News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Monday, February 13, 2012

Vergangenheitsbewältigung

The matter was dealt with in a George Clooney movie that came out in 2006 called The Good German.    I had dealt with it for 50 years by that time.  But not as intensely as a correspondent who occasionally writes to me about some of the stuff she reads on blogs.  I call her Anne.  So does she.  She is a court administrator who I became acquainted with through political work.


We discovered we had it in common.   I was forbidden to mention it.  Anne dealt with it.   The "it" is the fact that the German people knew what Hitler was doing to the Jews and others, but for the most part claimed that they didn't.    

As a soldier stationed in Germany during its reconstruction, I and other soldiers were told not to bring the matter up to Germans.  Many of our cadre were veterans of World War II and had married German women.  They explained the sense of fear and helplessness in which many Germans lived during the Nazi reign.  But they did not explain fully that those people who lived in fear and helplessness were afraid to express any disapproval of the Holocaust because of what the preponderance of Germans who lived around them might do.  In short, the German people were not guiltless.  But we soldiers were cautioned not to raise hostilities by discussing the matter.  

 French resistance fighters execute Vichy collaborators. 
A discrete silence on participation in the Nazi pogroms was part of the Cold War strategy.  The allies did not want to stop the stream of defections from East Germany by raising the possibility that anyone was looking for Nazi  participants to punish, so the subject was avoided. Retribution against Nazi party members and collaborators was a  fact of post-war life that was an open, festering psychic wound in the countries that were liberated from Nazi occupation.  When  the allies freed France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries from Nazi dominance, the citizens of those countries, led by their resistance movements, hunted down those who had collaborated with the Nazi regimes and executed them or arrested them as war criminals.  The divides between partisan patriots and former Nazi sympathizers and collaborators was so intense that the governments, much to the dismay of Jewish organizations, softened up on the prosecutions against collaborators to try to heal national wounds that threatened to divide and destabilize their countries.  NATO and other allied organizations urged conciliatory measures as strategies of Cold War diplomacy. 


Anne's circumstance was different from mine.  She was a "military brat" and went to a Department of Defense high school in Germany, one which had a very progressive curriculum for talented and ambitious students.  It included a program in which German students and American students would take classes together to learn each others language and culture.  Anne says the German students she knew were extremely resentful at being associated with the Germany of the Hitler years and became quite defensive and hostile when the sins of the past were brought up.  Still, Anne was able to talk about it with her peers and to develop information that her parents were cautioned to avoid talking about for diplomatic reasons.  


Anne went to a progressively rigorous U.S. college where a senior thesis paper was required for graduation.  She was able to pursue the matter by returning to Germany and developing a paper on the propaganda and the social controls that created the environment in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust.  Her thesis was that the Nazi propaganda machine  did not create the racial and ethnic attitudes that drove the Holocaust; it very shrewdly exploited a cultural attitude that held dominance among the people, who tacitly approved of the propaganda and were willing to act in behalf of the Nazi regime.  Certainly, there was a significant portion of the population which did not approve, but their ideas were suppressed by intimidation and the belligerent actions of those who worked in concert with the Nazi leadership.  Those who worked against the Nazi cause, such as the Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were imprisoned or put to death.  Disapproval and protest was driven underground.


As the Nazis took control of much of Europe,  they had collaborators in countries such as the  Netherlands, France, and Norway.  Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,   raises the matter of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden, which is usually regarded as a country which remained steadfast in its neutrality.  There have been a horde of books, both fiction and non-fiction, which have raised the matter of the support and collaboration of people in various countries with the Nazi principles.   One of those books in America is The Good German by Joseph Kanon on which the George Clooney film is based.


Good fiction, whether popular or more deliberately literary, introduces disturbing ideas and facts to the public under the guise of entertainment and diversion.  It allows people to maintain distance from the ideas because it is, after all, just a story.  But after people have lived with the fictions for a time, they are ready to confront whether the circumstances in the stories have any reflection on reality.  And we have reached the point where we can seriously talk about the role of the people in the Holocaust. The title of Kanon's book has become a term used to examine the facts of Nazi history as writers and scholars refer to acceptance of and service to Nazi pogroms as The Good German Syndrome.  

The Germans that Anne and I encountered who have acknowledged this unpleasant fact of history use the term  Vergangenheitsbewältigung,  a word for the process of coming to terms with the past.  It often refers specifically to coming to terms with the Nazi past.  It means facing some unpleasant facts, not denying or dismissing them.  And it means recognizing that there are those among us who not only tolerate the evils of ill will, but who are willing to promote it and act upon it.  


One of the matters that Anne and I have exchanged comments about is how the angry political divide in contemporary America resembles the obsessive malevolence that possessed some of the German people and created the conditions for the unbridled power of the Third Reich.  Many observers of American attitudes have noted the divisive malice in American politics.  Voices of dissent are branded as unpatriotic and subversive.  The dissenters in the Nazi era looked for an alternative to Naziism, and many looked to communism and socialism as a source of liberation.  Some recent literary works also have taken up the anti-Nazi underground in Germany and its efforts to mount a political force that could mount some organized opposition to the Nazis.  Those stories merely emphasize the potent control that the Nazis exerted on the people. As Anne, I, and many other commentators have noted, the American conservative movement has adopted a hate-driven belligerence against minorities and those who defend them much like that exerted against the targets of the Third Reich hate 
 propaganda.  The same hate objects that were the targets of the Nazi propaganda machine
and its fans have emerged as the hate targets within contemporary America:  ethnic minorities, homosexuals, laborers,  Marxists, and the liberals who defend them.   Those hate objects were not the contrivances of the propagandists; those who devised the propaganda merely appealed to and aggravated the bigoted rages of the people.  The propaganda was used to encourage and develop the proclivities of the people.  


During the time after World War II when many governments tried to bridge the dangerous divide between their national partisans and the Nazi sympathizers, they allowed the Nazi participants and collaborators to retreat into the excuse that they were the victims of a propaganda storm and the constant threat of violent retaliation by the Nazis and their followers if they did not submit and comply.  But as recent examinations of the facts have revealed, the Nazis appealed to the attitudes held by many of the people and those people were pleased and fully in support of the Nazi pogroms and take-overs of  Germany's neighbors.  Those countries which were taken over had their share of people who wanted to be full-fledged citizens of the Nazi empire.


America has its own problems with coming to terms with history,  On both the national and regional levels, there is a revival of old bigotry and hatreds which dominate our political dialogue.   In South Dakota, with its one-party rule, there is little attempt to cover malicious intentions with democratic pretenses.  The state has whole-heartedly joined the national political movement to define and subjugate the people it wants to hate and suppress.  The state's nine Indian reservations were designed as detention camps and remain so as functioning monuments of the the political realities.  The reservations are at once justified and condemned with accusations of racial and cultural inferiority.  Some of the state's scholars have become extensive apologists for L. Frank Baum's call for genocidal extermination of the Sioux nation.  How could the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz really promote racial extermination?  How could people in the land of Goethe, Bach, and Beethoven really participate in the Holocaust?  It's a matter of coming to terms with history.


Now the state is considering a piece of legislation that purports to be a way to improve education, but it has not one provision in it that actually addresses the factors that have stalled the achievements of public school students.  In the name of improving education, the legislation is totally devoted to disenfranchising the teachers, the workers of education, by maligning them, taking away their due process, and offering rewards only to those who conform to the political agenda.  It is significant that in devising this legislation, teachers have been totally excluded from the process of forming it and have been treated as a group of unwanted aliens that must be dealt with harshly.  


South Dakota has not even begun to think about Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  It has nearly all of its history to come to terms with.  And that history is one of the character and the will of the people.  Its politics are a reflection of who and what the dominant segment, about 60 percent,  of the population are.  While the nations of Europe are coming to terms with the realities of their histories, South Dakota is mired in the contrived mythology of pioneering and hard work, oblivious to the fact that all that pioneering and hard work was expended on stolen lands.  Lands which are heavily subsidized by the federal government.


South Dakota has a government by the will of the people.  Not all the people, by any means.  Those who are not represented will have to find ways to come to terms with that fact.  They  might take a clue from the resistance movements that the Europeans are currently re-examining. 


One might hope that people in the state could be educated before that is necessary. 

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