the fallen buildings, hardly aware that an entire day had passed without a single meal.  Her grandfather would take her family into the garden when his daughter wasn't looking and give them things to eat.      

Helmut grew up in Wesseling, near Cologne.  After Cologne was bombed in the war, his family fled to Saxony.  After the war, Saxony was in the feared Russian zone, so the family once again fled, this time to Göttingen in the West.  A family of seven was forced to live in one little room.  They had no food at all, so the children resorted to stealing apples and other things from the farmers.  Sometimes, in order to get food, he and other children would hop onto trains as stowaways, off to farmlands in the French zone near the French border.  He saw one of his playmates killed as he fell off the train, trying to climb on.  Once they managed to steal enough food from the farmers, they had the problem of getting back home with their bounty.  There was a checkpoint at the border of the French zone into the British, where they lived.  So they walked long distances to get to a farm on the border, where they could crawl through high fields of grain until they reached the British sector.

My students talked about Cardinal Frings, who declared that stealing coal from trains was not a sin, as long as one took no more than one needed.

Renate talked about her father, who managed a soap factory.  Her family didn't starve after the war because her father bartered soap for food.

Inge didn't starve because her family bartered things like cigarettes, jewelry and watches for food.  She knew about the forced labor, but she was five when the war ended.  Her parents condemned it as inhumane, but what could they do?

The one group all my students had praise for was the Americans, for the handsome, healthy, good-natured soldiers who gave so freely of their cigarettes, chocolate, and nylon stockings so that people could buy a meal.  For the faceless Americans back in the States, who sent CARE packages to strangers so that their former enemies wouldn't starve.

Not all the Germans were bad.  The good the Americans did then seems to be forgotten now.  Let us not forget about the evils of war.  This is the thing every student of mine wants to uphold - a resolve that their nation should never start a war again.  I was inspired to remember the good that people did back then, and to acknowledge the good that  many people, even the "ugly Americans" and "those Germans" are doing now.  I hope more and more of us can get rid of "bad guy-good guy" thinking, and instead strive to do good ourselves, remembering the good even people who were considered the enemy in the past did, recognizing the good they are still doing.  I wonder if there would be an enemy at all if we were able to think this way.

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