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.
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.
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.
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)
“European Union summit breaks up without agreement” are dead words at this point. In a contest to name the most redundant headline, it would have to be given serious consideration for the top prize.
This latest summit—held last Thursday into Friday, in order to negotiate the budget (or the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, MFF, in Euro-speak) for the next seven years—was shambolic. The president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, met with each national leader to discuss demands and proposals in what were supposed to be 15-minute intervals that soon became 35. Dinner—over which the most important negotiations between member states are traditionally conducted—was pushed back to midnight, by which point attendees were merely served cold cuts and coffee. The following day, and after little movement, Van Rompuy abruptly concluded meetings at lunchtime, stating that the leaders of Europe would come back and try again “early next year,” most likely in February.
This is not to say, in spite of the assertion from one member of the United Kingdom delegation that Van Rompuy “f—ked up” the whole thing, that the gathering was a worthless one. While the conference did indeed end in rancor, division, and finger-pointing, it helped to clarify the nature of the schism at the heart of Europe—and to reveal the divisions that exist between the various member states.
The broadest division rests between two parties. The first is the cluster of nations that make a net contribution to the EU and favor a level of spending lower than the €973 billion ($1.26 trillion) proposed by Van Rompuy. (That’s down already from €1.025 trillion floated by the Commission, but still above the €886 billion put forward by the U.K. as a marker prior to the summit). The second group consists of the net recipient states who are seeking to protect the budget from cuts.
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.”
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
On Wednesday, Berlin unveiled a plaque in honor of the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s speech demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” delivered June 12, 1987. It was an exquisite, powerful, and truly historic moment worthy of commemoration. But Reagan’s sometimes-overeager boosters are making some bold claims about the role that both this speech and its deliverer played in the course of world history, another example of the ways that the politics of today are distorting our memory of one of the most complicated conflicts of the 20th century.
It’s not surprising that Reagan-boosters are getting a little carried away with his legacy, but the extent of their adoration is getting a little extreme. John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, wrote for Fox News that the states of Eastern Europe “fell to freedom like dominoes” after Reagan’s words “pushed the first one over. One cannot ignore how his powerful conviction ended the Cold War by firing a verbal salvo, an oratorical demand to let freedom prevail.”
It is certainly true that the Reagan presidency helped usher along the opening of the inner German frontier and later the demise of the Soviet Union. After all, his changes to U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow challenged, among other things, the status quo that assumed the Berlin Wall’s existence as inevitable. And Reagan reasserted the idea that simple coexistence with the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was neither desirable nor acceptable.
But did Reagan’s 1987 address have much bearing on the actual fall of wall? That’s a newer idea, one that happens to put Reagan at the center of a wider narrative of communism’s descent in Europe. In fact, not only was Reagan out of office by the time the wall collapsed in the summer of 1989, but his speech had received very little coverage in the media, according to Time and to historian Michael Meyer, who wrote in his history of 1989’s revolutions, “Major U.S. newspapers with correspondents in Europe, such as the New York Times, carried stories that ran in the back pages.” Reagan also delivered the speech to an audience of about 45,000, one tenth the crowd estimated to have attended John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech. When Reagan declared “Tear down this Wall,” it’s easy for us to forget now, he was the visibly aged leader of a lame duck administration clouded by scandal and corruption, Iran-Contra in particular.
by Roger Williams and Jonathan Stone, Newsweek, September 10, 2012
Perhaps the best known of Grünenthal’s murderous employees was Otto Ambros. He had been one of the four inventors of the nerve gas sarin. Clearly a brilliant chemist, described as charismatic, even charming, he was Hitler’s adviser on chemical warfare and had direct access to the führer—and committed crimes on a grand scale. As a senior figure in IG Farben, the giant cartel of chemical and pharmaceutical companies involved in numerous war crimes, he set up a forced labor camp at Dyhernfurth to produce nerve gases before creating the monolithic Auschwitz-Monowitz chemical factory to make synthetic rubber and oil.
In 1948 Ambros was found guilty at Nuremberg of mass murder and enslavement and sentenced to eight years in prison. But four years later, he was set free to aid the Cold War research effort, which he did, working for J. Peter Grace, Dow Chemical, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. Ambros was the chairman of Grünenthal’s advisory committee at the time of the development of thalidomide and was on the board of the company when Contergan was being sold. Having covered up so much of his own past, he could bring his skills to bear in attempts to cover up the trail that led from the production of thalidomide back through its hasty trials to any origins it may have had in the death camps.
Around the world, a handful of politicians have urged their governments to prosecute Scientology as a criminal conspiracy. Three years ago, a Paris court found the Church guilty of fraud and fined it $900,000. That same year, a member of the Australian Senate, Nick Xenophon, delivered a speech in which he described Scientology as “criminal organization that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.” After calling for an investigation into the Church’s tax-exempt status during a television interview, he began to receive letters from ex-Scientologists across Australia detailing what he described as “a worldwide pattern of abuse and criminality,” including torture, forced confinement, and coerced abortions. (Xenophon’s call for a parliamentary inquiry into the Church was ultimately rejected by the Australian government.) In 2007, following a 10-year investigation, a Belgian prosecutor called for the Church to be labeled a criminal organization and recommended that up to 12 Church officials face charges for the illegal practice of medicine, violation of privacy, and use of illegal contracts. The State Department criticized the move, stating that the United States would “oppose any effort to stigmatize an entire group based solely upon religious beliefs and would be concerned over infringement of any individual’s rights because of religious affiliation.”
But it was not long ago that the U.S. government came close to cracking down on Scientology. In a New Yorker profile last year of Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning director of Crash who recently defected from the Church, Lawrence Wright reported that the FBI was investigating Scientology on charges of human trafficking. According to Tony Ortega, the editor of the Village Voice who has long written about the Church, the bureau was preparing to raid Scientology’s California international headquarters—using footage it had shot with drone aircraft—based upon evidence that a defector had given them about “an office-prison made up of two double-wide trailers where fallen officials were kept day and night, sleeping on the floor and being forced to take part in mass confessions.” The probe was ultimately called off for unknown reasons.
…For obvious reasons—beginning with the Constitution, and the fact the United States was founded by Europeans seeking religious persecution—most Americans are loath to do anything that would appear to infringe upon someone else’s religious liberty. Though some of us may find each other’s religious convictions, or religion itself, strange, few believe that it should be the government’s role to tell other people how, if at all, to pray. And so while the consensus in the United States may be that Scientology is a bit nutty, the general attitude, owing to Americans’ dedication to individual liberty, seems to be: live and let live. The problem with Scientology is that it is not content to let other people “let live,” certainly not those who join the Church or criticize it from the outside.
The differences in historical traditions of American individualism and European communalism should not be used to discourage a tougher American approach to dealing with the Church of Scientology. Revoking its ill-gotten tax-exempt status is the obvious first start, followed by an end to criticism of foreign governments, such as Germany’s, for doing precisely what the U.S. government should be doing: investigating Scientology as a harmful enterprise, with the ultimate aim of shutting it down. Congress should establish a commission, as have many other governments, to investigate the Church and its activities and actively warn citizens about its dangers. Such policies should be seen as no different from a public-health measure, like long-existing, widely popular government campaigns to discourage smoking.