Category Archives: German History

Sybille Bedford: Resilience and Grace

Thanks to Amy Wheldon on the Bloom blog for introducing me to Sybille Bedford. I’m just disappearing off in search of a book by this fine writer who was so modern in every way and was blessed with an eye for the universal.

Bloom

by Amy Weldon

1.
In our modern global world, more of us know people who move among many cultures: citizens of one country by birth, they might work in another and go to school in a third. Some are artists, some are businesspeople, some are refugees. Although they may still think of themselves as being “from” somewhere, their real allegiance is to the whole wide world. They’re concerned with border-transcending issues of human rights and the environment, because they know firsthand what oil spills in the Gulf might do to the migratory patterns of sea turtles in Tioman. 14-hour plane flights are familiar. “People are surprisingly similar, underneath it all” is not an abstraction. They’ve learned to find portable sources of meaning: curiosity, deep delight in place, and connections with loved ones across geography and time. You’ll never hear them say, “I don’t care much about politics;” they know that…

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Filed under Europe, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, World Wars

Old Europe Ain’t What She Used to Be…

…Isn’t that a blessing?

 

This is not the first time that the movement of migrants into her parts is changing the character of the many diverse societies on the continent. It has been happening for millions of years. So why are some people pretending that the current status quo needs defending? Of course, there are elements that must be defended at all cost. Those include the rule of law and human rights which have been hard-won from the forces who would subject us. Some things are just not up for negotiation.

We have only to look at the two world wars in the 20th century to recognize what must be fought for and how precious peace is.

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On 27th January Holocaust Memorial Day was celebrated worldwide. For the uninformed, this year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops (1944). The truth about the heinous crimes Hitler’s Germany had been committing in murdering innocent Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma and anyone else who opposed the regime became a fact that could no longer be ignored or denied. This crime was the culmination of what happens in a country where basic human rights are flaunted and the rule of law replaced with jack-boot justice. In coming years the world would also find out about the genocides committed by Stalin and co. One can debate at length which of the two dictators murdered more innocent people, but that question is academic.

The nature of authoritarianism has altered in the course of those 70 years. Rather than institutionalized terrorism from pseudo-elected governments, now terrorism is diffuse, existing in cells – some sleeping until woken for duty, and supported by internet recruitment of the next suicide bombers or IS warriors. It is impossible to combat effectively.

On 7th January the long automatic rifle of terrorists’ justice reached out to Paris and murdered 17 people – some random as in the Jewish supermarket, some targeted as the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. Do they really believe that we of this western civilization will surrender our freedoms just because they kill people they consider to be committing crimes against Allah and Mohammed?

Personally, I find it extremely difficult to understand why these Islamists think they have the right to terrorize the modern world and transport it back to the Middle Ages. For them, tolerance is an unkown concept. And quite honestly, they aren’t thinking this through. Were they to succeed in destroying the West, they would lose the internet tools that serve them so well. They would also have to give up their cell phones, their SUVs and all their modern weaponry. What if the source of their bankrolling (oil?) was no longer raking in the money to finance it all? They fail to recognise that these amenities exist only because of the freedom of ideas, speech, press and a lot of capitalism.

Of course, there have been positive side-effects from the Paris attacks. Mainstream Muslims are speaking out and disowning terrorism. And indeed, we must be very careful not to judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals. As they have said, those terrorists are not genuine Muslims. They are instumentalizing the religion for evil ends.

As a result of the attacks, tens of thousands – in France, millions of people – took to the streets to march and express their solidarity with the victims and their families. This all comes at a time when, in Germany, some groups have appeared on the scene to defend German culture from becoming inundated by foreign influences. The high number of foreigners is supposedly endangering the country as we know it. The largest center for this is the eastern city of Dresden, a city with a comparatively low percentage of people with migration background. Is this anxiety because of the 40 years during which east German society had little contact with the outside world?

Similar groups have sprung up across Germany, but their demonstrations are comparatively small and the turnout is totally outnumbered by the demos of those opposing them and marching for a “colorful” Germany. These anti-immigrant demos were reported in the foreign press . Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to consider it newsworthy to report on the opposing demos. That is disturbing!

However, I have been heartened in my belief that Germany and a large portion of its citizens are opening their arms to receive the refugees streaming in from such diverse places as Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Serbia. Our newspapers are filled with articles on local private initiatives to find housing, furnishings and clothing for these people.  Private citizens organize get-togethers to welcome them into the communities. And for those who intend to settle, they are offering German courses. Everyone knows: language is the key to integration.

This help for the refugees is not just coming from one segment of society. Young and old are pitching in. In fact, many of the older generation who experienced being driven out of their homes in Poland or Czechoslovakia after the war and were forced to build a new life in western Germany, are especially open to helping. In the late 1940s and early 1950s they were in the same boat, arriving with nothing more than a few meager possessions. Now they are returning the favor – passing it forward, so to speak.

Europe is changing, developing. Nothing is perfect, to be sure, but to stand still would be fatal.

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Filed under civil rights, Europe, German History, Holocaust, human rights, Terror, World Wars

Wolf Blitzer’s Journey

The CNN correspondent uncovers his roots

The Peace Bridge author, me in other words, has just watched the amazing journey that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer undertook to uncover his roots. It took him far back to Auschwitz where his grandparents were murdered but his parents survived, and then to Buffalo, NY, actually Kenmore, where I also spent most of my childhood. We went to the same high school – Kenmore West. He graduated 2 years before me in 1966.

At Ken West there was a large contingent of really bright Jewish kids in my classes and I was always in awe of their intellectual development – far beyond mine, that was for sure. But at the tender age of 15-17, I had no idea about their backgrounds, that some of them must have been children of Holocaust survivors. In the late 60s I had only just about heard of the Holocaust and no way would it have occurred to me to make any connections between it and the Jewish kids in my classes.

But I do wonder if it was my memories of those bright kids, like Wolf Blitzer, that left me with a permanent historical fixation on the Holocaust, where some of the brightest and most productive members of European society were murdered. It may well be this that led me to write a story about a Jewish family trying to overcome the late and lasting consequences of Hitler’s Reich.

I am thankful to Wolf’s film for bringing this connection home to me. Better late than never! On a more upbeat note, I loved that he, too, when on a visit back to Buffalo, also goes on a pilgrimage to Anderson’s Custard and Ted’s Hotdog Stands on Sheridan Drive. Funny, the things you take with you on life’s journey.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MaiaIdjcK8

 

 

 

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Filed under German History, Holocaust, Remembering, Roots

GERMAN REUNIFICATION – 25 YEARS AGO

WE’VE COME SO FAR – WE MUSTN’T TURN BACK

I am shaking off the stupor caused by house-related renovations to comment on a breath-taking event that took place 25 years ago. Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the situation in the German Democratic Republic escalated. East German “tourists” went on holiday to Czechoslovakia and Hungary – just about the only places they were allowed to travel. But they did not return home. They ended up camping on the grounds of the German embassies in Prague, Budapest and even Vienna, while behind-the-scenes frantic diplomacy was deciding their fate.

Back in East Germany, while the powers-that-were were gearing up to celebrate the up-coming 40-year birthday of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in October, activists in Leipzig and Dresden and other eastern cities continued their weekly Monday Demonstrations. The meetings and marches were non-violent and centered around the Protestant Church, an institution just about tolerated by the government. Plenty of “unofficial” Stasi operatives took part, to be sure.

What did these people want anyway? Just everyday things really. Like being allowed to travel unhindered and not be walled in. Like the freedom to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Like not being spied on by neighbors and “friends” who had been enlisted for this purpose by the Stasi – the secret state security police. Just simple things really, things we in the West have always taken for granted.

Of course on the west side of the wall, West Germans watched expectantly, fearfully. There was no telling where it would all end. And from past experience, there was a good chance it would not end well. But bit by bit, the regime granted concessions. And then, almost by accident, on November 9th the wall opened. People turned up at various Berlin border crossings, demanding to be let through. East German border guards who were not able to get any clear orders from above, raised the barriers. Thank heavens, they had no desire to fire on their own.

And my husband and I watched this spectacle, wide-eyed and incredulous, from the comfort of our West German living room, along with most other “Wessis” (West Germans). From one day to the next, separated families could be reunited, ordinary “Ossis” (East Germans) could suddenly go where they pleased. And over the following months the road taken in Trabis and Wartburgs would lead to what became an inevitable destination: reunification.

Those were heady days, weeks and months. We became addicted to following the news reports on TV and radio, anxious to hear of the next unbelievable milestone in the journey to once again becoming one Volk. And 25 years later a generation has grown up that did not know the sorrow of a Germany rent in two by the post-World War II settlements. Those young people can’t imagine what it means not to be free.

And although the east of the country still lags behind economically, huge strides have been made, billions have been invested in infrastructure. BMW builds cars in Leipzig, VW in Dresden. Berlin is now, once again as it should be, the capital of the country. Both the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, hail from the east.

Of course, the fall of the inner-German border was just the beginning. Along with it, the entire Iron Curtain came crashing down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Voila, the end of the Cold War and the commencement of a new world order.

Unfortunately, black shadows loom overhead. Need I list the crises that dominate the news every night? The new world order has not brought world peace but new instability. One of the crises in particular seems to me to be so stoppable. That would be the Ukraine.

Why, dear Mr Putin, do you want to go backwards rather than forwards?
I wish he’d give us an answer.

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Filed under Beginnings, Cities, Endings, German History, Remembering

August 4th – Commemoration of Britain’s Declaration of War Against Germany

All day Monday services of commemoration took place in Belgium and across the UK. In the evening the BBC broadcast the services held at the military cemetery Saint Symphorien near Mons, Belgium ( the site of the first battle between the British and German forces). This cemetery where soldiers from all the combatant countries were buried next to each other was the idea of a German officer in 1915 – during the height of the war. The idea was to create a Waldfriedhof, a forest cemetery, honoring the sacrifice on all sides.

British, Belgian and German heads of state and several heads of government were present and participated actively in the proceedings. Serenely orchestrated combining music, poetry and prose, it was a fitting remembrance of the millions who died, I hate to say it,  completely in vain.

CORRECTION OF AUGUST 1st POST

I would like to correct my post in which I stated that Russia declared war on Germany on August 1, 1914. In fact it was the other way around.

In the lethal chain of events that precipitated war on so many fronts, Germany declared war on Russia when they mobilized on Germany’s eastern borders.The Russian-German border ran right down the middle of where Poland should have been!

Russian claims  that they were “only” mobilizing against Austria-Hungary because of the latter’s war against Serbia were of no help since Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary.

August 4th marks Britain’s declaration of war against Germany upon their invasion of neutral Belgium. And so the tragic timeline continues during the course of August and on into the following 4 years.

It is scary the way so many journalists are comparing the current situation with that of 100 years ago: Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Libya, Iraq. And let’s not forget Afghanistan and Pakistan. Where else have I left out?

The only hope is that we did learn something from all the mistakes of the 20th century. Nothing is predestined. And there mustn’t be any attempts scorned at finding solutions

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Filed under Endings, German History, Great Britain, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

The Wooden Leg

100 years ago today Russia declared war on Germany and the fatal circus that had already begun between Austria and Serbia began its rise to global dimensions. In the course of 1914 there were 22 declarations of war.

This morning I heard on the radio a fascinating persepective from a man whose grandfather was wounded early in the war. A very young August Müller lost his leg and his war service was over. Every year that loss was remembered and celebrated within their family. On first consideration, it seems a weird thing to celebrate.But think about it. If August Müller had not lost his leg, he may well have stayed in the war long enough to lose his life. Considering the number of dead in that war – 17 million on all sides including civilians – this would not have been surprising. Thus this particular branch of the Müller family has August’s wooden leg to thank that they are living and thriving today, 100 years later.

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Filed under Beginnings, German History, Remembering, World Wars

100 Years Later – And Still No Wiser?

The past few months have been full of reminders of the events in the summer of 1914 that drove Europe to the most destructive war ever seen by man to that date. Echoing the title of Christopher Clark’s monumental work on the beginnings of the Great War, the empires involved – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain – sleep-walked into a conflagration that would change the continent physically, socially and politically forever. Seventeen million dead human individuals (9 m soldiers, 8 m civilians) from eight countries, that was the horrendous price paid for the hubris of emperors and politicians.

And yet that First global war has been eclipsed by the Second (with a total death toll approximated between 60 and 85 million!) in such a way as to have allowed the First to retreat into the dark black hole of memory we reserve for much of our history. This  centenary is the perfect opportunity to raise our collective – and personal – awareness of mankind’s inhumanity to its own species. Television is awash with programs to do just this and I can only recommend watching them.

And what is the point of digging up what is for some a period of history better forgotten? Besides remembering those who sacrificed their lives – on all sides and fronts – I still believe – if we really work at it – we are capable of learning from our past mistakes. Without the First World War and its ignominious Versailles Treaty (see photo below), there would have been no Second World War. Do any of us really want to experience a Third World War – with today’s nuclear potential?

Which brings me, the American ex-pat and German-by-choice, back to one of my favorite themes: The European Union…

The European Union may have many weaknesses and, Lord knows, we love to complain about its regulatory derailments and bureaucratic bloat, but it  is the child of a post-war France and a post-war Germany who were determined to end death and destruction on European ground. As a political body reacting to conflicts within as well as beyond its borders, Europe has a reputation for slow reactions. Think the Yugoslavian disintegration into war in the 90s, the recent Euro crisis and now the ever deepening Ukrainian crisis with its threat to the balance of power between the east and west. In these instances, however, I’d like to believe the slowness is deliberate. Rather than sliding –  sleep-walking – into escalating conflicts, today’s leaders must calculate their justifiable national interests and the consequences of pursuing them.

Personally, I am prepared to suffer a lot of somewhat inane and seemingly sclerotic bureauocracy from an as-yet-imperfect European political system if it prevents blood-letting on world war scales.

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Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

WARSAW II: Five Days in May

Warsaw Old Town

Warsaw Old Town

We had no illusions that the days we would spend in Warsaw in the year’s merriest of months would be filled with unmitigated delight. For what could such a visit be but a heavy-duty history lesson, one not lost on people already interested in the subject and people who, although not German, have lived all their adult lives in Germany.

The tragedies suffered by the Poles did not begin in the 20th century, but as I mentioned in my last post, had already culminated in 1795 with the partitioning of the country between the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Not until the end of World War I did Poland resume its existence as a nation. Barely had it recovered its national identity when it was once again under siege by Germany, and soon afterwards, by Russia.

A morning visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising was an eye-opener and I covered that in my last post. The old Jewish Cemetery and the new Jewish Museum, designed to look live the wave that parted the Red Sea for the Jews to escape from Egypt, both bear witness to the rich past of the Polish Jewish population and its abrupt demise at the hands of Nazi Germany.

However, I am very pleased to be able to report, on a much more upbeat note, about what we experienced of Poland in the here and now and beyond the historic sites. It seems we had inadvertently chosen the time of our stay well. The weather was perfect with sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s centigrade. This meant the whole population was out and about enjoying their city. Everywhere we went something was going on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Festival in the Old Town

Festival in the Old Town

Along the main thoroughfare of the old town, a children’s festival was in full swing with lots of clowns and balloons and music playing. The street restaurants and cafes were busy; the cold beer tasted refreshing as it washed down our lunch of grilled kielbasa. One thing jumped right out and struck me in the face: What a young population lived in Warsaw! Kids, teens, babies in buggies, young-marrieds and lots of young pregnant women(!) – everyone was having a good time; everyone looked well-off.

On the Sunday we crossed the Wisla River to Praga on the other side. In Praski Park, located along the river, families strolled by, on their way to or from the zoo. Kids rode bikes or whooshed by on skates. We followed the sound of music and landed at a pavilion where a 4-piece band was playing. People sat on benches, consuming their own picnics and fetching cold brews from a stand. We couldn’t resist joining them. Soon the musicians were substituted by a group of seniors who sang and danced. The dozen or so ladies all wore straw hats and gloves and floral skirts. The three token gents had cloth caps on their heads. Although the music they sang was foreign to our ears, it wasn’t to the multigenerational crowd. They sang along. One lady in the audience danced with her poodle in her arms. Others danced, too, women with women or mothers with sons. Small children wandered onto the stage and danced in circles.

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At home we are always hearing about the flood of young Poles who leave the country seeking work in western Europe or beyond. Either there are still plenty left behind or they were all back visiting on that May weekend. Assuming the latter is unlikely, we had the distinct impression that Poland will not any time soon be suffering from the demographic problem – the ageing of society – that plagues many of the world’s advanced industrialized countries.

Discovering whether the Polish baby boom can be attributed to their strict adherence to the anti-birth control policies of the Vatican, or if their fecundity is more a reflection of their deep love of family, would require a visit longer than a few days in May. What I can conclude from the visit though, is that Poland has made great strides since the walls and curtains of eastern Europe fell 25 years ago.

After all the tragic history lessons, how great it is to leave Poland with a positive feeling.

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The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

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When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

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Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering

EUROPE – The Great War…

…and why you should vote in the elections for the European Parliament

Ninety-nine years and ten months ago, or to state it exactly, on 28 July 1914, the Great War – World War I – broke out. In the long aftermath of World War II, this earlier conflagration takes a backseat in our minds when considering the enormous tragedies that occurred in the twentieth century. For this reason it is well and good that the centenary of the war’s commencement is being highlighted throughout 2014.

Every historian and commentator of note is quoting Christopher Clarke’s monumental work, The Sleepwalkers, in which he documents how the governments and monarchs of the time allowed the continent – and beyond – to slip into a war that would permanently change the landscape of Europe, and in its wake, create the conditions that caused the following war. If there had been no Great War, the second one would not have happened.

Can one ever speak of a good after-effect of war? If so, then we must count the post-World War II efforts on the part of the leaders of France and Germany to develop the trade agreements and cultural exchanges that would gradually lead to the founding of the European Common Market and, its ultimate form, the European Union.

On Sunday, 25 May, European citizens are called upon to vote for the European Parliament. To many, this is a governing body of little interest, a talk-shop of bureaucrats, seemingly possessing only the power to regulate the curvature of the banana or the size of condoms. However, despite its sometimes annoying attempt to  standardize portions of our lives that we didn’t realize needed it, it is also an important element holding the member countries of the European Union together and the only organ of the European organization in which citizens have a direct voice.

Do not give your voice away by not voting or by voting for populist or nationalist parties, who are by nature reactionary. Do we really want a Europe reverting to its 19th century state of individual nations that only understand the world from parochial perspectives? Doing that would mean missing the larger view of a continent that must accept its responsibility as a global player and grasp the opportunities that position presents. The current situation in Ukraine should make us think twice.

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