Kaffee und Küchen
We were in Germany again for spring break. When we lived there for 8 months after our wedding in ’77, courtesy of the flawlessly generous and gracious Humboldt Stiftung (foundation), I came home pretty negative about the land of many of my ancestors. I found the Germans formal-but-rude, intolerant, often plain mean in public, and generally unpleasant to live among. That being said, I met and liked a lot of individual people–I’m mostly talking collective behavior here. I liked living in Europe–loved many things about that, and some things about Germany in particular–the intense respect for the land itself, the train and transit systems, being able to have fizzy water delivered to our apartment, the scenery, the forests, the Gothic churches, the city of Freiburg. But the Germany of 35 years ago had not dealt with its past and was a country living with the huge wound of Cold War division. It’s a very different place now. Germans have done a remarkable job of confronting their past (I’m not claiming perfection, just profound commitment and ferocious care) and the wound has been healed–though that’s a difficult and ongoing process. But, generally speaking, the Germans I’ve encountered individually and en masse more recently are less formal, more polite, and much less chip-on-shoulder. It’s a lovely thing to see/experience–the healing of a nation. And all the things I liked before are still very much there, though a little less graffitti on the sides of nice old buildings would be good (that being said, there’s some astonishingly wonderful tagging in Berlin–I never object to art–but a lot of it is just vandalism and grade C work). And Germany’s comfortable. I speak a moderate amount of German (courtesy of the Humboldt Stiftung having put me through the Goethe Institut 35 years ago), and can more or less function. My husband (who’s a German historian partially because he made a nicely calculated decision about his field of study based on which country in Europe actually supported foreign scholars working there.) speaks beautiful German–he’s good with languages; I have a good ear and a bad memory, so I tend to sound like I have more German than I do, which can be a problem. Anyway, we know how to read the train and bus schedules and what the general rules of behavior are and all that stuff that makes being someplace easy. We like the food (which has also gotten hugely better in the past 35 years). And we are never likely to run out of things we want to see, or re-see, or do. The place is dense with culture from pretty much every period in Western history in a way that even Italy, for all its wonders and pleasures isn’t. I have a friend who’s an intellectual historian who likes to summarize things elegantly. He says that France has contributed importantly to culture in pretty much every period, but has only achieved the highest level of contribution in the creation of the Gothic cathedral, and maybe then again in Impressionist painting. But Germany has contributed at the highest level through much of the Common Era. I’m not sure this is entirely right, but it’s interesting/fun to think about. And pretty close to true. Of course, there is also the matter of Germany having committed some of the great crimes/sins/abominations in history. And right there, I think, is the source of my fascination with the place. Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, the city of Dresden, and the (carefully legal and obsessively efficient) Holocaust. For me, at least, there is something profoundly important and compelling in that dialectic, something emblematically and crucially human. The Nazis were not monsters, except in so far as we all are, and it seems awfully important to me that we recognize and remember the extent to which pretty much all of us have the capacity to go there–so we have a fighting chance of avoiding it. I’m getting preachy and awfully close to political. Sorry. Here’s the thing: They put the Holocaust Memorial a block away from the Brandenberg Gate, and 2 blocks away from the Reichstag–seriously prime real estate, but more to the point, a pretty beautifully conscious and intentional statement of identity. Although they have carefully reconstructed many of the buildings we flattened (including, thank God, much of Dresden), they’ve left the broken-but-surviving tower of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche standing there next to a very clearly modern new sanctuary, so that if you get off the subway at the Zoological Gardens transit hub (it’s one of the major hubs, so many, many folks do) the war-battered tower is one of the first things a visitor to Berlin sees. Right there in the middle of the Ku-Dam–which is the Berlin equivalent of, say, 5th Ave in New York. We were in Munich, too, this time. Munich is gorgeous–mostly consistent and carefully reconstructed, and lushly full of delights—like the typically intense and still essentially whimsical Munich Surfers. It doesn’t hide its history. But it’s not quite as grubbily, richly complex as Berlin. It was distressing, 35 years ago, to find myself not liking the people who represent a big chunk of my ancestry. It’s really nice, now, to find myself liking and respecting them without having to pretend that they are or have been anything other than complicated and awful and also, always the people who nurtured Bach.
Read Devon Miller-Duggan’s blog Fat Matters.