What is the very first thing you think of when you hear the word “Germany”?
Throughout my high school years the (disavowed) golden rule of hanging out with German kids was: “Tease them about the Nazis.” Teenagers are famously tactless for the most part, but when it comes to dealing with other people who are German, then the tactlessness becomes savagery. I’m not going to give an account of the kind of cruelty that some of us (myself occasionally included) inflicted on those good-for-nothing, Jew-killing bastards — but I will point out the hypocrisy in this behaviour. There is not much of a difference between calling someone a “good-for-nothing, Jew-killing bastard” and calling them a “good-for-nothing Jew”.
I’m reading Peter Watson’s insightful account of German national identity, The German Genius, and I can find myself implicitly accused, along with any young adult living in the 21st century, of not having given Germany the recognition it deserves. What’s more, the further I probe into myself, the deeper my conviction that Peter Watson is, in fact, right — people my age know very little of Germany.
As a graduate student of philosophy and a reader of more than just magazines, I am not completely ignorant of the great German names. I enjoy Thomas Mann. I listen to Beethoven and Bach when I grow tired of routine. Hegel and Kant are very familiar names to me, and I read them every week for my courses. In short, the basics of German classical culture aren’t completely alien to me. But if I had to name a German “celebrity” right now, what would I say? Does Angela Merkel count as a “celebrity” or is she considered too “serious”? The rock band, Rammstein, is known in the UK — I can’t really name many more. German celebrities, if you were to ask a typical twenty-something living in the UK right now, might be figures like, oh, Hitler, Goering, Eichmann, Goebbels, Speer, Mendele, even Schindler thanks to Spielberg… Does anyone in England really care that these “celebrities” come from three generations ago?
I grew up in Switzerland, a country that borders Germany. So why have I been to France and Italy, but not Germany? Is it a matter of loyalty to my late paternal grandfather, whose heroism as a member of the French Resistance during the war made it forbidden (or indeed verboten, har-har) to speak of the Germans as anything but pedantic, boring, peasant-minded or overly intellectual anti-Semites? The truth, I think, is that nobody really seems to care that Germany is simply the Nazi state. As Watson argues, the whole “we defeated the Nazis” mentality in England renders it hard to think of Germans as anything more elevated than thugs and murderers… who happen to be boring, pedantic and peasant-minded or overly intellectual.
I studied under the curriculum of the International Baccalaureate. It’s well-known that this program pushes its students harder than the British A-levels and the American AP. Nevertheless, our focus, in history class, was on THE NAZI YEARS and THE STALIN YEARS. These topics were given more weight than either the Chinese Communist Revolution or the Vietnam War or anything else that we studied — including the unification of Germany and the Cold War put together. Our teacher was a young, uptight Englishwoman who knew a fair deal about Nazi Germany, and who often wanted to impress upon us — by “us” I mean all two of the students taking history lessons — how terrible, how unjust and unforgivable Germany’s actions were. I was left with a vague impression of Germany as this stupidly violent country we must never forgive; I was convinced that the crime of the Holocaust was not only the greatest crime in the history of mankind, but also the most pronounced scar on Germany’s ugly face.
How many conversations have I had with people who know nothing about the Holocaust — conversations about the Holocaust! In Lacan’s terms, the Holocaust is one of those Master Signifiers now, a word that catches everything in its net and orients discourse. It’s a pity. It is also losing its historical importance precisely because of its dislocation from history: instead of speaking of the War Years, we speak of “the Holocaust”, in fuzzy and uncertain terms… not quite sure about the dates… not really sure if the oft-quoted “Six Million Deaths” applies just to Jews… not quite interested in figuring out what happened in the years after Germany surrendered… This fuzziness makes “the Holocaust” become a catchword for Things We Must All Be Very Serious About, Even in Our Ignorance…