German history after the Holocaust

Posted: Dec 14, 2006 12:01 AM
German history after the Holocaust

BERLIN -- A choir from a suburban Chicago high school came to the Jewish Museum in Berlin not long ago to sing in commemoration of the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht ("the Night of Broken Glass"), recalling the pogrom in 1938 when the Nazis broke into houses and stores, destroyed more than 1,000 synagogues, murdered 91 Jews and arrested over 30,000 Jewish men. It was a brutal foreshadowing of the Holocaust to come.

The Chicago teenagers sang songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, interspersed with narrated recollections of Jews who survived the Holocaust, talking of their lives and losses. Beautiful young voices soared on hymns and spirituals from slave times, powerful modern protests against prejudice old and new. German schoolchildren peppered the Americans with questions in a lively dialogue after the singing.

The German hosts described the occasion as "sensitive and evocative," but one of them told the American teacher who accompanied the choir that it was too bad that the kids hadn't taken note of another important date that fell on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Nov. 9-10 marked the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The visiting teacher conceded ruefully that he had been unaware of all that.

These bright and earnest Americans had studied minute details of anti-Semitism in Germany during the decades of the '30s and 40's, but were ignorant of the history of Germany in the years after the war, of the yearning for freedom that led ordinary people to confront communist tyranny and that eventually led to the tumbling of the wall.

How unfortunate that classroom time is rarely given to the history of a divided Germany before the Iron Curtain finally collapsed. All over Berlin, tourists are reminded of the fate of the 6 million Jews who died in Hitler's "final solution." But the grim history of Soviet tyranny in East Germany -- and specifically in East Berlin -- is only now getting the tourist attention it deserves, as many German museums have begun to document life in the police state from 1949 to 1989.

The Berlin Wall museum exposes the chilling effects on Berliners on both sides of the wall, as well as those murdered trying to escape from East Germany. After the wall fell, the Germans planned a permanent exhibition of 2,000 years of their history, to replace a tawdry East Berlin museum whose mission was to guide the German Democratic Republic (GDR) toward a national identity shaped by the "virtues" of socialism.

In June, the German Historical Museum at last opened in the beautifully renovated Armory on Unter den Linden in the heart of Berlin. Its exhibitions begin with portrayals of the Celts, Romans and early German tribes, and move forward through the 20th century to the present day, dealing with the contrasting ways of life in the communist East and the democratic Federal Republic in the West. The pain of national unification gets its due.

A small museum a few blocks away on the River Spree is devoted entirely to life under socialism in East Germany, including the terror inside the commonplace. One exhibition illustrates the work of the Stasi, the secret police who spied on everybody. Books by Orwell and Kafka were banned because they cut too close to reality. Visitors can even eavesdrop on conversations as the Stasi did, with hidden microphones. The Stasi, according to some estimates, employed more than 90,000 full-time employees and more than twice as many as informers. (Other museums expose the sinister Stasi bureaucracy and prison.)

Visitors to the GDR museum can also sit in the cramped socialist car of metal and plastic called the Trabant ("Trabi"). Junk though it was, there was a waiting list for six years, and the car cost 7,400 German marks in 1962, a price equal to the annual salary of a skilled industrial worker. East German adolescents who couldn't get coveted American jeans had to be satisfied with baggy synthetic imitations made with typical socialist skill.

In one sad photograph illustrating socialist day care, five tiny girls and boys sit in a row on a collective potty, where they must stay until all have finished their "business." A Freudian criminologist blames this potty ritual for an outburst of adult "right wing extremism" in 1999, but you don't have to misread Freud to recognize cruel collective conformity.

In trendy postmodern intellectual circles, German "culture" in its broadest sense is portrayed as a substitute for politics. But these museums make clear that German culture, past and present, whether creative or coercive, passionate or passive, permissive or doctrinaire, liberal or conservative, is always political, with a strong cultural impact -- sometimes for better and often for worse. American teenagers won't want to sing about that, but they ought to understand its importance.