Germany’s Fateful Day

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last week, November 9, we had Schicksaltag, Germany’s fateful day.

Why so fateful?

  • One-hundred-and-sixty-one years ago, the Viennese executed liberal politician Robert Blum for his leading role in the Revolution of 1848, which tried to establish a more democratic government in the German-speaking lands.
  • Ninety-one years ago, Wilhelm II was dethroned and the Weimar Republic was declared from a window in the Reichstag.
  • Eighty-six years ago, Hitler tried to overthrow that same republic in a beer hall in Munich. Four policemen and sixteen putschers were killed, and Hitler was ultimately sent to jail.
  • Eighty-four years ago, the SS was created to be Hitler’s personal bodyguards.
  • Seventy-one years ago, the Nazis attacked Jewish-owned businesses all over Germany in what has become known as Kristallnacht for the smashed windows. Some people, among them me, feel that calling it Kristallnacht sanitizes what was actually a bloody event where over 1,300 Jews were killed. They prefer to call it Pogromnacht.
  • Oh right, and twenty years ago this guy was giving a press conference about new laws that would allow for border crossings for people with the proper papers, and he didn’t know when the laws were going to go into effect, so he said “As far as I know immediately,” and then a whole lot of people showed up at the border, and nobody knew what was going on, so they opened up the gates, and that’s what we call the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For all of these reasons, Berlin’s happiest memory isn’t really one that it can celebrate with a goodonscience. I went to the twentieth anniversary party, took some pictures of people’s umbrellas, and came back to a Pogromnacht remembrance around the corner from where I live.

Living with this history is like living in a minefield, but it often feels like this particular minefield is the only place where the Germans really feel at home.

I play with ways of describing my admittedly nebulous Fulbright project to see how people react. Once I left out any reference to the war, just saying “I’m interested in how public historians here talk about labor migration, particularly about Turkish labor migration, and how that fits into German history” and the first response I got was “Oh, so are you interested in comparisons between Zwangsarbeiter [forced laborers] under Hitler and Turkish Gastarbeiter [guest workers]?”

I am taking a political science class about public memory and migration. I wrote the discussion paper for the first week, crafting an argument about Turks and Italians and the culinary approach to migration history, and came home sobbing that I had been “Godwined.”:

While the Germans in my classes seem to trample all over their own history, I don’t feel qualified to say anything about much of anything anymore. I have a good spiel about the lack of lesbian history at the Gay Museum, one that I can give convincingly in German, so that sometimes people ask if I’m British or even Dutch (anything is a compliment compared to “American”). I can order a sandwich in Turkish.

Otherwise, I walk around in a constant state of crisis, unsure of how to explain my fascination with a culture that’s not my own. My working elevator spiel is to say that I’m interested in how individuals and societies process trauma, because it’s trauma, because how could you not be interested in trauma? German history seems to have the richest literature on that question, but the words feel silly coming out of my mouth, the grand presumption of them.

I wonder if anyone else feels the same way, but “Don’t you feel guilty about your interest in Germany? Because I feel like a trespasser,” isn’t exactly sparkling party conversation. I write tasting notes on beer coasters instead, shrug when asked “Why Germany?” and make jokes about my classically East German looks.

More and more I find that I speak this language well enough that I forget to recognize my own. I went to a lesbian-feminist brunch of sorts and was asked to state my name, plan of study, and preferred personal pronoun.

“Wir können uns mit einander duzen, oder?”

It takes me a few moments to recognize my mistake—they’re not asking whether I wish to be addressed formally or informally, but my preferred gender pronouns.

It’s not the first time I’ve over-translated but it shakes me. Am I so busy imagining myself as a trespasser that I can’t recognize the similarities anymore?

The next night I go to the apartment of a German friend and spend fifteen minutes looking for the three separate recycling bins into which to separate my tea bag. I finally give up and ask her, and she laughs. “We’re not all crazy environmentalists here, you know.” Thank god, I think, and dump the whole bag into the trash.

Germans like to ask me why Washington DC has a museum about the Holocaust but not about slavery. It’s their favorite analogy, and I don’t know how I feel about it, except to say that we should have a museum about slavery, that it makes sense, that I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with the Holocaust. Somebody says to me pointedly “Well, you’re Jewish, right?” and I say “No” too quickly, too sharply.

A Georgian asks me what Americans think about her country, and I don’t know how to tell her that we don’t.

I read a book of interviews with Turkish immigrants about how they process German history, featuring a kid who explained that Kurds are nothing more than “Bergtürken,” and ”Bergtürken are like East Germans, but in Turkey.” He goes on to say that the Kurds’ claims to an independent state are as legitimate as the claims of the East Germans—“And what would Germany do if the Ossis wanted their own country? It would tell them to fuck off… it would fight a war against them.”

I write the quote down and carry it around for a week, struck by the audacity of the analogy. I need to be more audacious, I think. I need to forge boldly through the minefield of metaphors and explode one that’s uniquely my own.

(While I fret, Bon Jovi plays his new single at the Schicksaltag celebration. Some people have all the fun.)

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