I was telling a German friend about this. It was sometime last year, I think around September. We met up in Spain -- and we were talking about the war, about her being German and me being English. I guess we were trying to figure out what it means 70 years later. Anyway, she couldn't grasp the fact that my friend adores Germany. She was uncomfortable with it, she didn't believe it. When she thought of what legacies her country has left the world, the only thing that came to mind was the Nazis.
And she feels immensely guilty about it.
Not that she thinks about it all the time. But when you're a German and you visit another country, your accent is unmistakable. And I have to admit, the second I hear the German accent, I get a little trigger in my head, a little reminder, the thought of World War 2 flashes through my mind. Not in an angry way, not really in any way at all-- but it appears for a moment in my consciousness.
History takes a long time to process. People say "enough about the Holocaust already!" or "get over slavery, it was like 200 years ago!", but you can't put a time stamp on these things. The effects of history still play out in society in more ways than people realise.
"Hitler's Children" is a documentary that aired on the BBC a few weeks ago. A friend mentioned it yesterday, assuming I'd seen it, but I knew nothing of it. I did a quick search online and found it on YouTube.
It's about the direct descendants of some of the biggest Nazi war criminals, such as Rudolph Hoess' grandson Rainer and Amon Goethe's daughter, Monika. It's a very touching documentary, focusing on five individuals, all of whom seem like absolutely wonderful people, but they're burdened by the guilt of what their relatives did.
How do you deal with such a thing? Goering's Great Niece & Nephew decided to be sterilised. Their grandfather attempted to exterminate the Jewish race and now his descendants are exterminating their own family. It's the best answer they've come up with. Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, tries to exorcise his guilt by writing about his evil parents and educating younger people by doing talks. But sometimes he tells people that he has no trust, especially in Germans. He thinks they have the potential to do the same again.
That's what always worries me. Not about Germans, but all of us. Because the people who worked in Auschwitz were normal people; doctors, farmers, artists, etc; they came from all over to work for a cause they BELIEVED IN.
Our brains are wired in strange ways. We conform. What if our iPhones suddenly started instructing us to kill people? What if the celebrities that flood our brains every day in tabloid newspapers started subtly pronouncing hateful ideology? How strong is our will? How certain are we we'll know what's right? The Goering's and Hitler's are scary; but the everyday accomplices are even scarier; because they're no different to any of us.
I think I'm a good person in a good country, but then I look at the Iraqi civilian death count and realise I know nothing.
As for World War 2; I feel, as an individual, that I am still processing this part of history. My grandparents fought in the war, and I love them for it. But there is so much I don't know and will never know. When I meet a German person, if I'm honest with you; I really feel the urge to talk about it. And I mean it in the best possible way, I just want to TALK! To process what it means to us as human beings in the 21st century. Part of that is a fascination with that part of history, a deep interest; but also there's a feeling of hurt, of confusion, of still grappling with the past and what it means to us, what it means to me. I think it's the same for a lot of people, from all the nations involved.
There's this beautiful moment in the documentary when a Jewish holocaust survivor meets Rainer Hoess, the grandson of the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolph Hoess. Seeing Rainer's deep pain and guilt, the survivor says to him, "You weren't there, you didn't do it." It's a beautiful moment. The most unlikely meeting you can imagine, but you feel the world getting healed a little just by the moment they shared together.
As the older generations come towards the end of their lives, it becomes a world where none of us were there to witness it, but many of us still need to talk about it. And I hope we do. History is our greatest teacher, with endless wisdom. I hope we can process it together.