There comes a point during every morning where I groggily roll out of bed and attempt to calibrate to the grim realization that it’s a ‘new day’. Amongst the typical staples of the morning routine (brushing teeth, showering, cramming in a reading reflection 45 minutes before class), I invariably sit down at my desk and give a glance towards the calendar hung adjacent to my mattress. More than often I’m making sure that I didn’t sleep through any meetings or interviews, but on occasion I look at the day of the month and allow myself to be transported to a different time in history.
June 6th, July 4th, December 7th, all examples of days on a calendar that harken back to a point in history that I’ve studied with a certain amount of passion. But few of these days, as poignant as they may seem in the peak of the moment, move me to a place quite like the one I experience today.
It’s marked as a rather uneventful day in the minds of most people, but for me it manifests itself much differently. On the Seventh of May 1945, the last remnants of the horrific Third Reich collapsed. After only a twelve year history for the self-proclaimed ‘Thousand year Reich’, devious plans devised in the halls of the Reichstag and on the mountain slopes of Bavaria were lost to the annals of history.
It comes as no surprise to those of you who know me well that I take a rather natural inclination towards the study of the history of World War Two, specifically the rise and fall of the Third Reich. My earliest introductions to history were found in the grainy images of newsreels capturing bonfires of literature and men clad in black boots parading ominously down city streets. Through years of studious attention to the war in Europe and its disastrous effects upon the lives of millions of innocents, I became conditioned to be wary of the peddling politician and the promises of stability and strength that often came from those that seek power. It’s a history lesson that stuck with me, even when I was too young to fully comprehend the concept of power politics or the buzzwords of political science.
Yet, above all else, my relentless study of the Third Reich has been something far more than a schoolboy-obsession with war stories passed down through my family. For me, the very rise and fall of such an embodiment of ‘evil’ drove distinct holes into the very idea of who I was as a person. For me, the Third Reich’s evil residue wasn’t something only for history books; it was something that tugged away ferociously at the very fabric of my being.
This day marks the end of that cataclysmic affair with the devil that an Austrian took from the beer-halls of Bavaria to the halls of the Reichstag in Berlin. The end of all things, both good and bad, brings about a vacuum in space where one is left to ask ‘what does this mean?’. The seventh of May not only marks the end of the Third Reich but the beginning of a debilitating process of self-reflection and guilt that has riddled me for my entire life; How can a nation that calls itself home to men such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Einstein play host to a man who lived only for the purpose of world domination? How can all of the beautiful German sonatas and symphony’s ever be enjoyed in full when one can’t help but hear the wails of the innocents as a rosined bow slides across a violin string? How can I ever take unbounded pride in my heritage when it seems as if my palms will always be stained with the lingering patches of blood left over from camps and gestapos that I have never even seen? What does it mean to be a German American? Am I innocent, or guilty by default?
I’ve grappled with this difficult situation for years on end, and struggle with it even today. Just a few days ago I found myself drinking a well-known German bier that was gifted to me by a friend, only to remember the name of the brewery popping up in mentions of Hitler’s national socialist activity in early 1920’s Munich. I nearly spit it out.
There’s a long German term that I use often when attempting to rationalize my internal though processes on this issue; Vergangerheitsbewaltigung, or coming to terms with the past. No country has been able to come to grips with its past in the modern era quite like Germany has post re-unification, however that reassuring anecdote has never been quite enough for me. Forget the fact that my family was fighting for the ‘good guys’ during those final months in 1945, I still feel that phantom pain of guilt slash into my side whenever the echoes of a Hitler speech appear in the background of a documentary.
The term white privilege has become synonymous in our American culture as a way to come to terms with our own unbalanced past. Though, even there, white privilege has become an imperfect way to comprehend the harsh reality of what we have truly all been responsible for; ignorance wrapped up alongside amnesia. Past our own questions as a nation, we have largely succumb to the sad conclusion that ‘what’s in the past is in the past, there is never any going back’, and ‘maybe we should all just move on.’ History is that obnoxious friend that barges into the middle of a contentious conversation and says “But we can’t ever move on from that!”
No matter as hard as we may wish to believe that we can, there is no ‘moving on’. There is only ‘coming to terms with the past.’ There is only Vergangerheitsbewaltigung. Coming to terms with the past not only accepts fault and responsibility for the oppressive acts of the past, but also constructs bridges between flooded rivers.
I can only think of an imaginary scene that plays through my head every year on the seventh of May. A young boy walks a dusty trail through war-torn Berlin, aimlessly lost amongst the rubble. Along the way he finds a half-destroyed brick apartment building with a trio of middle aged men staring out into the street. Here one of the men, the oldest of the three, pulls out a battered black case and the two other men follow suit. The man retrieves a faded violin from the case, the other men a Cello and Viola. Who knows what they play, maybe Haydn’s Emperor Suite or some original score they forgot about long ago. I’d like to think that they’d play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, in C-sharp minor, Op 131 (1st movement of course). There’s something timeless about the image of Beethoven’s dreariest of quartets weaving its way through the imperfect acoustics of ravaged city blocks. It speaks to me.
But maybe that’s why, through all of my struggles with my identity, I’m drawn to it. As much as I feel infinite freedom when hiking Mountains in the supposed Bavarian tradition or even touching the petals of an Edelweiss flower growing in my home’s garden, I feel a certain unyielding connection with my ancestors when imagining the scene of ‘people in the rubble’. A people that, though their world has completely fallen apart around them, rebuild to the ethereal melodies of a composer who embodied everything that was good about the world. Maybe that’s why, after all of these years, I’m still proud of being a descendent of Germans.
Here’s to another 70 years of peace.