Germany’s Great Silence

Sixty years after the end of World War II

Pacific News Service

May 2005

On a calm spring day in Berlin recently a horse with a dead-looking soldier on its back clopped across the cobblestones of a leafy neighborhood. The soldier wore a gas mask and slumped forward on the horse’s mane, or wobbled dangerously in the saddle.

Berliners are used to unusual things, but this was bizarre. People scowled from cars and cafes. Kids ran excitedly behind the horse (“He’s not a puppet! He’s real!”), and the occasional homeless man walked up to give his opinion.

The rider belonged to an “art-action” group called the Heavenly Four, which wanted to celebrate the defeat of Nazism with a dramatization of a satirical song by Bertolt Brecht. In “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” an infantryman killed in World War I is dug up by a medical commission and sent back to the front.

“He’s the soldier that Germans always dig up to send into another war,” said Michael Wildmoser, a tall, young urban engineer from Bavaria who helped organize the event. “We want to warn against war in general.”

Mr. Wildmoser and his friends belong to a lively wing of a debate in Germany over how to remember World War II that reaches far beyond the anniversary of V-E Day. The “Heavenly Four” name refers to the Allies who liberated Germans from Nazism on May 8, 1945, and liberation is the word used by any German who wants to admit the nation’s crimes and banish the ghost of Hitler.

The point of the Heavenly Four’s event, in fact, was to counter a march in Berlin by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, which loathes the word liberation. The party tried to mount a parade in Berlin on May 8 to protest Allied “crimes” at the end of World War II. Berliners turned out in the thousands to squelch the parade; the National Democratic Party is even more alien to them than a dead soldier on horseback. Still, the party’s conscious (and increasingly successful) idea is to make Germans feel like victims again, the way they felt after World War I.

This lunatic position would be easy to dismiss if the subject of wartime defeat weren’t so taboo in Germany. But the National Democratic Party speaks up, where other Germans don’t, about the firebombing of cities like Hamburg and Berlin and Dresden between 1943 and 1945.

“I think we speak for a silent majority,” says the party’s chairman, Udo Voigt. “The current government wants to celebrate ‘liberation’ [from Nazism] on May 8, but many Germans don’t feel themselves liberated by the Allies. … So we say: ‘We’re not celebrating. Enough with the cult of guilt. There is no collective guilt.’”

The problem with Mr. Voigt is that he speaks for a quiet, subterranean strain of German feeling. Not only civilians but whole segments of German civilization were incinerated in the fire-bombings; ancient cities like Dresden and Cologne were literally hollowed out. “The destruction of the city itself, with all its past as well as its present,” wrote the British poet Stephen Spender after visiting Cologne in 1948, “is like a reproach to the people who go on living there. The sermons in the stones of Germany preach nihilism.”

Whether the Allies could have broken the Nazi machine by demolishing supply lines and oil refineries instead of city centers was a controversy even in Churchill’s time. Some excellent German writers, like the late W.G. Sebald, have started to mention it. The problem for Germany is to outline its loss without pretending to be victimized.

Mr. Sebald points out that German literature, and to some extent German memory, draws a blank on the almost nuclear devastation left after the war. “The images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness,” writes Mr. Sebald in his final book, On the Natural History of Destruction. “I was not surprised when a teacher in Detmold told me … that as a boy in the immediate postwar years he quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm, [photos] brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg secondhand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography.”

The resurgence of parties like the NPD—which won 12 legislative seats in the eastern state of Saxony last fall, and keeps making offensive noises about a “German Holocaust” at the end of World War II—can be explained, in part, by this shameful silence. The extreme German right stands for national pride in a nation that has very little national pride (still, after two generations).

Most Germans will tell you they mistrust patriotism; they grew up with the idea that Americans rescued them from Hitler, and any contrary opinion still has a ring of disobedience, bitterness, ingratitude.

“The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped,” wrote Mr. Sebald, “that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived. Scarcely anyone van now doubt that Air Marshall Goring would have wiped out London if his technical resources had allowed him to do so.”

And that’s exactly the problem. Hitler had tried to erase a people; he would have gone on to erase London and Moscow and New York. But the towering moral shame that still shadows German pride isn’t enough to erase a collective grief.

Michael Scott Moore


Letter to National Catholic Reporter, where this piece was republished under a slightly different title:

Thanks for sharing Michael Scott Moore’s Viewpoint, “Germany’s Unspeakable Collective Grief” (NCR, June 3). The topic of German suffering during and after the war is so complex, so mined with sensibilities, it’s a wonder that anyone on either side of the pond ever writes about it. I found the piece well explored and highly relevant.

I do take issue with Moore’s statement, “The problem is for Germany to outline its loss without pretending to be victimized.” Surely many Germans — young, elderly, infirm or handicapped — were innocent of both genocide and the waging of aggressive war, yet all were victimized without distinction in the carpet bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, Essen, Wurzburg, Pforzheim and many other cities.

I lived in Wurzburg for three years in the early ’70s as military wife, mother of a young son and member of a local charismatic Catholic-Lutheran Gebetskreis (prayer community). Wurzburg, a medieval city of no strategic importance, was destroyed by RAF incendiary bombs on the night of March 16, 1945. Five thousand German civilians died as well as 10 Allied POWs. Nine thousand were made homeless.

Twenty-five years later, the bombing (and the starvation after the war) was still widely discussed by local citizens. There was no taboo about the topic. Some elders simply volunteered the observation that bombing a city full of schools and hospitals made no sense. I didn’t disagree with them. Others asked why the Allies did this. I had no answer. Younger Germans, while conscious of their parents’ suffering, were in a very different place. Still these stories were passed on in families. In my opinion, some Germans still want to hear British and American leaders say that the gratuitous targeting of civilians was a moral mistake.

Louise Barnes Vera

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Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction, as well as a Silver Nautilus Award in Journalism and Investigative Reporting; and Yaddo, MacDowell, and DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest fellowships for his fiction.

He’s been a visiting professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and UC Riverside. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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