Thursday, December 13, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: The war, daddy.

ON THE AVENUES: The war, daddy.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

(This column originally was published in the pre-merger New Albany Tribune on December 31, 2009, as dispatched from Germany)

Within a day of our arrival on December 20 in Bamberg, Germany, I noticed two items that had eluded my attention during previous trips.

First, there is a large marble plaque in the covered archway of the old town hall building astride the Regnitz River. It commemorates Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic Wehrmacht officer whose failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944 was fictionalized in the recent movie “Valkyrie.” Apparently Stauffenberg’s first military posting in the 1920s was to a cavalry regiment in Bamberg, and perhaps for this reason, his somewhat belated but ultimately heroic role in the resistance bears noting.

Second, there is a small, golden colored stone inserted between the gray concrete sections of a sidewalk running in front of an otherwise anonymous 19th-century building on Luitpoldstrasse. The carving on the inconspicuous stone provides biographical details about a woman, presumably Jewish, who lived in the adjacent building prior to her deportation to the Theresianstadt concentration camp, from whence she was taken to Treblinka, where she died in 1942. Had I not looked down at the right time, I’d have entirely missed seeing the stone.

Basil Fawlty famously admonished his Torquay hotel staff “not to mention the war.” Unlike Fawlty himself, I can easily avoid mentioning it while traveling in Germany, but thinking about it is a different matter.

Undoubtedly, younger generations are able to roam the German lands without saying or thinking much about what happened there in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It has been just shy of 65 years since Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, and his Nazi regime collapsed amid the devastation it had so eagerly wrought.

Obviously, much time has passed, and slowly, inexorably, those people who were alive then have departed, taking with them their vital, eyewitness, living memories, and leaving future generations just the dry facts to be transmitted by textbooks and videos. Are these stories enough to ensure that the lessons are not forgotten?

By the time I made my first trip to Germany, a full 40 years had passed since the end of World War II. Now another quarter century has elapsed, and the basic questions that haunted me in 1985 are unanswered.

How did a relatively obscure group of wild-eyed fascistic, racist, radicals manage to seize control of an otherwise sane, civilized and cultured country, in due course intentionally unleashing a literal hell on earth against fellow Europeans (in general) and adherents to Judaism (in particular)?

There are as many ways to explain it as there are people to theorize, and yet the horror remains inexplicable. I have tried my best to let it rest, primarily by vowing to refrain from reading another book or watching another documentary about the era, but then the third volume of the historian Richard J. Evans’ trilogy on the history of the Third Reich was published in the spring of 2009.

I read the reviews, found my curiosity engaged yet again, and immediately trotted out to buy all three books, commencing to work my way through 2,000 pages of relentlessly depressing violence, destruction, murder, mayhem and depravity – and all of that occurs in the first volume, which ends in 1933, six years before the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and the Holocaust began.

By mid-summer we coincidentally had decided to spend the Christmas holiday in Bamberg, and my readings took on a bizarre, bi-polar feel. On the side of my professional interests, I undertook a refresher course as to the traditions prefacing the glorious beer culture of the Franconian region, of which Bamberg is the epicenter, and on the other, Evans in hand, I began imagining once again how the sad historical record recounted above affected life in the same geographical areas – sometimes in the very same taverns I’d be patronizing.

I finished the third and final volume just before our departure, and although Evans’ achievement in synthesizing information is considerable, and the resulting narrative compelling and triumphant, those nagging questions about cause and effect still cannot be conclusively answered, because human hearts and minds cannot fully be revealed even if the basic chronology can be written.

We’ve always known that the Nazis came to power during a postwar malaise followed by an economic downturn by persuading some people that other, “different” people could be blamed for their difficulties. Lacking persuasion, psychological intimidation and physical assault awaited those who wouldn’t take the bait. A sufficient number of Germans from all walks of life supported the Nazis, whether actively or in the breach, and for a multiplicity of reasons, many unconnected with the anti-Semitism that came to define the message over time. Although numerous, ordinary Germans were disenchanted during the Nazi period, full-throated resistance never materialized, primarily because Hitler was adept at a strategy of dividing and conquering.

I suppose, in the end, the incremental nature of life took affairs past the point where normal people could think and react to them. They just hunkered down and waited for the madness to end.

In closing, I would not contemplate these matters if by doing so implied a stance of judgmental superiority by virtue of being American. That’s historically foolish. Remember the Native Americans who used to live here? Or the legacy of slavery, our own “blood guilt”? A little more than a year ago, a downtown New Albany businessman was willing to state for the record that in spite of being a Democrat, he’d not be voting for Barack Obama because Obama is black.

I can’t see into his heart and mind, either.

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