Author Archive


Hitler is my… Hero?? Or, the Importance of Education

June 24, 2010
An article on the BBC recently noted that Mein Kampf is a bestselling book in India – and sales are growing.  The younger generation apparently idolizes Hitler for his “leadership, strength and iron discipline;” something that, say the people interviewed, India needs.

Having recently toured the remains of the destruction caused by the Nazi regime, sentiments like these are nothing short of horrifying.  Nazi destruction cannot be encompassed  just in terms of the liquidation of millions in the Holocaust – which, in itself ought to be sufficient to condemn Hitler as the basest of men and least deserving of praise – but also in terms of the cost to the German people.  The psychological and moral damage that occurred as a result of Nazi crimes – all envisaged and fomented by Hitler himself – still affect Germans today, some 70 years later. 

Hitler's Legacy

Hitler’s drive to become master of the earth enveloped the world in a war that cost the deaths of tens of millions, collapsed economies, and burnt cities.  On his platform 11 million were liquidated; their voices silenced, often their very names and existences obliterated from the pages of memory.  Upon the Axis defeat, Hitler committed suicide rather than face the aftermath, and his own scorched earth tactics ensured the starvation and mass deportation of millions of Germans.

That Hitler’s Nazi regime could only end in such self-destruction, in such misery, was clear – his own emphasis on mass slaughter at the expense of resources needed for his war is only the prime example of the insanity of his ‘Final Solution’.

Surely these young Indians do not want to be led with ‘iron discipline’ into the tyranny of insanity, mass starvation, global disapprobation, complicity in unspeakable crimes, shame.

Such idolatry for one of history’s greatest embodiments of the dark side of human capability can only indicate a complete lack of understanding for the historical context of Hitler as Fuehrer.  Else, the possibility that humankind would willingly walk again into collusion with evil is too terrifying to contemplate.

Holocaust Victim

While Germans are perhaps more familiar with the full grim spectre of the Nazi period than many (as a sort of self-imposed penance for their own history), it is equally important that other nations confront their children with the sordidness of the past.  The Holocaust must be studied, the Rwandan genocide must be analyzed, Darfour and the Gulag Archipelago must be remembered in all their awfulness. 

It is impossible to separate the man from the crime.  To exculpate the culprit would indicate that justice has been done, and the crime punished.  But what punishment for such crimes?  The Nazi regime, with Hitler as mastermind, can never be excused.  Any good qualities embodied in a person that was capable of turning the post-WWI wreck of Weimar Germany into the juggernaut that defeated the whole of Europe is inextricably bound up in and entangled with the tangible result of his logic of destruction.

It is to be hoped that such a leader will never again appear to bless his people with chaos and death, and that the historical moment that gave rise to the exploited opportunity has passed.  But if knowledge is power, so too is it insurance against the re-occurrence of this moment.  The importance of education in this regard cannot be overstated.


The Lives of Ost-ers

June 20, 2010

I watched the Lives of Others the other night, and was impressed by a couple of things. One, I’m ridiculously sentimental – it totally made me cry – and two, I do not understand “Ostalgia” one bit.  It seems to me that living in the GDR completely sucked.

For those that really didn’t care much about Socialism: waiting 6 years for a Trabant, living in a brown and polluted waste and living with the perpetual knowledge that an ill-timed comment would get the Stasi after you, must have felt like a rather unfortunate lifestyle.

For those that quite honestly believed in the system and wanted Socialism to work in the GDR, how did they reconcile their ideology with what the GDR actually had become? 

I’ve read the various theories about generations growing up without knowing anything else, and the security of the system for those employed by it, and that many people remember it as not being so bad.

But really?  Really?


Maybe the people they spoke with never looked at their card-files in the Stasi archives; obviously those that were shot in the Death Strip couldn’t voice their opinions.

Hannah Arendt says that totalitarian states won’t collapse under the weight of their own lies simply because the whole world created and maintained by totalitarianism is itself a fiction (and people sort of like that).  The wall, then, went up not only to keep East Germans in the East, but also to keep reality out.  Facts are irrelevant in a state in which an environment is fostered through terror and surveillance to maintain a population both gullible enough to believe the initial lie and cynical enough to excuse it if it’s found out to be patently false (thanks Hannah).  This system is best maintained, of course, if you stave off the detrimental impact of too much reality – and, of course, prevent people from leaving in droves.

If that’s the case, though, I would still think that the system in the GDR would collapse under the sheer weight of its own kitsch…  This is not to say that capitalism doesn’t have its own share of self-congratulatory kitsch (motivational sales seminars anyone?)  

But a system that co-opts informants to spy on other informants, that transfers children from parents with incorrect political opinions to “good” families, and  gives two weeks holiday pay to border guards for murdering attempted escapees all the while propagandizing that “The peoples of the world can always count on the first socialist workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil in the struggle for secure peace, for the strengthening of socialism, for progress and a happy life” (Honecker speech, 1984) is too monstrous to be borne.

Maybe normalization did occur – and thus the greatest triumph of totalitarianism in the GDR: that after all that was done,  (the corruption of ideology, destruction of the environment and economy, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, perversion of the family dynamic and the usual bonds of fidelity and trust)  citizens of the former GDR actually feel nostalgia for it. 

(In the end, Winston loved Big Brother.) 

 Or, perhaps Ostalgia was instead actually assumed simply as way of rebelling against the social, political and economic takeover (more or less) by West Germany after 1989.   This makes much more sense to me.


Faulkner und Vergangenheitsbewältigung

June 17, 2010

Faulkner is channeled repeatedly in the discussion of political memory and in particular the Nazi past.  We hear the same phrase repeated by a Brandenburg politician a German professor of North American studies, Hannah Arendt, and others… A Google search for “Faulkner and Vergangenheitsbewältigung” turns up dozens of results in both German and English: newspaper articles, literature and film reviews, ethnic nationalism studies, and of course a Myspace page for a 23 year old female in Rapid City.

The past is never dead, it’s not even past

Faulkner’s words bear the weight of truth. There is no doubt that the past continuously shapes the present.  The death knell of the Final Solution is heard still today. That the German national psyche has not overcome the detrimental impacts of the Nazi quest for world empire is apparent in the uproar and resulting resignation of Khöler over the place of German troops in international missions. 

Dealing with the past – memorializing it, chronicling it, erecting giant museums to it – has taken an inordinate amount of time, money and planning in Germany… Contrast the numbers and prominence of memorials, plaques, monuments and museums for the Holocaust to those for slavery or Native American genocide in the United States, for instance.  This evidences a great desire to come to terms with this past.


 Still, the greater the trauma of the past, the greater the difficulty in exorcising its ghosts.  Hence the impossibility of adequately dealing with the Holocaust.  The sheer incomprehensibility of the anguish caused by the immiseration and ultimate destruction of millions defies attempts at reckoning with it.  And so the past will not die.

But why has it occurred that Faulkner’s phrase has come to speak on its own for the difficulties of dealing with past trauma?

Surely Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Elie Wiesel, or Dante have equally profound insights into the unrivaled capacity of man to inflict suffering upon fellow man; upon the horror of war and the remembrance of terrible things.

Why Faulkner? 

Although Faulkner was first translated into German in the 30’s and somehow escaped blacklisting to become apparently highly popular during the Nazi period, during more recent decades many of Faulkner’s works in German have fallen out of print. Requiem for a Nun, from which the quote is drawn, has never had a large readership even in its English translation.

Nevertheless, Faulkner’s literary reputation and winning of the Nobel Peace Prize make him a man to be quoted… (Even if we haven’t read his works.)

But in addition, and more importantly I think, are the connections to Faulkner’s subject and his attitude toward remembrance.  The parallel between a common Faulkner theme of the detrimental impacts to American society of slavery and the lack of attempt to deal with it resonates in a sense with Germans’ own attempts to deal with the sins of their fathers.  

In terms of remembrance, Faulkner’s pessimism over the capability of man to adequately ever realize a fulfillment of responsibility and attrition for the obscenity of the crimes of slavery and genocide is well-documented.  And deservedly so.  Yet perhaps more important than our failure to cope with the hugeness of history, is that we attempt to do so.

A Holocaust survivor wrote an ode to his murdered family:

That mortal enemy… wanted / To wipe out children’s laughter among my people / To burn it so that only ash remained. // But the thread will not be severed. Oh no, / I am leaving a deep imprint on this earth. / / … My children will have grandchildren / … And my grandchildren will become grandmothers and grandfathers / … So that the horror is never repeated – / I sing this my song of resurrection

One can never bury the past.  As we live and breathe, so too our history.  Our responsibility to the past is not to allow it to die, but to keep it as a remembrance owed so that we might ensure a more decent future.  Faulkner also said:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail