In the United States, the severe trauma inflicted on millions of Africans during 350 years of slavery followed by a hundred years of Jim Crowism, is frequently considered as inconsequential to the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow. The dismissal of the ongoing trauma of the legacy of slavery is frequently expressed by pointing to the impressive success of most voluntary immigrants to this country and by the criticism toward socio-economic and psychological problems observed among some of the descendants of African slaves. The same applies to the overall denial of the very specific problems Native Americans are struggling with due to the genocide of their people and the disenfranchisement they were subjected to.
Having said that, I hasten to add that while recognizing cruel, criminal or murderous behavior as human behavior committed around the globe, that doesn't mean it's acceptable, that it should not be scrutinized and should not be combated with all means available. After all, thievery, murder and a host of other anti-social and life-destroying acts are common globally but are also universally condemned and are nowhere considered acceptable -- except by the perpetrators.
My own sharing with German students of stories of Holocaust victims from my book Tales From A Child of the Enemy, started in 1995 and continued off and on through 2001. At first, I was guest author at half a dozen International Schools in Germany, plus one each in Belgium and in Israel; then at a number of regular German high schools in different cities with students from all walks of life; and finally at three large German schools in South Africa: Johannesburg, Pretoria and Capetown.
At the International Schools in Germany where 10 to 15 percent of the student body is German, I noticed that the emotional and intellectual response of the German students was drastically different from the response of the non-German students. The non-German students responded with what I consider appropriate emotion (i.e. sadness) to the stories of the Holocaust survivors. They asked questions about the people in these stories. Invariably, one of the main questions was whether the stories were based on real people; if so, how I had met them; how they had felt about me, a German Gentile; and how my family and friends responded to my writing. They wanted to know more. On the other hand, the German students at these schools responded with sullen anger. Once, in a class of high school seniors, several students exclaimed, "If it wasn't for people like you spreading all this sh--, we wouldn't be mistreated by the rest of the world!" They expressed no interest in the content or background of the stories. None of the students asked questions about the people in the stories.
Without fail comments such as "What about the war in Vietnam?" "Why aren't there any books about slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans?" were the immediate reactions. It didn't matter whether I was in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich or Brussels; most young Germans knew as fact that all Americans had sullied themselves with slavery and the genocide of Native Americans -- not to mention the war in Vietnam. They presented as hard-core facts that Americans don't research, don't write books or make documentaries about these historic events, and instead maintain total silence. The overall assumption was that racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism is not acknowledged in present-day America, and that consequently Americans feel morally superior to Germans. Much to my surprise, the very same argument was raised by a German graduate student in her late 20s at Penn State in 1997 after a reading from my book there. I told this student that I was very willing to open the discussion to looking at man's inhumanity to man, but was not willing to point to other atrocities with the purpose of diminishing atrocities committed by us Germans -- but the student was not interested to do the former.
Another frequent complaint of the young German students was that they are unduly burdened by or overly immersed in the Holocaust. However, it is notable that the non-German students who were subjected to the same curriculum did not feel that they were unduly burdened or overloaded with textbooks or lectures about the Holocaust.
I then considered the possibility that the German students at these International Schools felt vulnerable, because they were a minority, and two years later I set out to be guest author at half a dozen German high schools in different cities with students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.
Altogether, I addressed several thousand students in German high schools. The students, except for the class in a private Catholic school in Hamburg (which had a multicultural student body, many of whom had spent time in the U.S. and whose headmistress heavily emphasizes ethics in their curriculum) represented a wide cross-section of the population and were from all walks of life. I need to add that none of these students attended my lectures voluntarily, but rather, were required to be present either as part of their History or their English class. In other words, none of my audiences were self-selected nor did they necessarily want to be there.
At a high school in Cologne, I asked the students whether they would respond differently if I had written about the victims of the "Killing Fields" or the recent genocide in Rwanda. A chorus responded with "Of course!" None of these students had any idea that they were clearly saying that Jewish victims are not worthy of their expression of sorrow, but that other victims are. When I asked the students why they were unable to express sorrow for the victims of the Shoah, they responded with a loud and defiant "We didn't do it!" It appears that the expression of sorrow for Jewish victims is seen as an admission of guilt and that by acknowledging the extent of the atrocities committed and the extent of the suffering, their grandparents will be further implicated and will have to be looked at as criminals, or worse, as monsters. Even when I emphasized to these young Germans that they are as innocent as any youngsters in other parts of the world, their position did not change. The students in fact demonstrated an entrenched attachment to being unjustly persecuted by The World. In that way, they continue the coveted self-identification as victims, as did their parents and grandparents. The implied suggestion is that since The World unjustly accuses them, it stands to reason that their grandparents are probably also wrongfully accused.
It is obvious that what these youngsters were expressing was what they heard at home by the adults in their lives, who themselves might know that it was not politically correct to express these prejudices publicly, but had not communicated to their children not to do so.
I encountered one notable exception in the class of seniors at the Catholic private school in Hamburg I mentioned earlier. These students, majoring in English and most of whom had spent a year as exchange students at American schools and had not been treated with disdain because of being German, responded with sadness and deep emotion to the stories of Holocaust survivors. When I first asked them how they felt after hearing the survivors' stories, they said that they felt "depressed," but they nevertheless engaged in a lively conversation about the generation of perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust. However, when I repeated the same question at the end of our half-hour discussion, they all responded that they felt less personally burdened and sad, and even felt hopeful. It appears that an open and compassionate approach to discussing the Third Reich and the Shoah gives young Germans an opportunity to "air things out" and appears to make the discussion of this painful subject easier for them to bear.
This class as a whole was extremely well informed about the historic data of the Third Reich and the Shoah, but told me that my reading acquainted them for the very first time with personal stories of survivors. I was quite surprised and asked them whether they knew about books by such authors as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry and others. To my utter amazement, I learned that these well-informed and rather sophisticated students knew none of these authors. I then mentioned to the teacher that a wealth of literature is available about the Shoah, including many personal stories and memoirs plus poetry and fiction. I gave him the opportunity to purchase a copy of my own book for the school library (for a mere $8.95), but he declined right in front of the very class that had just told him loud and clear that they were missing the fleshing out of the historical data with personal accounts.
Another exception occurred at the German School in Johannesburg, South Africa, where several Holocaust survivors were present in the auditorium. When the usual first question was raised "about all the money Jews receive," a survivor spoke up in a gentle voice and told the students that no amount of money which incidentally amounted to a monthly check of less than $400 per month would ever alleviate the horrible suffering of her parents she had witnessed as a small child, the loss of her brothers and sisters, her aunts and uncles, and all her cousins. She was in fact the only survivor of a large extended family. There was a hush and a noticeable shift in the mood of the students, and the female principal took the opportunity to help the students to put aside their defensiveness and to instead focus on the loss of the Jewish people without making them feel guilty. It was encouraging to see this shift with just the right attitude displayed and the proper language employed.
I am often asked by Jews, especially Holocaust survivors, whether young Germans have changed, meaning "are not anti-Semitic." I am acutely aware of the hope contained within this question, because for Jews in general, and for Holocaust survivors in particular, the notion that some of the same prejudices might still be alive in Germany and could possibly be transferred on to the younger generation is extremely frightening. I would not like to leave any of you with the notion that any of these sullen and angry young Germans are harboring homicidal intentions toward Jews. That is definitely not the case, but I am greatly concerned about the lack of empathy so many young Germans have toward the victims of the Shoah and that it is so difficult, if not impossible for them to express sorrow. In some way, the denial of empathy and sorrow constitutes another way of eliminating Jews and their very existence.
How to explain all this, because I am convinced that German youngsters are as good as any youngsters growing up anywhere in the world. But children of course don't grow up in a vacuum. When we consider the silence within many, if not most, German families, which in itself constitutes a family trauma, because the family narrative is purposely interrupted, we may get a little closer to the cause of the anger. Most German children know from a very early age not to ask as to what grandpa did during the Third Reich.
They may have heard vague expressions such as "Grandpa was in the war," as if the war was a geographic location. Besides, it is primarily in the family that youngsters learn the tools to feel and to express empathy for victims. Add to that the ambivalence of the teachers, most of them born 10 to 25 years after World War II, who themselves have mostly refrained from asking their parents or grandparents any specifics about their affiliations or actions during the Nazi regime, and you arrive at a noxious mix of fearful fantasies, projections, denial, escape into finger-pointing -- all leading to a heavy burden which the youngsters feel they are forced to deal with on their own and against which they sullenly revolt.
At the time of my first lecture tour in Germany, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. had just opened, and anger was expressed about that as well. Many Germans I encountered saw the opening of this museum as another slap in the face to Germany. Many felt as though The World would not stop beating up on poor Germans. The German psychologist Birgit Rommelspacher calls it "the reestablishment of the scenario which has nourished anti-Semitism for hundreds of years: the revengeful Jew who doesn't want to make peace and the poor Christian victim who seeks salvation through his quiet, lonely suffering." Many, if not most Germans seemed unaware that the initiative to build this museum had come from Holocaust survivors, was in fact intended as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah, and had in large part been financed by private donations.
Outrage was also expressed that the world press had dared to criticize their chancellor, Helmut Kohl, for failing to attend the opening of the museum (the only European statesman not to do so). The recriminations ended with additional outrage at the criticism heaped on Kohl for inviting President Reagan to the SS cemetery at Bitburg and what right did we [Americans] have to criticize their internal decisions! It should be pointed out that the Holocaust Museum had declined Chancellor Kohl's offer to add a wing to it -- a wing that would have depicted The New Germany and all its accomplishments since 1945. Kohl was obviously miffed that this offer had not been accepted. I marvel at the inability of Chancellor Kohl and his advisers, who seem not to understand that the Holocaust Museum is about the Holocaust and not about Germany. I am also distressed that they did not consider that Holocaust survivors might very well be upset or even be retraumatized by anything German, especially displays of German power.
When teaching the Holocaust, teachers often use the expression "confronting the students with the Holocaust and the Third Reich." I am pretty sure that these teachers do not "confront" their students with algebra or the history of Greek or Roman history. Needless to say, the use of this very word creates aggression and hostility. While perusing German newspapers during the official German Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27, the day when Auschwitz was liberated, many German officials and dignitaries feel compelled to visit middle and high schools and then proceed to admonish the students [in their fine speeches] about the evil of anti-Semitism. Of course, these truly innocent students react with anger and resentment, but since they are handicapped by the silence within their own families and do not have the tools to express their anger at the generation which caused the genocidal murder of two-thirds of European Jews, hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinta, countless homosexuals and thousands considered physically and/or mentally retarded, they direct their anger at the victims and at anybody who writes about or in any other way commemorates the victims. The macabre saying in Germany "The Germans will never forgive the Jews Auschwitz" is well known, as is the expression the "Auschwitz cudgel" with which Jews allegedly exploit the Holocaust for their own benefit.
It is my experience that young Germans are often filled with anger toward The World which "unjustly hates all Germans, young or old," adding defiantly and emphatically, "We didn't do it!" The notion of The World hating all Germany is fairly pervasive in present-day Germany and was recently expressed by Augstein, the publisher of Der Spiegel, a major German newsmagazine, by complaining about the "world media beating up on Germany." When I ask what is meant by "The World" -- if in fact Germans and Augstein refer to the billion and a quarter Chinese, the 800 million Indians living in India, folks living in Tasmania, Peru, Kentucky or Brooklyn -- there is much evasiveness, until my persistent questioning finally results in the exasperated answer: "Israel and the American Jews." We are, in fact, back to the Nazi concept of the conspiracy of World Jewry -- this time in thin disguise. Yet every German seems to know exactly what is meant with the expression The World, and the overall concept that Israel and American Jews keep the hatred of Germans alive, flourishes. It doesn't matter that public figures like Elie Wiesel and others repeat over and over, "only the guilty are guilty," Germans stubbornly cling to their alleged victimization.
I have also heard complaints from German Gentile students and teachers about "all the money young [innocent] Germans still have to pay to the Jews." According to the German political scientist Lars Rensmann, 39 percent of Germans believe that Jews exploit the Holocaust for their own purposes. Considering that the average per capita payment for restitution to victims of the Shoah amounts to approximately $24 dollars per year (considerably less than a carton of cigarettes) and hardly causes anyone financial hardship, appears unknown or unimportant, I consider this argument a much-abused red herring.
Again and again, they exclaim: "We didn't do it and why should we pay for something we didn't do?" Oddly enough, I have yet to hear complaints about the huge payments to former members of the German army and SS -- including hefty pensions to widows of members of the SS or of judges who signed death sentences of innocent people, which in 1997 alone amounted to $7 billion.
My experience with German teachers, both in Germany and at government-maintained German schools in the United States and in South Africa, has shown me that many teachers are themselves ambivalent and defensive about the teaching of the Third Reich and the Shoah. Two teachers (in different schools) asked me in a challenging tone what I thought "about that Goldstein fellow," referring to Professor Dr. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners.
At the German school in the Washington, D.C. area, the teachers' first request after my reading was "to describe to them the atrocities I had witnessed Israelis commit against Palestinians while I was living on a kibbutz in the early '60s." (Male teachers dominated the discussion.) My efforts to direct the conversation to the fate of the victims of the Shoah and to the culpability of our parents or grandparents went nowhere. Again and again, the teachers insisted on discussing the "brutal acts and countless injustices" committed by Israelis against Palestinians. After the reading, several of the female teachers talked to me privately and expressed their emotions plus support for my writing. This made me wonder how safe it is in present-day Germany to talk about the victims of the Holocaust in an empathic, fair, and honest way.
Most disturbing was the fact that none of the teachers stepped in upon hearing students ask inappropriate and/or hostile questions and a) corrected falls claims, such as that there are no books about slavery or the genocide of Native Americans in the U.S., or that the war in Vietnam had nothing to do with the Holocaust; b) point out that two wrongs don't make a right; and c) that atrocities committed in other parts of the world do not absolve murderers among us or anywhere else for that matter.
The response of German students at three of the four German schools in South Africa in January of 2001 was not any different. Nor did the German teachers, the principal of the school nor the cultural attaché of the German Embassy, who were all present, gently direct the first student, who asked "Why second-generation Holocaust survivors now receive money from Germany," and direct this misplaced and question and erroneous statement to the fate of the Holocaust victims whose stories I had just told them. They obviously thought that there was nothing wrong with those questions and/or statements.
It needs to be noted that Germany has made valiant efforts to address the wrong of the 12 years of terror. Germany has paid and continues to pay reparations to victims of the Nazi regime. Germans travel to Israel and some young Germans even work in Jewish nursing homes under the auspices of Action Reconciliation, instead of serving in the German army. The German government supports a wide variety of projects, such as inviting former Jewish citizens of Germany as guests of honor to their hometowns -- all with the intention of making amends for the wrongs done by their parents' or grandparents' generation.
And yet, despite all the efforts made, despite all the good intentions, despite the genuine desire to do good, 59 years and four generations later, the legacy of the Hitler regime still haunts us, causing many of us Germans to feel frustrated or even angry at anybody who mentions the Holocaust.
I would like to suggest several reasons for the frustration and the anger of so many Germans born well after 1945: While the official silence was broken in the late '60s, the private silence continues by and large to this day. And whereas the Hitler regime was instituted and maintained both from the top down and the bottom up, most of the speaking is imposed from the top down on an increasingly resentful populace. By and large, there is still little talk about the persecution and extermination of two-thirds of European Jews within most German families. Most families do not encourage their children to express their shock and dismay when they learn about the Holocaust at school or on trips abroad. The youngsters, in turn, feel abandoned by their elders in the process of coming to terms with this horrific history and consequently become resentful and angry.
As I mentioned at the beginning, despite all the effort made, it seems to be difficult for us Germans to accept that we are imperfect human beings like everybody else and that we did, in fact, give in to the darkest forces within ourselves. Could it be that the concept of the master race still inhabits part of our psyche and that the acknowledgement of our very human shortcomings is not considered acceptable within contemporary German society? This particular mindset does not of course encourage self-reflection and self-criticism -- two character traits which are essential in admitting mistakes and learning from them. Besides, the mindset of "being right," essentially of having to be right in order to have the right to exist, leads to the much practiced habit of denial and finger-pointing and of relativising our misdeeds with the sandbox psychology of "They did it too!"
I would like to further suggest that many of our noble efforts to redeem ourselves have been carried out with the unconscious wish "to make the Holocaust go away" so that we would be redeemed in the eyes of the world, (i.e. we have focused on achieving an outward redemption rather than engaging in the inward effort of self-reflection in order to learn to live with the long shadows of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust).
Finally, I would like to state that I clearly see young Germans as victims, albeit as victims of their own society which doesn't help them to properly acknowledge the suffering inflicted on the victims of the Holocaust and to mourn the fate of the victims killed by their great- or grandparents. Instead they are burdened with the impossible task of defending the perpetrators most of whom, it must be said, have mostly been buried. It appears that the perpetrators still exert enormous powers even from their graves. …