So far, I’m not old enough for certain suspicions to be raised. But sooner or later, I will reach an age at which people will start wondering whether my olfactory organ has undergone plastic surgery, or if my nose is naturally as beautiful and magnificent as it is. It’s uncertain what I will do at that age, where I will be, what my profession will be. But this one thing is for certain; I will still be facing Hitler.
“Facing Hitler” is my name for a phenomenon every travelling German knows. Well, not every. I have at least one German friend who was completely unaware of it. Then again, that friend’s name is Ayla, and even though she is undoubtedly German, she doesn’t specifically look like your stereotypical Hans Landa.
Facing Hitler comes in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes as admiration, like in your foreign partner’s parents welcoming you with the Hitler salute because they think you would like it. As confusion, like in your colleague abroad getting congratulated for her “little Nazi” after giving birth. Or as a weird kind of rivalry, as in Russians bragging about “their”megalomaniac mass-murdering dictator beating “yours”.
All of these incidents are awkward and highly upsetting. “That’s normal”, you might think, “who likes to talk about his country’s ugly past?”. Indeed, I’ve chatted up Cambodians about Pol Pot and earned little more than embarrassed silence. On the other hand, I actually enjoy discussing history, including Nazi era topics. Just when I met enthusiastic Nazi fanboys abroad, my blood regularly boiled before I learned how to deal accordingly with such situations. Besides, Hitler’s undeserved fame isn’t matched by other charismatic figures, dictators or otherwise. I doubt Cambodians face Pol Pot supporters abroad so often, nor do Russian travellers find Stalinists all over the globe, Brits aren’t patted on their back in acknowledgement of Churchill’s deeds and outside of Turkey, no-one actually knows Atatürk.
It might seem strange to non-Germans that we get so emotional here. I’ve been to seminars preparing young first-time travellers in Germany, where we spent hours talking about what to do when suddenly, your new friends abroad start sharing their sympathies with the Nazis. Now, it’s hard to imagine wearing another one’s shoes and feeling the pebbles stuck in them since 1945. So let me try to explain this to you.
First of all, hearing people talk positively about the Nazis is a completely new thing for us. It just doesn’t happen at home. Whenever someone utters something vaguely sympathetic towards Nazis, he better explain himself. Hence, you will find most Germans unprepared and somewhat unarmed when a stranger abroad happily tells him what a great a man Hitler supposedly was. Obviously, there are also Neo-nazis in Germany, people who deny the holocaust, etc. But those rarely make it into positions of public interest, and if they do, they keep their views undisclosed (still very dangerous – a Nazi with a tie is still a Nazi).
Secondly, the average German traveller is rather educated, usually being either an academic or a recent highschool graduate. If you’re being educated in Germany, you’re being confronted with the holocaust, the Nazi terror, Hitler’s surge to power, the numerous crimes, the “Schuldfrage” (question of guilt) and so on. Sure, there are racist educated people, too, but they don’t travel. Besides, if you objectively study genocidal autocratic dictatorships throwing their countries into wars with, like, everybody, plus additionally killing millions of innocents while losing the consequent bloodbath, you will notice that it’s hard to maintain a pro-Nazi stance unless you’re helplessly convinced of their cause beyond reason anyways. In fact, “it wasn’t all bad” is a common phrase we jokingly say when suspecting someone to be apologetic of the Nazi regime. I share an informed and researched opinion with (hopefully) all travelling Germans when I say: It was all bad. The few innovations which you could argue in favour of don’t even justify the humanitarian and physical losses of the first year of Nazi reign. Long story short, by the time young Hans and young Gretel walk their own trails abroad, in their mental backpacks they carry substantial knowledge of the crimes and failures of fascism. And then, we run into guys who know about Nazis as little as they know about Jews (but have solid opinions about both anyways), and still honestly believe they could tell us about Hitler.
My third reason, surely not the last, is a bit psycho. By utilising almost all fields of culture for themselves, the Nazis managed to leave an imprint in our collective mental backyard till today. Among many other factors, such as issues with everyday words perverted by Nazi terminology, there’s the implied necessity for Germans to come to terms with the national past. Consciously or not, most Germans (probably excluding Ayla, again) at some point in their life wondered what their grand or great-grandparents were up to back then. Were they victims, heroes of the resistance or – much more likely – enthusiastic followers, soldiers, aspirants for the “Mutterkreuz”, seduced by hatred? Some seek the to find out, but the further away history carries us, the more figure that it’s no longer important for our lives today what the individual inhabitant of Nazi Germany did back then. And, well, others simply deny. But whatever path the educated German traveller in question might have taken, once his favourite barber in Istanbul, Lima or Mumbai jokingly utters the specter’s name, the traveller is unpleasantly reminded that, despite how we personally might or might not have overcome the spirits of the past, to most of humanity we’re defined by who we are least.
The obtruding question I bypassed earlier; why is this ill, weirdly bearded and to modern ears funny sounding Hitler more present and unnervingly popular than, say, Stalin, Mao, Chomenei? It’s not even the only thing people know about Germany. There’s football, beer, cars, and in my experience, near everyone outside of Europe knows more about all of those than about the actual Nazis. Then again, as it is with rulers, it’s about imagery rather than facts. Here are some of my ideas, feel free to add:
To an extent, the Nazis still incorporate the stereotypical German. Disciplined, emotionless, efficient. The average German, I learned, is also liberal in comparison, but who talks about that?
Wide spread anti-Semitism. Why Myths about and hatred of Jews are so global, yet so ungrounded, would require books to fathom. I recommend Hannah Arendt for long evenings.
Incomplete knowledge (“gefährliches Halbwissen” or “dangerous superficial knowledge” in German), as simple as that. How can you expect people from East Timor to know about European history when you don’t even know what East Timor is?
As a consequence, little informed people are apparently lead to the terribly false assumption that Germany’s current position in the world is in any way thanks to the Nazi rule. Google “Cologne 1945” and look at the pictures; you will see the Cologne cathedral, in its foundations hundreds of years older than fascist ideology, enduring in a desert of modern age debris.
The first time I encountered someone who told me in the face that he likes Hitler was in Russia. It wasn’t a Russian though, but another intern, and I had no idea how to react. I almost threw a tantrum, so I got drunk instead and did party stuff. To make it worse, it was an AIESEC party, a place where you would expect people promoting tolerance and peace. Since then, my reactions developed. There’s no one perfect response, but necessity to adjust to the situation. During my first trip to Istanbul, while discussing a text by a Jewish author in class, another student mentioned that she didn’t like Jews. I sensed that this wasn’t entrenched antisemitism but more profiling on what appeared to her as a safe topic. So I told her I was Jewish and she apologised. I accepted her apology and said I figure she didn’t mean it. I have no idea if that was the right thing to do, given that I am as Jewish as a christmas tree, but I don’t have the impression she turned more anti-Semite afterwards. It’s so hard to blame someone for the financial crisis when he politely asks to borrow a pen from you.
Same classroom, other seminar; another student who barely talks German told me he thinks Hitler is great and proceeds with saluting him. This time, I turn away in disgust. I had heard the student talk before in the little German he knew and figured; there’s nothing to win here, not for me.
And here comes the supreme discipline; I’m teaching a class that just recently started learning German, which is also the only language we communicate in. There is no way I can discuss heavy topics here, so I have a rule: No politics before completing B1 (which is vaguely the language skill you’d need to make sense out of this blog). Nevertheless, some of my students begin to perform the Hitler salute. I love teaching my kids, and I have to maintain a stable relation to them if I want them to learn from me. Naturally, I can’t do what I would do in Germany in a corresponding situation, but I can’t just leave it be, too. On a higher level, I would “talk the talk” with them, which might go so far as to include pictures of concentration camps. But they’re not advanced enough for that. In Turkey, respecting authorities is kind of important, so I communicated that this behaviour is highly disrespectful to me. They stopped saluting, but it would be naive to assume they understand the entire situation, or even what they have been saluting to.
There’s also another kind of situation. A student that goes on an excursion to Germany tells me she’s afraid of Nazis. Of course, this is absurd. The town we’re heading to is not nearly as dangerous for young girls as Istanbul, no matter their ethnicity. Just today, 10,000 locals have been protesting against racism there. For any Neo-nazi, there are dozens of German-Turks alone who would beat the living hell out of that piece of scum, plus all the other rightful people sticking around. At the same time I need to confess to myself, painful or not, that I cannot and never will be able to write the words I’d love to write: There’s no Nazi left in Germany.
The Nazi era is a wound that never closes. Yet though painful at times, this old injury has benefits besides saving money on flags. For history not to repeat itself, it’s healthier to be paranoid than patriotic.