Swans Commentary » swans.com May 6, 2013  



Our Germans


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - May 6, 2013)   Who were the Germans anyway? There came to mind those Midwestern figures of a schoolboy's daydreams. Memories of their being hard done by in Chicago during the First World War troubled him. Hadn't his German uncle been what they called a doughboy? Uncle Walt had a framed photograph to prove it, memorable because only eight inches high and three feet across. His aunt would pick out Walt's too-young face for him from the rows of the regiment or battalion or whatever it was. Nowadays Walt came home from work and slid into his chair by the kitchen window. Though quiet, he was best left undisturbed as he read the morning Tribune and sprinkled his wife's house plants with cigarette ash. He told her it made them grow.

One day Walt's father came to live in a small room off the kitchen, displacing Cousin Johnny's bed to a curtained alcove. The old man spoke little but his frothy irruptions established him as more German than Walt by far. He died one day and his faint household profile faded out altogether. All the family had to remember him by was the story of his encounter with a gypsy woman. He'd been out for a creaky walk when she appeared and gurgled sympathy over what she called his "rupture." The old man wasn't displeased by the attention and laying on of hands. The story had two endings. Either she got away with his pocketbook or else he caught her wrist in a firm grip just in time to prevent the villainy. The first was invoked when demonstrating the foolishness of old men; the second when arguing the shrewdness of Germans.

The schoolboy's aunt took to the Six Corners version of German pastry and her robin-breast bobbed along regularly on the long walk to Schroeder's Bakery. Nobody made sauerkraut anymore but the empty crock still stood in the basement beside the home-brew paraphernalia from that rollicking black cloud in everybody's past, the rough Prohibition-Depression weather. Unsmiling Uncle Walt did not attract impromptu drop-ins. However, once-a-year visits could occur on summer nights. Aging relatives would turn up with propitiating liverwurst, pickled herring, and Wisconsin Limburger cheese. Drinking other people's beer on the front porch, his domain secure behind the screen door, could make Walt smile.

With World War II the boy's idea of Germans took on a warp that would be hard to undo. Hollywood Germans were Nazis to a man, except when they were fiendish prison matrons or Hitler Youth, a kind of diabolical, nude bathing, Boy and Girl Scouts. Education, such as it was, merely blurred the picture. Local socialists talked about their heroic nineteenth century precursors driven after a failed European revolution to the shores of Lake Michigan. Even the callow student found these phantoms out of place in a city that someone said had been "invented to make men rich." At war's end, he went to hear a visiting lecturer at college. The speaker was a British Jesuit dispatched by the new Labour government to quell American fears of socialism. The man of God explained that the U.K. on its knees had no other choice. In the discussion that followed one teacher proposed to end European squabbling by making razed Germany into one large plantation. The speaker, though Jesuitically trained to feed answers to the ignorant, had trouble hiding his embarrassment. Our young student blushed too and resolved to further his education somewhere beyond Sandburg's "Hog Butcher for the World."

He wandered in a very postwar Canada. His first stop was Kitchener in Ontario, a small city that had been named Berlin until 1916 when a wave of patriotism, or fear, shifted its devotion to Lord Kitchener of Sudan who had never been near Canada. The area had been a center of German immigration since 1800 when Mennonites began arriving from Pennsylvania. They thrived in the mid-twentieth century still speaking German and enacting their sober, anti-machine community charade. Quaint it was but educationally limited. Our footloose student moved on to Quebec.

Montreal stirred with recently disembarked Europeans. Abruptly Germans evaded stereotypes and became, like the rest of us, too various to pigeonhole. They shared nothing much more than reticence about their recent past. They had landed on a continent of victors who had blown Germany to smithereens. National guilt they accepted like an inherited misfortune that wasn't their fault. Personally they felt as guiltless as everyone else. Understandably they were unsure about what face to present to their new compatriots. In the main they kept their mouths shut. Some, like the owner of a delicatessen where the student bought smoked pork loin, claimed they were Dutch. The Dutch-Deutsch mix-up hoodwinked the inattentive natives. Montreal suddenly filled up with newcomers supposedly from Schleswig-Holstein, the innocent fragment of Denmark occupied by the Third Reich and home to German speakers.

The student made friends with an immigrant threesome. Matilde was a big woman with white-blond hair who gave the impression her war had not been the "good war" of the "greatest generation" that Tom Brokaw would crow about. The student was relieved that Matilde, tête-à-tête, never mentioned the bruises within that blanked her eyes. Hannah, her short, dark friend, chattered nonstop, but never about her past. She would cast back over the unmentionable reality lessons that marked her face and tease the male of the trio. He had come out of the war a reborn Catholic, avoiding guilt by the original-sin detour. He bore the incongruous name of Alfred Jackson that he traced generations back to some milord who had tarried on the Grand Tour.

Alfred beamed his pious optimism on the world with such intensity that the student learned nothing from him about what had really happened to anyone anywhere. He presented the war as a marginal mishap covered over by a divine blueprint. Only once did he leave God out of his conversations with the student and tell him how his adequate English got him a job with the British forces in Berlin. His Majesty's military obviously thought a German called Jackson an ideal butt. Battle weary, their joking had soured. Alfred doffed his perpetual smile when he told how he stood before a British officer's desk and, addressed as Mr. Jackson, was politely invited to sit down. The only chair in the room was the one occupied by the officer. "Victor's humor," said Alfred, and then exploding with a rage that frightened the student, "the truth is we beat them!"

More a leaf in the wind than a wandering scholar, the student drifted to France. The French were naturally ambiguous about the Germans whose defeat they had shared. The retreating invaders had not damaged Paris. In retrospect the ranks of the Resistance and de Gaulle's Free French swelled to englobe most of the population excluding only those cropped or put to death in the immediate postwar. The student furthered his education eavesdropping on café conversations. Well-dressed matrons and their flush-faced mates found the Americans who had liberated them vulgar, and the boches who had conquered France stupid. In Normandy, through which the liberating army had come, there were farmers who considered the crippling of a cow more heinous than the German blitzkrieg. Venom for the Algerians, however, was rapidly overtaking these fondled hates and grievances.

The Italians, who defined their former allies by the culinary mangiapatate, revealed another sort of ambiguity. The Germans were relentless, expert, and organized, but not quite human and short on refinement at table and elsewhere. Italian Fascists had less determination, expertise, and organization, which somehow made them more human. The Catholic excuse of "we-are-all-sinners" resurged and dissolved guilt. That the dead-enders of the Salò Republic rivaled the Nazis in savagery was forgotten. Mussolini had been misled by twisted counselors. Didn't everyone know that Italians, bon enfant to the length of their short stature, wouldn't hurt a fly, much less a Jew?

The student could hardly argue with that. Who would dare trump the humanity card? Moreover, the Italian view of America differed from the French in that it was pro-pro and pro again. The Italic peninsula, ever subservient, now bought and paid for by Washington, geared up for its strategic role in the Cold War. The student gave up trying to sort out Italian hypocrisy. Antifascists of the last hour now vied in numbers with the French. He retreated to the cinema.

The Italian Neorealist filmmakers had a consistent view of Germans that was artistically solid while historically just as shaky as anyone else's. Roberto Rossellini, a key figure of the movement, reintroduced ambiguity by admitting that his neorealismo was a continuation of his prewar work, some of which could have passed for Fascist propaganda. Rome, Open City, 1945, (Roma, città aperta) showed the suffering and martyrdom of ordinary Romans under the German occupation in 1944. They were decent people if not always active in the Resistance. It's noteworthy that Bosley Crowther in The New York Times could find only one fault with the movie: The German commander's "eloquent arrogance is a bit too vicious."

Rossellini's Paisan, 1946, (Paisà) is a film in six episodes dealing with the Allied and German confrontation on Italian soil. In one episode a Sicilian girl befriends a nice-guy G.I. When he's killed by a German sniper, she turns his gun on the Germans. They capture her and throw her brutally off a cliff to her death. In another episode Italian partisans are captured along with American soldiers. Because the partisans are unprotected by the Geneva Conventions, the Germans spitefully execute them.

Germany Year Zero, 1948, (Germania anno zero) was the third part of Rossellini's trilogy. Filming not in Italy but on location in the ruins of Berlin, the director finally got within reach of Germans in the flesh. Like the student in Montreal he found that stereotypes had to go. The fighting over, defeated Germans living in squalor were no longer robotic soldiery. The story centers on thirteen-year-old Edmund who lives with his invalid father and an older brother and sister. The brother can't ask for a ration book for fear of being punished for having fought to the dead end. The sister fends off outright prostitution but cultivates men for cigarettes and favors. The authorities have assigned the family to an apartment whose resident owners despise them.

Edmund falls under the influence of his former teacher who has remained a Nazi and is probably a pederast. He primes the boy on survival-only-of-the-fittest rhetoric. Edmund tries to help by selling items on the black market and becomes involved with a young criminal couple, the male a thief and the female a whore. His father, though looked after by a kindly doctor, nevertheless tells Edmund he wants to die. Edmund steals some poison and, remembering his teacher's words, pours it into his father's tea. The boy then wanders Berlin, devastated by his father's death. The whore and her man have no time to console a child. Edmund climbs a wrecked building and throws himself off, ending his short life.

Critical reactions proved that Rossellini had gone beyond caricature and touched German reality of the moment. The New York Times declared the film unfeeling. The Germans themselves were horrified and decried its pessimism. After a brief 1954 showing in a Munich film club it wasn't seen again in Germany until 1978. In the student's mind, Germany Year Zero didn't solve the Italian conundrum, but it did bring home the reality of WWII as none of Hollywood's sneering Nazis ever had. He moved on to London.

After the revengeful carpet bombing of Germany and some grumbling about the Germans putting a stop to rationing before the victorious U.K., British attitudes struck the student as shifting to plan B. This made a joke of the Germans and poked mild fun at the British themselves. It was the timeworn formula that had accompanied the accumulation of empire. The japes of ludicrous foreigners had to be moderated by the straight-faced humor of Englishmen. Such was John Bull's public, (i.e., world), duty. The British weren't imperialists but simply the possessors of a superior sense of humor. They guyed themselves about winning the war with unTeutonic improvisation and ramshackle brilliance. They hinted that good hearts and the occasional guffaw did the job, not the Red Army and American assembly lines.

Though threadbare, it was feel-good time in the U.K. and the student felt pretty good there too. He'd interrupted his bookish studies for work in a London biscuit factory. West Indian blacks had been let into the country to do the dirty jobs, and he listened to them muse over their lost illusions. They weren't welcomed as fellow defenders of democracy and proud if dusky subjects of the new queen. They spent nights beside a Chicagoan scraping huge batter vats clean, or approximately so. Days they slept packed into mattress-floored rooms rented from those landlords who didn't display a "no coloured" sign.

Personnel at the factory were of two sorts. Local Cockneys held the better jobs and the West Indians, Polish Army leftovers, or blow-ins like the student did the messy work. Anyone who questioned this segregation was told that it was a difference not of skin but skill. They were skilled; the others not. No one bothered to explain how packaging biscuits on an assembly line took less skill than sitting and watching it being done until the line blocked and had to be restarted with the push of a button. The student kept off the subject in talk with his only friend in the skilled group. He was a German, Karl, a prisoner of war who had married an English woman and not gone home. At first the student thought the Cockneys had accepted Karl as a kind of Alfred Jackson whipping-boy. This proved false, however. As far as the biscuit factory went, WWII was over. The German Karl, though he never threw off the shock of the hot war, clearly announced the coming cold one.

Karl's disorientation intrigued the student. He wanted to ask the German if he knew exactly where he was right now. Did he know that this was Bermondsey, decrepit and bombed over London SE1? The student never put the question. It seemed too cruel, and Karl was simply scoured by war, not vicious. He recounted one story over and over again, as if no one could possibly disagree with his viewpoint. It was Cold War naiveté, but unlike the lurid version that was being promoted like a detergent in North America, Karl couched his in pure muddled innocence. He had marched in Hitler's invasion of Russia. His account had him forever advancing on foot over snow through a wood. His eyes would light up the tea-break table where the student convened with some laconic old Poles. They understood what Karl was saying about the Russians. The Russians were why they were stuck onto death in London. But since Karl was not a Pole but a German and therefore dubious, his hated Russians were different from their hated Russians. The punch line would finally come. "The buggers weren't professional. They didn't fight fair. A goddamn peasant would come out from behind a tree and smatter our brains with a shovel." The student, tired of eating free biscuits, concluded, like Roberto Rossellini, that Germany was the place to get to know Germans.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 6, 2013