Dear Germans

Dear Germans,

My friends from back home call every once in a while and ask me how things are going in Germany. I usually find myself having the same conversation over and over again. We go down the list of German stereotypes, and they want to know how accurate each one is. It's a painful initiation process with each acquaintance and relative, and if I haven't talked to someone for longer than six months it's like something resets inside their brain and we have to go back through the protocol all over again.

Yes. It really is that good.

I try to keep a close cadre of friends from the US with whom I keep in regular contact and then I do my best to ignore the more distant relatives. The boiler-plate conversation which I invariably have at least once a month after accidentally picking up a call from my Uncle Steve goes something like this-

Uncle Steve- "So how about the beer? You drinkin plenty of beer over there? They're really crazy about beer over there, aren't they? I hear the beer is really good. You been to Oktoberfest yet?"

Me- "No, I haven't been to Oktoberfest yet. Yes, there are a lot of local breweries as well as bigger brands. The nation-wide brands usually suck and the micro-breweries are often really good, just like America."

Uncle Steve- "You're probably putting on some weight with all that hearty German cooking, huh? You go to the bakery alot? You're probably eatin a lot of that wurst and cheese and sauerkraut. Pretzels."

Me- "I guess. Mostly I just shop at the grocery store and then cook a lot of chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry  at home like I did back in the U.S."

Uncle Steve- "How are the German women? Hehe. Have you met your Helga yet? Hahahahahahaha. It could be like Sound of Music, you know? I can just see it now. You yodeling in the Alps with your blonde-haired, blue-eyed, ten-member family."

Me- "I think Sound of Music was set in Austria, but yeah. I guess. I've got a girlfriend. Things are going pretty well."

It's always around this time when things take a turn for the serious and Uncle Steve's voice sobers up a little. I can also tell he's about to ask a question he's genuinely interested in.

Uncle Steve- "You uh... seen any World War II stuff? You know; Hitler's bunker, Normandy Beach, stuff like that?"

Uncle Steve breathes into the receiver, I wince, and his voice sinks to just above a whisper. "What about, you know... holocaust stuff? Concentration camps. Auschwitz is in Germany, isn't it? That would be something to see... sad. I mean it's tragic, but I bet it would be interesting..." And then before I can reply Uncle Steve adds, "but I guess they probably don't like to talk a lot about that over there in Germany, huh? Nazi stuff is probably a pretty sore subject."

But that, as you Germans know, is where Uncle Steve couldn't be any more wrong.

Germans can't get enough of World War II. It's impossible to get through all 30 cable channels without flipping by at least three WWII specials. Of course it's hard to see how something can still be "special" when it's discussed ad nauseam six hours a day. And they've long since run out of prime material. I saw a two-hour "special" last night dedicated to Hitler's dog, Blondi. Five minutes of silent, uncut, never-before-seen footage of Hitler walking his dog. Hitler throws a stick. Blondi chases the stick, then gives up and comes trotting back. Hitler smiles and pats Blondi on the head anyway. "Was Hitler more tolerant of his dog's failures than he was towards those of his generals?" the narrator wonders aloud in German. "Is there a reason that footage has never been seen before?" my internal narrator wonders aloud in English. "Could it be because no one gives a shit?"

And the TV series are just one symptom of the same mania. Magazines. Casual conversation. News reports. Books. It's all consumed with the same weird mixture of fascination, self-flagellation, and what I suspect is a deeply-suppressed albeit forbidden national pride. It's the kind of obsessive loathing/fascination duality that breeds cults and superstitions. This sensationalism will turn into folklore and myth generations later. The Nazi era is already making the transition from historical fact to evil mythology. Last Halloween I saw a made-for-TV horror movie on German TV about a group of happy-go-lucky teens that are tormented by a demonic spirit. Pretty standard fare for a Halloween movie, except that this particular demon was also... a Nazi, evidently; because it liked to scrawl swastikas on everything.

Germany is lousy with WWII memorials, museums, plaques, edifices, statues, and... more memorials. Germany is one of the few countries in which the possession or portrayal of swastikas, Mein Kampf, and other Nazi memorabilia for non-historical/educational purposes is actually outlawed, and yet, ironically, you won't find another nation on earth more rife with swastikas or more obsessed with Nazis.

I took all of these pictures in the same book store on the same day, and this wasn't even the history section- all of these books were featured prominently on the middle islands as the popular bestsellers they are. Hitler's word art mustache in the top left picture translates to "he's back again," which isn't technically true because it implies that Hitler had left at some point.

As an American, a prohibition on any form of political speech naturally feels heavy-handed, constrictive, and for lack of a better word... wrong. Like most government responses to things, it's also reactive, short-sighted, and childishly simplistic. Maybe it would have been a good law to have passed back in 1930, but I mean, talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. As if zombie Hitler and a resurrected army of SS men are going to rise from the grave, march on the Reichstag, and then be like, "Well shit. If we aren't allowed to have swastikas anymore then just fuck the whole plan." Hey Germans- it's not going to be Nazis who overthrow your government the next time, and they won't be using swastikas. It'll be Anarchists using that stupid A-with-the-circle-around-it thing, or eco-terrorist insurrectionists waving a green ELF flag.

 Here is a mural I found at a university in a German town which is home to almost zero Nazis. For non-German speakers, "Ich bin gegen Nazis" means "I am against Nazis." He knew his stance might be unpopular with virtually no one, but despite that, Dave and his fellow students have chosen to take a bold stand against this practically non-existent threat. While I wasn't able to find them, I'm sure there were also murals courageously denouncing the Pol Pot regime and committing to a hard line on the hunting of Yeti for sport. I'm told the university has a zero tolerance policy with regards to animal sacrifice as well. 

The problem with well-intentioned initiatives like the one above is that they implicitly turn a one-sided issue into a two-sided one. There is no debate. There is no other side. Poor David is shadow-boxing against a phantom, but the very fact that he's willing to get into the ring in the first place lends legitimacy to what should be an illegitimate, non-issue. There is no mural condemning pedophilia because pedophilia is rightly considered to be a one-sided issue. It's assumed that you are against pedophilia unless you are one. What's left to ponder? The German authorities estimated in 2010 that there were 25,000 right wing extremists in Germany, a little over 5,000 of whom were actual neo-Nazis. That's out of a population of over 80 million. Compare that to the estimated 50,000-200,000 pedophiles in Germany.

The United States of America, by contrast, is home to an estimated 50,000 white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan's website boasts over 110,000 members. The US has a bigger neo-Nazi problem than Germany does in both absolute and percentage terms. Despite that, the scientific instrument I refer to as my gut tells me that the German media's obsession with reporting on neo-Nazi stories is at least five times more intense than that of the otherwise more sensation-hungry American media.

To read the German newspapers you'd think a neo-Nazi was hiding behind every corner. Every unexplained mugging or act of vandalism is suspect. "Did a neo-Nazi slash my tire, or was it punctured by the nail that's hanging out of it? There's no way to prove that a neo-Nazi didn't first slash the tire and then insert the nail to cover his tracks- chalk this down as a hate crime."

Maybe one of the most ironic parts about this whole Nazi mania is that Germans are giant pussies when it comes to actually confronting Nazis. They'll put up little anti-Nazi signs everywhere and protest at right-wing demonstrations (as long as they outnumber the right-wingers by a factor of at least ten) but that's as far as it goes. I have a Bundesadler tattoo on my arm. In the U.S. people would occasionally call me out on it and ask if I was a neo-nazi. I'd roll up my sleeve and show them my other family heritage tattoos and explain that the tattoos are a way of celebrating my family lineage. Then the person who asked would show me the shamrock on their calf or the Star of David on the back of their neck and we'd have something in common to talk about. Here in Germany nobody has German heritage tattoos unless they're right-wing, not-so-crypto fascists. Guess how many people have asked about my Bundesadler during the two years I've spent in Germany? Now guess how many guys stare at the floor when I walk past in the locker room? The correct answers are "zero" and "countless," respectively.

It's important to remember the past. It's especially important to remember the suffering of victims. But Germany isn't preventing future far-right radicalism with its Nazi obsession. If anything, it has created a podium upon which every crack-pot, crank, attention-seeker, malcontent, and wannabe badass can stand for a guaranteed place in the spotlight of infamy.

Some mischievous prankster spray-painted a Hitler 'stache on this billboard in the Berlin subway. Maybe he was a Nazi. More likely he was just looking to get a rise out of people like David.

In the 1960s a craze took America by storm. It was called streaking. All you had to do was buy a $5 ticket to a baseball game, take all of your clothes off, jump down onto the field, and run around naked until security guards finally dragged you off. It was exhilarating and streakers got a lot of attention. There are still streakers today. There always will be. But streaking's heyday was in the 1970s, and that heyday came to an end because sporting-event announcers stopped raving every time it happened and people generally stopped giving as much of a shit. Society didn't ignore it and streaking is still punishable by law, but we did stop letting a tiny minority of histrionic personalities dominate our collective psyche.

Sebastian Braff


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