Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Germans of Character

Obviously, the most important country of the last two hundred years is the good old U. S. of A.  Talk about lucky.  The difference between South Africa and the US, I once read, was that in the US the aboriginal North American population died from European diseases whereas in Africa the Europeans died of African diseases.

But the second most interest people has to be the Germans.  You can start with Kant and Wittgenstein.  Between those two the Germans did most of the philosophizing and most of the science.  Not to mention the political science and the psychology.  Then we get to the military arts, organization, strategy and tactics.  And don't forget education.

But while the US was incredibly lucky, the Germans were incredibly unlucky.  Their practical politics stank, from Bismarck to Kaiser Bill to Adolf Hitler.  Now, of course, the poor bloody Germans are caught in the mess of the Euro.

It's easy to think of the Germans as fascist pigs until you start to read about them.  I just finished a memoir of life in Germany from 1944 to 1951, German Boy: A Child in War by a man, Wolfgang W. E. Samuel, that was 10 years old in 1945 and living east of the Oder in Sagan, a town now in Poland.  Or there is the mother of Hans von Spakovsky, who got her professional ballerina certificate in Dresden in 1944.  Both of these young people were caught in the Soviet Zone, and both had harrowing escapes.  Both seem to have grown up to be adults of almost saintly virtue.  Both, of course, came to America, Wolfgang because his mother married a sergeant in the USAF after divorcing her wayward German husband.  Hans's mother Traudel also immigrated to the US in 1951 on her status as a refugee, a Flüctling, from eastern Europe.

There are many moving passages in German Boy, including the moment just before Wolfgang and his mother and father left the Soviet Zone to sneak across the border into the West.  Wolfgang was worried about getting his grade book so that he could show the teachers in the West his status.  It wasn't until he was explaining all this to a trusted teacher in his Communist school that he realized what a terrible mistake he was making.  Fortunately his teacher told him that he wouldn't need his grade book.
"Just go. Don't say anything to anyone. Do you understand what I am telling you? Don't say anything to your friends, to other students, but especially not to any teachers. Say nothing to anyone."
It's important to remember that, in the midst of terror, in the midst of utter collapse, when children are begging for food and mothers are selling their bodies for food, there are people of profound goodness, even in December 1946 in the Soviet Zone of defeated Germany.

We often say that crisis brings out the worst in people.  But it also brings out the best in them.

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