Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2010 17 Teves, 5771
Snow on Hitler's Parade
By Suzanne Fields
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | BERLIN — Berlin, Paris and London lie becalmed beneath a blanket of winter white. People come and go, talking only of snow, snow, snow. They're obsessed with the weather, as if their winters are usually balmy seasons of sunshine and warmth. They've forgotten, if only for a fortnight or so, fears of terrorism and anger over intimate pat-downs. Tourists are furious over cancelled airline flights.
Museums are the winners. People are eager to stay inside. An especially sensitive and painful exhibit is drawing crowds in Berlin, breaking taboos and reviving a lively subject that no one could have expected to be a crowd pleaser. The German Historical Museum looks at Hitler and the ways the German people embraced him. For a nation where selling "Mein Kampf" or displaying Nazi memorabilia is forbidden, there's lots about how Germans of all ranks in society participated in the rise of Adolf Hitler.
A curator emphasizes that the show is not about Hitler as a personality, but the way the Germans themselves created him. That's why it's called "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime." There are photographs of adoring mothers and children writing letters of admiration and affection, fondly stitching swastikas into embroidered presents for der fuehrer.
The focus is on ordinary, everyday items, such as playing cards with pictures of the leaders of the Third Reich. Quite chilling is a portrait of an ordinary German woman painted on a canvas with words on the reverse side in Hebrew from the Torah, suggesting that the sacred book of the Jews was cruelly recycled for someone's creative destruction. A rabbi's wife tells how her daughter sat in a classroom where the teacher talked about the inferior genetic makeup of the Jews, and the child was forced to endure the taunts of her classmates.
This exhibition follows mainstream books by contemporary historians documenting the way ordinary Germans not only benefited from the confiscation of property of the Jews, but actively contributed to their isolation, exile and death. One scholar describes those ordinary Germans as "enablers, colluders, co-criminals in the Holocaust."
Last year, a holiday season exhibition in Cologne showed how the Nazis manipulated Christmas, encouraging Christmas tree ornaments and cookies fashioned of swastikas. The Nazis tried to eliminate the symbol of the star, either the six-pointed symbol of Judaism or the bright starshine on the manger of the baby Jesus.
For the most part, the churches in Germany of the Third Reich were either co-opted or silenced. The Rev. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran pastor who was a major exception, loudly defending Jews and urging Christian resistance to Hitler, was cut off in mid-sentence during a radio address two days after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. He was forbidden to write for print or to speak on the radio. He was hanged three weeks before the Nazi surrender in 1945. The Thousand-Year Reich thus lasted 12 years.
Hitler retains our fascination as much for his evil as for his ordinariness. This exhibition emphasizes that by displaying the 46 der Speigel cover stories published since 1964 (sure bets to revive dips in circulation). The exhibition often reduces Hitler to comic-book dimension, with footage from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," which held up Hitler as an evil absurdity as early as 1940. (We were still formally at peace with Nazi Germany when it was released.)
The Germans — unlike the Japanese and the Austrians — have amply documented their past, assuming moral responsibility for their guilt. Chancellor Angela Merkel is able to strike a debate over immigration without acquiring the tarnish of history. When she says that "multiculturalism has failed," no one suspects that she's recalling a narrow dogmatic German "culturalism." She wants immigrants to be educated to adapt to their new country.
But German "culture" isn't what it used to be. It's been a long time since Germany was heralded as first in the arts, science or engineering. Before 1933, it had won more Nobel Prizes than any other country. By 1939, Germany had sent many of its finest minds fleeing into exile, or to the death camps — by one estimate, 60,000 writers, artists and scientists.
Peter Watson, a British journalist, argues in his new book, "The German Genius," that it's time for the British in particular and the rest of the world in general to stop thinking of "Nazis" as the single touchstone for understanding Germany. The Germans cannot return to innocence, but they have regained dignity in taking responsibility for their past.
"There will never be a definitive and unequivocal answer to the question of how such a monstrous regime could gain ascendancy in a country as civilized as Germany," observes the newspaper Die Welt. Nevertheless, such explanations as there are can help understand dictators, past, present and, alas, the future.
More than a half-century has passed since the Nazis prescribed the "final solution" — the rest is the tragic history of a brutal and bloody century. After the war, the Allies tried to impose economic stability on a Germany divided into four occupation zones, and the Soviet-dominated East had to build a wall of mortar and barbed wire to keep their people from risking death to get to the prosperous capitalist west.
Those left behind in the east despised the Marxist tyranny all the more, finally heeding the plea of Ronald Reagan to Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down that wall." It was not the "end of history," as certain historians suggested, but it was a new page. East and the West, finally united, and Germany replaced the deutsche mark with the euro. They were telling the Europeans that the past was past, and with a little discipline the past would be the prologue to prosperity.
"We must not squander the historic opportunity of a common Europe," says Wolfgang Schauble. German leaders are eager to show the young that the German euro has contributed to peace, building on the idea of a "common Europe." Leaders of the 27 EU nations are holding a two-day summit this week in Brussels to talk about how to resolve the current financial crisis.
For all their talk about responsible spending, some Germans still prefer to spend their euros frivolously. In one of the more absurd art exhibits at the Hamburger Banhof, known for pushing the avant-garde, Carsten Holler has gathered 12 reindeer (without Santa or his sleigh), two dozen canaries, eight mice and two flies in an exhibit called "Soma," referring to a mysterious hallucinogenic drug from a mushroom that some think is found in reindeer urine and offers "enlightenment." (How the artist imagines the mice, flies and reindeer to perform in this crass menagerie is one of the mysteries of show biz.)
While the esoteric meaning of the show is difficult to penetrate, and I tried, two visitors each night can try harder. They pay one thousand euros (about $1,360) for the privilege of sleeping on an elevated bed in the museum slightly above the animals, with breakfast, dinner and zoo fragrance included. If they find enlightenment, they can send the formula to Brussels.
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© 2006, Creators Syndicate, Suzanne Fields