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kottke.org posts about Germany

German Remembrance of the Holocaust and Growing US Anti-Semitism

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2018

I spent a few days in Berlin last week.1 One of things you notice as a visitor to Berlin is the remembrance of the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi regime. There’s the Jewish Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Topographie Des Terrors, which is an excellent (and free) exhibition detailing how the Nazi terror machine worked.

At the massive train yard at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, they have a dedicated exhibition on how the German rail system was used to transport Jews to concentration camps, including a freight car used in the transports that you could walk into and try to imagine, in some small way, you and your children cheek to jowl with 80 other people, on the way to be murdered. A powerful experience.

Berlin Holocaust Boxcar

Outside a train station, there was a sign listing concentration camps: “places of horror which we must never forget”.

Berlin Holocaust Sign

Just as important, the language they used on the displays in these places was clear and direct, at least in the English translations. It was almost never mealy-mouthed language like “this person died at Treblinka”…like they’d succumbed to natural causes or something. Instead it was “this person was murdered at Treblinka”, which is much stronger and explicitly places blame on the Nazis for these deaths.

As the exhibition at the Topographie Des Terrors made clear, the German response to the Holocaust and Nazi regime wasn’t perfect, but in general, it’s very clear that a) this happened here, and b) it was terrible and must never happen again.

On Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, a man radicalized by the President of the United States and right-wing media walked into a synagogue and killed 11 people.

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

These things happened in our history in part because powerful people needed an enemy to rally everyone against. It’s an old but effective tactic: blacks, Indians, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Irish, Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese — they are here to take your jobs, steal your money, rape your women! It’s what slaveowners did to make their forced labor camps socially acceptable to polite Southern society, it’s what the Nazis did to make murdering Jews acceptable to the German people, it’s what the US government and settlers did to commit genocide against Native Americans, and it’s what Donald Trump is doing now. The monuments, exhibitions, and museums I saw in Berlin last week formed a powerful rejoinder to this type of fascism. I think the US really needs to grapple with its history in this regard…or it’ll just keep happening again.

Update: An earlier version of this post stated that one of the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting was a Holocaust survivor. She was not. (thx, vanessa)

  1. I’ll be posting more about the trip later in the week, I hope.

What made the Nazis possible? Why didn’t anyone stop them?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2018

With an eye on the current political situations in the US, Turkey, Russia, and China, Cass Sunstein reviews three books that shed light on how the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century by Konrad Jarausch, and Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner.

Mayer’s book was published in 1955 and consisted of post-war interviews with normal German people (janitor, baker, teacher) who had been Nazi party members. Their recollection of what had happened differed somewhat from the rest of the world’s.

When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we — you and I — saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

They also denied the Holocaust had happened. They didn’t see it because their lives were just fine (up until the war started).

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”

This reminded me of how ISIS improved the lives of many in Iraq & Syria by fixing electrical problems, regularly collecting garbage, and focusing on law & order. The quotes around “everybody” in the last line of that paragraph also reminded me of the criticism1 directed at people like Steven Pinker, Bill Gates, or Hans Rosling who insist the world is getting better. Better for whom? Everybody?

See also the Sunstein-edited Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America.

  1. It’s interesting that this post was deleted from the TED blog. I wonder why?

Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden in the 1930s

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2016

Nazi NYC

In the 1930s, almost a decade before the nation’s young men would be shipped overseas to combat the foul stench of Hitler wafting across Europe, official and unofficial rallies for the Nazi party were held in Madison Square Garden.

Shortly after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Nazis consolidated control over the country. Looking to cultivate power beyond the borders of Germany, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess charged German-American immigrant Heinz Spanknobel with forming a strong Nazi organization in the United States.

Combining two small extant groups, Spanknobel formed Friends of New Germany in July 1933. Counting both German nationals and Americans of German descent among its membership, the Friends loudly advocated for the Nazi cause, storming the offices of New York’s largest German-language paper, countering Jewish boycotts of German businesses and holding swastika-strewn rallies in black-and-white uniforms.

A later group, which only disbanded at the end of 1941, were prominently pro-American and featured iconography of George Washington as “the first Fascist”. (I would have gone for “the Founding Fascist”…catchier.)

The reimprisonment of homosexuals in Germany after WWII

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2015

After the end of World War II in Europe, homosexual prisoners of liberated concentration camps were refused reparations and some were even thrown into jail without credit for their time served in the camps. From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

After the war, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and reparations were refused. Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 remained in effect in the Federal Republic (West Germany) until 1969, so that well after liberation, homosexuals continued to fear arrest and incarceration.

After 1945, it was no longer a crime to be Jewish in Germany, but homosexuality was another matter. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code had been on the books since 1871. An English translation of the earliest version read simply:

Unnatural fornication, whether between persons of the male sex or of humans with beasts, is to be punished by imprisonment; a sentence of loss of civil rights may also be passed.

In Germany, homosexuality was considered a crime worthy of up to five years of imprisonment until Paragraph 175 was voided in 1994.

Update: I missed this while writing the post: Paragraph 175 was amended in 1969 to limit enforcement to engaging in homosexual acts with minors (under 21 years). (thx, eric)

When they used to display people in zoos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2012

In 1880, the top attraction at a zoo in Hamburg, Germany was an Inuit family who performed seal hunts and other Eskimo-like activities for huge crowds.

At the Hagenbeck Tiergarten — a private zoo in Hamburg — the Inuit were the top attraction. The crowds likely viewed them as primitives, inferior to the cultured men and women of the Old World. “Who knows what these children of the roughest North may be thinking about their highly educated European fellow humans,” wrote one German newspaperman. He was right about one thing: The Germans had no idea. Even as they gawked at the Inuit, the Inuit were peering back at them — and taking notes.

Abraham Ulrikab was, in fact, more accomplished than most of the people paying to stare at him. Raised at a mission in Hebron, Labrador, he was 35 years old, spoke three languages, dabbled in cartography, and played a mean fiddle. He was also a church-going Christian who, in his real life, had long since abandoned the sealskin boots and parka that were his costume at the zoo. Since he could read and write, he kept a diary, documenting his experience as a human exhibit.

As with many other interactions between Europeans and native North Americans, this zoo experiment ended quickly and very badly. (thx, eva)

Michael Lewis on Germany’s economy (and possible fascination with shit)

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2011

Michael Lewis continues his financial tour of the world with a stop in Germany. What, he asks, will the Germans do about the weakening financial situation in Europe and, more to Lewis’ point, why will they do it?

The deputy finance minister further disturbs my wild assumptions about him by speaking clearly, even recklessly, about subjects most finance ministers believe it is their job to obscure. He offers up, without much prompting, that he has just finished reading the latest unpublished report by I.M.F. investigators on the progress made by the Greek government in reforming itself.

“They have not sufficiently implemented the measures they have promised to implement,” he says simply. “And they have a massive problem still with revenue collection. Not with the tax law itself. It’s the collection which needs to be overhauled.”

Greeks are still refusing to pay their taxes, in other words. But it is only one of many Greek sins. “They are also having a problem with the structural reform. Their labor market is changing-but not as fast as it needs to,” he continues. “Due to the developments in the last 10 years, a similar job in Germany pays 55,000 euros. In Greece it is 70,000.” To get around pay restraints in the calendar year the Greek government simply paid employees a 13th and even 14th monthly salary-months that didn’t exist. “There needs to be a change of the relationship between people and the government,” he continues. “It is not a task that can be done in three months. You need time.” He couldn’t put it more bluntly: if the Greeks and the Germans are to coexist in a currency union, the Greeks need to change who they are.

Donald Duck in Germany: “a bird of arts and letters”

posted by Tim Carmody   May 06, 2011

They love Donald Duck in Germany — not so much for the cartoons, but the comics, which were deliberately smartened up in translation by the great Erika Fuchs:

In the years following World War II, American influence in the newly formed Federal Republic was strong, but German cultural institutions were hesitant to sanction one U.S. import: the comic book. A law banning comics was proposed, and some American comics were eventually burned by school officials worried about their effects on students’ morals and ability to express themselves in complete sentences…

A Ph.D. in art history, Dr. Fuchs had never laid eyes on a comic book before the day an editor handed her a Donald Duck story, but no matter. She had a knack for breathing life into the German version of Carl Barks’s duck. Her talent was so great she continued to fill speech bubbles for the denizens of Duckburg (which she renamed Entenhausen, based on the German word for “duck”) until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 98.

[Comics publisher] Ehapa directed Dr. Fuchs to crank up the erudition level of the comics she translated, a task she took seriously. Her interpretations of the comic books often quote (and misquote) from the great classics of German literature, sometimes even inserting political subtexts into the duck tales. Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barks’s often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular children’s comic in Germany to this day.

Think Calvin and Hobbes and their philosophical wagon rides.

Photography criticism from the Stasi

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2009

Harald Hauswald, an East German photographer, published in West Germany a book of his work in 1987. The East German secret police, the Stasi, put Hauswald under surveillance and even went so far as to produce a detailed critique of his book, as a photo critic might. Joerg Colberg recently met with the photographer and obtained a copy of the Stasi report on Hauswald’s work. From the report’s introduction:

Especially the selection of the images gives away that we are dealing with a book that has a long-term purpose. People gathered everything somber, oppressive, from poor neighbourhoods, or primitive they could find. It seems apparent that color was intentionally omitted, because only black and white reproduction stresses the supposedly gray, bleak and dismal reality of East Berlin.

It’s interesting to hear the charge of propaganda coming from the secret police of a Communist dictatorship.

Colorful German banknotes from the 1920s

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2009

In Germany in the 1920s, towns, banks, and companies printed their own money called notgeld.

Notgeld was mainly issued in the form of (paper) banknotes. Sometimes other forms were used, as well: coins, leather, silk, linen, stamps, aluminium foil, coal, and porcelain; there are also reports of elemental sulfur being used, as well as all sorts of re-used paper and carton material.

A Flickr user has uploaded hundreds of examples of the notgeld notes collected by his wife’s family; they’re so colorful! (via design observer)

Gunter Grass: How I Spent the War,

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2007

Gunter Grass: How I Spent the War, a first-person account of an SS recruit during WWII.

Update: Here’s some biographical information about Grass, who is a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. (thx, red)

What are people smuggling into Germany? Twice

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2007

What are people smuggling into Germany? Twice as much cocaine as last year, stuffed lion cubs, and wine made from cobras.

Nine months after the World Cup, Germany

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2007

Nine months after the World Cup, Germany is experiencing a baby boom, which is good news because Germany’s birth rate is among the lowest in the world.

If Strangemaps wasn’t such a reliable source,

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2007

If Strangemaps wasn’t such a reliable source, I’d think this was a hoax. A small part of East Germany lives on in the Caribbean. Cuba gave the tiny island to the GDR in 1972 while on a state visit to East Berlin and it wasn’t mentioned in the German unification treaties. Commenters on the thread have found satellite images of the island in question, including this one.

A new book, Heil Hitler, The Pig

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2006

A new book, Heil Hitler, The Pig is Dead, deals with humor during Hitler’s reign in Germany. “From an early stage, Germans were well aware of their government’s brutality. And the country wasn’t possessed by ‘evil spirits’ nor was it hypnotised by the Nazis’ brilliant propaganda, he says. Hypnotized people don’t crack jokes.”

Video of a BMW that parallel parks

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2006

Video of a BMW that parallel parks itself. No word on if this was influenced by Knight Rider, starring David Hasselholf, who is big in Germany.