Friday, January 10, 2014

Germany’s Not Just Faking Holocaust Contrition

News that drunken revelers had, on New Year’s Eve, used Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europeas a urinal came shortly after The New York Times published an op-ed by Yascha Mounk on the conflicts of being a German Jew.

Together, these items create an image of a Germany not at ease with itself, of a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its past and found a place in its social fabric for Jews or the memory of Jews. Mounk suggests Germany has swung between “a bout of philo-Semitism” and “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’” when it comes to processing the Second World War, adding:

Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.

Mounk is right, on the one hand, to suggest that after the Shoah, things can never be normal again, neither for Germany as a whole or German Jews in particular. “Increasingly, I realized that the mere mention of my heritage erected an invisible wall between my classmates and me,” Mounk writes. “I realized that even my most well-intentioned compatriots saw me as a Jew first, and a German second.”

But to suggest that Germany’s public struggle to come to terms with the past is in some form artificial does a disservice to what Germany has achieved since the end of the Second World War in this regard.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

theatlanticcities:

Wished you could have been an East German soldier? Well, you still can’t. But at the Bunker-Museum in Frauenwald you can pay $150 for the privilege of spending 16-hours dressed (and bossed around) as if you really were one of General Secretary Honecker’s finest.

Photos: Live Out Your East Germany Military Fantasies at This Bunker

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Bittersweet Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

While President Obama attended meetings in Berlin prior to his grand address at the Brandenburg Gate, First Lady Michelle Obama and their children, Malia and Sasha, visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Guided by the director of the site, Uwe Neumärker, the family spent half an hour among the 2,711 stone sarcophagi which range in height and rise and fall along the undulating ground across the five-acre site.

“They were impressed that we Germans have such a memorial in the centre of our city,” Neumärker later told the JTA. The First Lady in particular was said to have commented that the memorial “really has an aura.” But while the site has the White House seal of approval, since its opening in 2005 — in fact, even during the years preceding its construction — Peter Eisenman’s memorial has been controversial and divisive.

I have been to the memorial on several occasions at different times of day and night and at different times of year. With each visit, my impression of the site evolves and changes. Its scale – the memorial takes up an entire city block – can at times feel alienating and at others speaks to the scope and enormity of the catastrophe. Its logical, fashioned layout and the cool and unrelenting greyness of the stones can either feel distant and impersonal or like a statement about the cold, mechanised, and rationalised way in which the Holocaust was carried out, how it came to be faceless for those who were committing the crime.

In particular, I appreciate the way in which Memorial to the Murdered Jews has come to be the focal point for commemoration of the Jewish past in Berlin, a space for strangers to explore, wander, and wonder. When you walk down into the very centre of the memorial, sunken and enveloped by the looming columns, the sounds and sights of Berlin are eradicated. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe thus, at its best, creates the space for reflection and contemplation, or at the very least forces an emotional response through isolation and dislocation. At night, when the stelae hold back what little light there is, such thoughts and reactions are only heightened, deepened.

This is made possible by the memorial’s abstraction and ambiguity – nothing about it is guided or forced, each visitor granted the space to engage and have their own experience. But it is this indistinctness and the almost remote nature of the memorial that has beget criticism. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody stated that there is a vagueness about the memorial which is he finds “disturbing”. Indeed, without the full title, “it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial.’”

This disconnection Brody identifies is indeed inescapable. For a site which proclaims itself to be specifically dedicated to the memory of murdered Jews, there is nothing particularly Jewish about it at all. By comparison, across the street is the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, at which through a small window in a concrete cuboid, a movie depicting a kiss is visible. This scene is befitting as a symbol of defiance, “a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity towards gays and lesbians.” Whatever one thinks of the memorial and the film, it does at the very least fulfil its duty in this way.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

It’s that time again: Eurovision!

Every year it disappoints me, yet every year I return. And once more, the Eurovision Song Contest is upon us. For the uninitiated (though I can’t imagine there are that many people unaware of exactly what this affair entails), I have selected some of my favourite Eurovision winners from ABBA to Loreen, both of whom are Swedish, by coincidence I presume. My selection indicate two things: first, that Eurovision had a kind of musical peak between 1974 and 1982; and second, I started watching Eurovision after 1997, and in spite of the overall decline in quality, I keep doing so.

ABBA, “Waterloo” (Sweden, 1974)

Marie Myriam, “L’oiseau and l’enfant” (France, 1977)

Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” (Israel, 1978)

Johnny Logan, “What’s Another Year”(Ireland, 1980)

Nicole, “Ein Bisschen Frieden” (Germany, 1982)

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012 Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Günter Grass and the Year of German Unity

The opening of the Berlin Wall, the anniversary of which is to be recognised this month, marked the commencement of a process known in German as die Wende, the change. From November 9, 1989 to October 3, 1990, East Germans moved from a living under a system of Soviet-style socialism to European democratic capitalism in a startlingly short period of time. This turn, as it can also be translated, also saw the stitching together of the two halves of Germany that had been separated at the end of the Second World War.

The West German political class, Chancellor Helmut Kohl included, were anxious to see this process motion as fast as possible. “The train has left the station,” was an oft-heard refrain at the time, as a counter to those who wished to see a more gradual process of reunification. One such activist was the novelist Günter Grass, whose recently-published diaries From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990 read wearily. “A growing sense of being hemmed in. Germany’s unity is being talked into existence,” Grass writes in February. “I have a powerful premonition of disaster”.

In Two States—One Nation? (1990), Grass demonstrated a fundamental opposition to what he perceived to be the annexation of the former East Germany by the government in Bonn – an Anschluss, to render it in the provocative German. Instead, he pushed for an “equalising of the burden” between East and West. “Our fellow countrymen in the GDR are exhausted,” Grass appealed. “Not until they receive what they deserve from us can they speak and negotiate with us as equal partners about Germany and Germany, two states with one history and one culture, two confederated states within the European house.”

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Thursday, October 11, 2012
Born in 1927, in Germany, I was twelve years old when the war started and seventeen years old when it was over. I am overloaded with this German past. I’m not the only one; there are other authors who feel this. If I had been a Swedish or a Swiss author I might have played around much more, told a few jokes and all that. That hasn’t been possible; given my background, I have had no other choice. In the fifties and the sixties, the Adenauer period, politicians didn’t like to speak about the past, or if they did speak about it, they made it out to be a demonic period in our history when devils had betrayed the pitiful, helpless German people. They told bloody lies. It has been very important to tell the younger generation how it really happened, that it happened in daylight, and very slowly and methodically. At that time, anyone could have looked and seen what was going on. One of the best things we have after forty years of the Federal Republic is that we can talk about the Nazi period. And postwar literature played an important part in bringing that about.

Guenter Grass, on the role of literature in Germany’s coming to terms with its past

(The Paris Review, Summer 1991)

Friday, September 21, 2012 Tuesday, September 18, 2012 Wednesday, July 25, 2012