What You Should Know About (Our) History

Be Aware of Biased Viewpoints

Whatever people (myself included) tell you about history, always bear in mind that their views could, at least to some extent, be biased. The way we look at the world, including history, is greatly influenced by what we have been told by our parents, school teachers, or colleagues, and so on. What is printed in the newspapers and broadcasted on the TV does shape our minds and even our collective memory.

I can only vaguely remember what my teachers were talking about in history class. It’s not that I was an ignorant child; being a binge reader, I couldn’t help but incidentally learn about the past—from a white and Western perspective, I might add! In the second grade, I was the best pupil in class, and as a reward, I recall the school giving me a book of adventure stories about a boy in some jungle. Looking at what (ethnocentric nonsense) is still commonly presented to our kids (Riemhofer 2014), I guess the smart white boy must have taught some not-so-smart indigenous kids how to meet the (everyday) challenges of jungle life. At the age of 10 or 12 years, I had already consumed page-turners like Gone with the Wind, Papillon, and The Thorn Birds. Maybe because of my nine-years staying at a Catholic convent boarding school, I could especially identify with (fictional) autobiographies dealing with prison breaks or an escape from (Russian) war captivity. A novel that greatly helped me develop an idea of Germany’s most inglorious period was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

Patchwork Central Europe and the Power of the Church

History class was nothing like that. History class was—as far as I remember—for the most part, an endless exercise of filling notebooks, line by line, with years of wars, dates of battles, and the names of the ruling houses having the upper hand in patchwork Central Europe at the respective times. In a nutshell, the region, for hundreds of years, consisted of numerous microstates, church lands, and free cities. There was a lot of fighting going on; if it was opportune, enemies would become (temporary) allies. The territorial fragmentation (Kleinstaaterei) resulted in the current regionalism, which, as discussed in Chapter 1, influences many aspects of peoples’ lives and how they do business even today.

From what I understand, we have always been in a love-hate relationship with the French, whom we secretly admire(d) for their civilized behavior and savoir vivre. For many centuries, it was a common practice that aristocrats, especially in the diplomatic field, would rather converse in French than in the contemporary German (dialects). However, my brother recently wondered why, at school, his daughter should learn French over Spanish, when many more people worldwide speak Spanish. My guess is that the preference for (still) teaching our neighbors’ language greatly relates to the Franco-German Friendship Treaty signed by ­President Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) in 1963.

Charles the Great (748–814 AD), King of the Franks and ruler of most of what is now France and Germany, had (already) united much of western and central Europe during the early Middle Ages. The French call him Charlemagne and the Germans know him as “Karl der Große.” He is said to have been revered by his contemporaries as the “Father of Europe,” and since 1950, the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen (Germany) honors exceptional work performed in the service of European unity. In 2018, the award was presented to the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, in recognition of his vision of a new Europe and the re-establishment of the European project (Stiftung Internationaler Karlspreis zu Aachen 2018). During Charlemagne’s time, Christianizing, upon penalty of death if a baptism was refused, was the means of choice to forcefully promote the idea.

The Roman Catholic Church has always played a major role in the history of Europe and the so-called Holy Roman Empire. In fact, for centuries, it was the pope who crowned the emperors. Therefore, it was crucial for the royal candidates to be allowed to participate in the sacraments of the Church in the first place. You might have heard of the (proverbial) Walk to Canossa (Gang nach Canossa); to seek absolution for his excommunication, disgraced 26-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050–1106) whipped on a penitential robe, crossed the Alps, and traveled to Canossa Castle, Italy, where Pope Gregory VII was staying at the time. According to contemporary sources, the emperor was forced to humiliate himself, waiting barefoot in front of the castle gate for three days and nights in cold and stormy weather. Depending on your perspective, you may call the episode a great strategic move or view it as a most embarrassing mortification. What I would like to highlight is that the concept of asking for forgiveness, in my experience, is very common and highly appreciated in Germany. While people from many other cultures might perceive “I am deeply sorry” as an act of self-humiliation or loss of face, Germans would often expect an explicit apology as a matter of common decency.

In the early modern period, when the greater part of the population was terrified by the prospect of burning in hell for their dark and dirty deeds, the act of forgiveness was even marketed: after confessing, or in exchange for doing godly work, the faithful received a decree exempting them from punishment for their sins. Letters of indulgence were also sold by the Catholic Church to finance the building of cathedrals or going to war, for example. In 1517, a monk from Eisleben sparked the Reformation by compiling a document that attacked the Catholic Church for this practice. To publish them, he is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. As a professor of Moral Theology, Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued that the practice of selling indulgence letters led Christians to overlook true repentance and sorrow for their sins; he reasoned the habit discouraged them from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy, believing that indulgence certificates were more spiritually valuable (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek n.d.). Thanks to the quite newly invented printing press (c. 1440), Luther’s writings had a wide reach and greatly influenced the religious and cultural history in Europe: The Reformation resulted in the split of the Roman Catholic Church and the birth of Protestantism. It led to wars and persecution, but also to greater freedom of religion and expression. During the recent 500th anniversary celebrations, Luther was also greatly honored for his translating the Word of God for/to the common man. So far, with some exceptions, mainly Latin and Greek versions of the Book had been available; texts could be read (hence, interpreted) by only very educated people such as churchmen. In translating the Bible, the linguistic genius Luther not only gave people easy access to so far “classified information,” but also invented a very vivid (common) language and created many figurative expressions that we still use. Some, I believe, are now even common in other languages, as, for example, “Ein Buch mit sieben Siegeln” (a book of seven seals) to describe something that—for you—is an incomprehensible, difficult-to-access subject matter (like quantum physics, or understanding the opposite sex, maybe).

“Great” Wars and the (First) German Nation

After the Reformation came the Counter-Reformation, and—in and around the territory—a series of (religious) conflicts and other revolts termed the Dreißigjähriger Krieg (1618–1648), which is still somehow present in the collective memory of the Germans. In the so-called Thirty Years’ War, people were not only falling on the battlefields, but the population was also dropping like flies from famines and epidemic plagues. In some places, two-thirds of the people died, and some regions are said to have needed more than 100 years to recover from the consequences of the war. However, the recollection of the endured misery was certainly not strong enough to prevent our folks from inciting other wars!1

Under this heading, let us fast-forward to the end of the 19th century: after conquering Denmark and Austria, we—Prussia and some southern states—were fighting the French yet again; they had started the war in 1870 after receiving an offensive letter that had been modified (one could maybe even say “manipulated”) by the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898). This time, France had to suffer defeat, and based on the success story, Bismarck slowly managed to convince the other German states (which were kingdoms and grand duchies) to enter a confederation under Prussian leadership. Bismarck became the Imperial Chancellor. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig of Hohenzollern, short name William I (1797–1888), who was not exactly excited about the additional job, was declared the German Emperor. In January 1871, the German “Kaiserreich” was proclaimed in the Palace of Versailles (France) and stretched from the Rhine to Russia. The palace’s Hall of Mirrors would, over time, become a very symbolic place for the “ups and downs” (if one can use this expression) of the newly heralded, overly self-confident, and self-conscious German Empire.

The following excerpt from a booklet that was published for ­British Servicemen in 1944 reflects a foreign (maybe more precisely, ­British) perspective on what happened next (The Foreign Office, London 2014, p. 12):

The vices of militarism and aggressiveness, often thought to be peculiar to the Prussians, soon infected the whole of Germany. The Germans acquired colonies, chiefly in Africa; they challenged the British seapower by building a powerful fleet. And in 1914 they thought they were strong enough to enforce an unchallenged supremacy in Europe. In alliance with Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria they fought and lost the First World War.

As we can see, the story did not end in favor of the Germans and the Treaty of Versailles, signed in the aforementioned Hall of Mirrors, compelled the Germans to pay extensive war reparations. Many people grew desperate, especially when the Great Depression struck Germany even harder than other countries in the 1920s. At times, almost half the working population was unemployed; women (who had only recently gained the right to vote) were soon urged to give up their jobs and return home to their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

I vividly remember my grandparents’ stories about hyperinflation, when a loaf of bread easily cost billions of Mark and how, on payday, people would rush to the stores to get rid of their bank notes as quickly as possible. They had to use wash baskets or towing vehicles to carry their money.

The fear of unemployment and depreciation of money still manifests in peoples’ minds. While the level of debt has recently been rising alarmingly in the millennial generation (those born around the year 2000), in my own generation (which is only 20–30 years older), putting aside money before making a private investment (like buying a car or remodeling a kitchen) is still the preferred practice. Credit cards are not extensively used, and overall, people would rather not risk not being able to pay their respective bills. Also, Germans are not very fond of job-hopping, and maybe this is also due to this collective memory. What I find hard to digest is that, until the 1970s, in the Federal Republic of ­Germany, a wife needed her husband’s (written) consent if she wanted to work!

Nazi Germany and the Preliminaries of the Second World War

The Great Depression was an ideal breeding ground for the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party NSDAP under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). One of the Nazis’ alluring promises was to wipe out the Treaty of Versailles, and in doing so, not only heal the wounds of the perceived humiliation, but also make Germany great (or, significant) again. In a hidden agenda to prepare Germany for war, the regime invested heavily in the expansion of industry and infrastructure. Watching professionally staged propaganda films displaying healthy, heroic workers constructing the German highways (Autobahn), Hitler must have appeared a savior to many people. To some extent, that knowledge might help to grasp the leader cult (Führerkult) and the collective hysteria of the time. I always get the creeps when I watch footage of Hitler giving public speeches; according to the (propagandistic) film documents, some women even fainted from excitement. It makes my skin crawl when I observe how, lately, politicians (no matter from which party) increasingly use an aggressive tone, sometimes even shouting their requests in what reminds me of the common staccato popular in the “old times.” I can understand the parallels to the sentiments during the Weimar Republic that are described by some critical observers like, for example, the political scientist Max Czollek (2018). Maybe, based on these discussions, Germany’s early dropout from the FIFA World Championships in 2018 made me feel less uncomfortable than the sight of the then (and once again) fashionable undercut hairstyles sported by some of the tall, blond (Nordic) players. What has always caused me the greatest level of discomfort is when, even in a business context, I meet foreigners who want to engage me in a conversation about the “great leadership” skills of one of the greatest brutes the world has ever seen.

In the 1930s, almost every household had a Volksempfänger (“Volk” like “folk,” as in Volkswagen) that must have tremendously helped brainwashing the people, especially because you were not allowed to listen to stations other than those operated or endorsed by the regime. You better did not tell your neighbor when you violated the provision; you never knew if he or she would denounce you to the Blockwart (local group leader).

Hitler made people feel valued and important; everyone in line with the Nazi ideology was equipped with a uniform or a medal and could feel at home in some organization fitting his or her role in the Reich: boys were brought into line in the Hitlerjugend (HJ, Hitler Youth), while girls enjoyed activities and companionship in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM, League of German Girls). It was the healthy, Aryan women’s duty to “dem Führer Kinder zu schenken” (gift the Führer children), and there was a sophisticated reward system for living births: depending on the number of children, the mother was rewarded with a certain rank of the Cross of Honor for the German Mother: third rank Mutterkreuz for four or five kids, second for six or seven kids, and first for eight or more!

Appointed Imperial Chancellor (Reichskanzler) in 1933, Hitler quickly managed to silence the people or parties that would oppose him and established a dictatorship with him as “Leader” (Führer) and “Reich” Chancellor. “Then he began to ‘discipline’ the country,” we read in the Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany, issued by the Foreign Office, London, in 1944 (p. 14): “Law was suspended. Jews, Communists, Socialists, Liberals—anyone who had publicly opposed him—were hunted down by Hitler’s private army, the Storm Troops, shot, beaten to death, or systematically tortured in concentration camps.” In the booklet, it is highlighted that “Hitler’s aim was so to terrorise the German people that no one would dare to resist him by deed or word.”

Reflecting upon it, one could argue that questioning hierarchy and opposing rulers is not exactly, or at least was not, a strong tradition in Germany at the time. Rather, people had, for centuries, been trained to be subservient to authority and blindly execute demands, no ­matter how cruel or stupid they were. Heinrich Mann (1871–1950) has described the subordinate type in his novel Der Untertan (The Loyal Subject), published in 1914. Neither making decisions nor assuming responsibilities has been truly German virtues, and the “subordinate trait” is still somehow prevalent in the German society. I recently met a lady from France, who has known (West) Germany since her student days in the 1980s; having lived and worked in the country for more than 20 years now, she has often observed what she calls the “German paradox”:

I feel that while, on the one hand, people are courageous enough to express their opinion—you see students freely expressing their ideas and asking questions, and even challenging their professor in the main auditorium, on the other hand, Germans would rather hide behind hierarchy when it comes to taking up a responsibility; such as, when at work, taking up a specific task that is not mentioned in the job description.

And, if during a convention or closed conference, someone from upper management shares the breakfast or dinner table with a group, most Germans listen religiously to the words spoken by that upper manager and don’t dare expressing a different opinion and debating.

Trying to hide behind hierarchy was also a popular argumentation strategy after the war: “Not my fault, I was only obeying orders” was the bottom line of the pardon plea of one of the major organizers of the ­Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann (1906–1962), written shortly before he was about to be executed for his war crimes in Israel. Back in Nazi ­Germany, more than just the people not in favor of Hitler and his regime were chased, and Eichmann was one of the key people taking care of the logistics. During the Holocaust, the Nazi regime and its collaborators systematically not only persecuted and murdered six million Jews, but—and the following list is still not complete—also targeted Sinti and Roma, disabled people, communists, socialists, members of the resistance, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals. According to latest research, the Holocaust may have claimed up to 20 million lives (Day 2013).

How all this could have happened was not a question extensively discussed immediately after the end of the war, when Germans were busy re-establishing their existences and mourning their personal losses. Only in 1968, when university campuses all over the world transformed into battlegrounds for social change, German students did begin to openly accuse and oppose the older generation for tolerating some of the former members of the Nazi Party in key political roles (Schaefer 2008). Until then, discussing war crimes had not been on the class schedule.

The broadcast of the American mini-series, Holocaust, in the Federal Republic in 1979 for many was the turning point for Germany’s ­willingness to look (closely) at and discuss their history. Some historians call the TV program and subsequent discussions, watched by about 50 percent (!) of West Germans, a milestone in the German history of mentality. Finally, the common people were ready to (publicly) ask about and dispute their inglorious history; I remember my confusion when my mother (born in the early 1950s) tried to talk to me about how mothers and their children were gassed in what looked like showers. That must have been shortly after the first screening of Holocaust and was most probably a matter far too complex for a five-year old to understand! When my generation, in the chronologically structured history class, some 10 years later finally arrived at Nazi Germany and Second World War, we felt exhausted; hadn’t we already discussed the matter sufficiently in the German lessons, social studies, and religion course? It wasn’t us, was it? Today, in picking up a current debate, I totally agree when it comes to the question of whether immigrant children should join their indigenous classmates in visiting the concentration camp memorials. Yes, everybody please go there! Look at the horror and talk about what happened, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

The Two Germanys of 1949–1990 and Beyond

In 1938, German troops occupied Austria (“Anschluss Österreichs ans Reich”), the home country of Adolf Hitler. Next on his agenda was Czechoslovakia, and on September 1, 1939, when German troops seized the Free City of Danzig and entered Poland, the Second World War (1939–1945) began. Depending on where you come from, you must, to a greater or lesser extent, be aware of how people all over the world suffered from this terrible war that Germans were (or are) to blame for.

Germany was defeated, and on the whole, the Thousand-Year Reich did not last much longer than 12 years (1933–1945). What was left came under the rule of the four victorious powers—Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Russia, which in many aspects had suffered exceptionally during the Second World War, began to literally dismantle the occupied territory, while the Western Allies soon focused on stabilizing the three Western Zones.

On June 20, 1948, the D-Mark was introduced in the so-called tri-zone that was controlled by the Western powers, and from one day to the next, people saw a great variety of goods displayed in shop windows, including things that were formerly bartered or secretly traded in the black market. The introduction of the new currency and the soon-to-­follow “economic miracle” (that was not so much of a miracle, as some historians argue, given the extent of the still intact industrial infrastructure) are of great importance for the formation of the (West) German identity; so are the so-called rubble women (Trümmerfrauen), who are said to have rebuilt the country with their bare hands. The myth has recently been deconstructed (Treber 2014), however, the icon “Trümmerfrau” will surely last a while longer; people have seen her picture far too often to quickly wipe out the memory.

In 1949, first, the Federal Republic of Germany, and then, the ­German Democratic Republic (GDR) were founded. In the early 1980s, when my father began to talk to me about democracy, telling me that people in the other Germany could not express their opinions freely, I (for some time) believed that we lived in the GDR. To say that the German Democratic Republic was not exactly democratic is an understatement: criticizing their brothers and sisters in the West for re-establishing former Nazis in exalted positions, people in the earlier Soviet Zone soon got used to their own system of aggression and suppression. The State Security Service, Stasi, quickly began to establish an extensive network of informers who were spying on their neighbors, colleagues, and even family members. The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart (the Berlin Wall), thrown up in 1961, was only one means of preventing people from leaving the country; gunfire and even tanks were used to suppress people. Although living in the strongest economy under the Soviet rule, people in socialist East ­Germany often had to wait for years when they wanted to buy a car or install a telephone connection. Employment was guaranteed in the centrally planned economy, but jobs often did not match peoples’ qualifications or talents. Careers greatly depended on whether or not the people (and their relatives) toed the party-line. To criticize the system could easily cost you your place at university.

The GDR film industry and theater scene flourished; however, films, books, music, and other forms of art criticizing the establishment were censored, and artists were often barred from their profession (through political pressure), if not outright incarcerated. The critically acclaimed 2006 drama film, The Life of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), is said to describe the matter in an exceptionally authentic manner. Another movie dealing with the daily life in East Germany and the crumbling of the Wall that I can recommend is Good Bye, Lenin! The 2003 tragicomedy follows a family whose mother is dedicated to the socialist cause and falls into a coma shortly before the 1989 revolution; when she wakes up eight months later, her son attempts to protect her from fatal shock by not telling her about the fall of the Berlin Wall. What I especially like about the movie is the change of perspective: when the two Germanys re-united, it was not seen as a merger among equals. In fact, the East was integrated in the West, and the approximately 16 million people from the East were often (and maybe still sometimes are) perceived as being somewhat backward and lazy. Those in the East who had demonstrated against the regime were often accused of only being interested in what the glitzy consumer world in the West had to offer.

Both the separation and the reunification of Germany were, for many, a traumatic experience. Quite a few people in the East discovered that their lives were an open book for the Stasi, thanks to their loved ones’ surveillance and betrayal. Many lost their jobs with no prospect of ever being employed again. They were humiliated by an attitude and approach that one could easily call colonial. There was an influx of gold diggers from the West, and there were cases wherein the people in the East were outsmarted or even cheated by those more familiar with the capitalist world. People in the East began to call their Western brothers and sisters “Besserwessis,” a play on a word indicating that those from the West (“Wessi” ) knew everything better. The term “Ossi,” for those living in the East, had a negative connotation and did not require an extra lexeme to reflect the speaker’s dismissive attitude. The pictures of November 9, 1989, when the Wall came down, are iconic; however, there was not much to follow that would emotionally weld the new nation together.

While many countries (can) celebrate the birthday of their nation with great pomp on the anniversary of a revolution or independence from a colonial rule or other occupying forces, Germans, on their national day, soberly remember the latest attempt of rather artificial nation-­building: On October 3, 1990, the Unification Treaty came into effect and shaped what is now considered “Germany.” While other (ex-)world powers indulge in the reminiscences of former glory, Germans are petrified when looking at the glorious mess they have caused in the first half of the 20th century. And, while other nationalities (can) identify with strong heroes like Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), Wilhelm Tell (William Tell), Mahatma Gandhi, or at least some down-to-earth royal family, contemporary ­Germans, when asked about identity-establishing personalities, would most probably refer vaguely to Germany as the “land of poets and thinkers.” Ironically, the famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was not exactly a great fan of the idea of the German nation that had been heavily promoted during his time (Borchmeyer 2017, pp. 44–53).

Giving it more thought, some people might finally mention the former Chancellor, Helmut Kohl (1930–2017), referring to him as the “father of the German reunification.” Kohl was in charge when the former occupying countries needed to be convinced that they should grant full sovereignty to a unified German state. However, he was not exactly a charismatic person, and the political and personal scandals uncovered after his chancellorship might be more present in the younger generations’ memory than his great achievements in the context of the reunification (and the European Union).

What Germans were able to identify with, perhaps to a much greater extent, was the former currency, Deutsche Mark (D-Mark, DM). Introduced in the tri-zone (what later would become West Germany) in 1948, the money initially stood for the economic miracle; it increasingly became to represent stability, growth, power, and what you could overall call a German success story. Nevertheless, in 1999, the euro was introduced, becoming the currency of more than 300 million people in Europe. At first, an invisible currency only used for accounting purposes, the euro “materialized” in 2002 (European Central Bank n.d.). It replaced, at fixed conversion rates, the banknotes and coins of the national currencies; the pain of separation afflicted many, including business people, who needed to learn to “trust” the new currency. Fears concerning a rather soft currency have proved unfounded. Since the introduction of the euro, we have had a lower inflation rate than under DM times. Nevertheless, the euro has not been able to challenge the U.S. dollar for first place as the world’s trading currency.

“Made in Germany” is another idea (icon) people over here generally like(d) to identify with. We will have a look at the history of the slogan and some recent developments in Chapter 3.

1 Rather was one “lesson learned” for later warlords to seek not to engage in a war of exhaustion (again), but rather try to quickly subdue invaded territories.

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