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Love & Loneliness: Proud to be German

Love & Loneliness Today, I'm grateful to be able to say, 'I'm proud to be German', because it was not always the case. For a long time, I was ashamed of being German, and wanted to be anything but. I would have given anything not to be German at that time. The reason for this rejection of my nationality, which implied rejection of my country and compatriots, was our history, or rather, the most terrible part of our history, the most horrific and painful part of the history of humankind.

In Germany we study the Nazi period at the age of 14, which is a difficult age to begin with. We went on a class trip to Dachau, a former concentration camp, not an extermination camp, but a camp which was used mainly for the internment of political prisoners, ie. communists, socialists, trade unionists, etc. For me, this visit was pure horror. I had seen and read many things on the subject, but it was only then that I realised the inhumanity of that period. Looking at the pictures and documents showing the suffering of the prisoners, I felt great pain the experiments carried out on humans, the treatment of the prisoners who were punished and executed if they attempted to escape, the clothing, spectacles, gold teeth, soap and lampshades made from the fat and skin of those who had been killed. On many of the photos, you could also see the guards, contemptuous expressions on their faces, the same expressions they might have had in an ordinary workplace. How could the Germans do such a thing? My whole worldview broke down. I then started to look at my grandfather, a good man whom I loved very much, with distrust. Had he been part of it? Although he had not committed these atrocities himself, he had nevertheless supported the regime (in the same way as the rest of Germany, and also as a soldier), which in some way made him a collaborator. He certainly had not done enough to prevent it. The whole of Germany shouted, 'Yes!' when Goebbels asked, 'Do you want outright war?' That makes all the Germans of that time guilty. I despised my parents' generation because they started to come to terms with our history too late and because to my mind they had been too understanding of their own parents' generation. I accused my own generation of indifference, and I thought it heartless when someone said, 'That's all in the past, I'm not guilty'. Without ever expressing what I myself felt, I did not give anyone a chance to explain or to give their opinion on the subject. I didn't want to have anything to do with these people, with our country or with our history. I renounced my German identity, and my solidarity. Yet still I had a feeling of shame and guilt, and that hurt.

But then I realised that there is a difference between guilt and responsibility, a very slight, but a very important one. You can only be guilty for the things you have actually done yourself, but you are responsible for the things you do not prevent. Each person and each generation has to find their own answer to the question of guilt and responsibility. One thing is certain, however. Guilt and responsibility only concern the people who can actually do something at that particular time. They are not something you can inherit.

At the same time, I also realised that these monsters were not essentially German, but human, a fact I had previously refused to recognise. This acknowledgement, that is, that the perpetrators of all this were human, was even more difficult to bear than the thought of them being inhuman Germans, because that implied having to ask myself, 'What about me? What would I have done?' I realised that it was all too easy to judge others collectively and without asking them, because in that way you avoid questioning yourself and you spare yourself.

It was only then that I was ready to see how much was being done in our country to come to terms with that history and to learn from it, so as to make sure such a thing would never be repeated. After the war, the words 'Never again!' could be seen painted on walls, buses, trains, etc, and these words still shape our behaviour today. After the war, most Germans made great efforts to create a new Germany, and as a result, good relationships and deep friendships with our former enemies developed. We Germans are one of the few nations to have really reflected on our national history in an open and merciless way, and to be still doing so. I am proud of it.

We must never forget that our history shapes our lives and our community, and if we want to build a successful future, we have to accept, and even love, our common past, because we are responsible for the part that past will play in the future. This responsibility concerns us all, both individually and collectively. If we want this future to be a good one for us and for the generations that follow us, we must stand together and cooperate with each other.

The generations that came before us had ideals and aims for the future, and they fought for them. So our present is the result of the visions of the generations before us. We will shape the future with our own aims and ideals. There can be no present without a past, no future without a present.

Angelika Eberhardt, Germany

Last update: 2000-02-06 16:10:49 (EEST).
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