THOUGHTS ON BEING GERMAN

FIRST DELIVERED IN SAN FRANCISCO FOLLOWING THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL

 

When I was accepting the invitation to speak at this Banquet, I began to ponder anew the question What is it like to be German, or German-American? How do I define my Germaneness? In personal terms, I have early memories of bombings and fires, of having to be carried frantically into a basement, of fear that gripped everyone at the sound of approaching Allied bomber squadrons that would inevitably unleash their destructive fury on cities and villages like mine, only to leave burning farms and screaming animals in flames in their wake.

 

I have memories of being hoisted onto the shoulders of my teenage brother so that I could see the city of Hamburg aflame after one of those devastating firebombings that left the city an inferno of which tens of thousands of civilians perished in one night.

 

I have memories of thousands of homeless and hungry people descending like desperate vultures, from devastated cities like Hamburg and Kiel, onto the countryside to frantically dig for any left over potatoes or kernels of wheat.

 

I have memories of Christmas Eve when my brother and I had to recite poetry to the local Santa Claus and sing “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” and only then could we turn to our presents, a pair of shoes perhaps, which would have to last until next Christmas.

 

I have memories of impromptu ice hockey games on frozen ponds and soccer games with pig bladders because we could not afford a real ball. Memories of a beloved father and hard school benches, of teachers who had come back from the Russian front with no legs and one arm, and great bitterness.

 

Memories of long hiking excursions on hot summer days, singing “Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann und mir liegt’s auch im Blut,” of secret rendezvous and adolescent kisses with my first love, Rosely, on country lanes. Of my mother saying, “Das koennen wir uns nicht leisten,” when my brother and I were coveting a pair of soccer shoes in the store window. Oh, when I think of my hardworking, proud mother and father, who experienced the two most cataclysmic and devastating wars in the history of mankind, and who each time had to start with nothing.

 

I remember Tanzschule, waltzing and doing the tango, and Elvis Presley, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and I remember leaving it all behind one day in May, when I was eighteen, while standing aboard the Hanseatic waving goodbye to my family while the orchestra was playing “Junge, Komm Bald Wieder”.

 

I remember the first sighting of the Statue of Liberty, the skyline of New York City, the sweltering heat, the frenetic hustle and bustle of white- and black- and brown-skinned people, of taking the Greyhound bus through Southern cities, where they had separate toilets and drinking fountain for whites and blacks, and where a genteel Southern lady expressed her love for castles on the Rhine and apfelstrudel, and asked me what I thought of Hitler, and I said, I didn’t and I hadn’t.

 

I remember fulfilling my childhood dreams of being a cowboy when I was in Montana and going to university there, and being asked, one day in a lecture on philosophy, in front of the whole class, how it was possible that a county that had produced Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven and Schubert could produce Hitler and concentration camps. I was eighteen then and couldn’t answer.

 

I remember the experience that left an indelible mark on my brain, and theretofore innocent German heart. It was in Los Angeles in a movie theater, where I saw a documentary of called Mein Kampf. I went to see it because its title promised something about Germany, and I was homesick. It showed scenes of concentration camps, goose-stepping soldiers, of Hitler kissing babies, corpses piled high in makeshift mass graves in concentration camps, of dead German soldiers standing frozen in the wind and the snow-swept steppes of Russia. It showed American soldiers liberating walking skeletons from camps.

 

It was then that I had lost my innocence, and no one was there to explain or quiet my deeply felt sense of anger, betrayal, and shame. Had my beloved mother and father been a part of that?

 

They just could not have, and yet I remember sending letters filled with anger and bitterness an inexplicable disappointment to my mother.

 

I remember later playing for a Jewish team called Maccabees. I fought hard for them, perhaps in vain hope of atoning for the sins committed by some members of my parents’ generation. I met Jews from Hamburg, a village in Hessen, from Cologne, Jews who had left in the thirties and who seemed more German in their old-fashioned ways and attitudes than I was. I met Jews who accepted me because I was too young, and Jews who did not accept me because I was German, and Jews who talked nostalgically of their favorite prewar soccer teams: Eintracht Frankfurt, or Dresden, or Hamburg or reminisced bitterly about the insidious ways of anti-Semitism. I met Germans who called me a traitor because I played for a Jewish team, and I remember an Israeli teammate who talked like a racist about blacks and was suspicious of me because I was German.

 

I remember my first agent in Hollywood, a Jew, who was kindhearted and helpful, and gave me my first break in this tough business of acting. I recall Americans coming up to me when I played Captain Dietrich on The Rat Patrol, saying, “I wish you Germans had wan the war, we wouldn’t have to worry about the damn Russians.”

 

I remember fighting with producers on how to play my role in The Rat Patrol. They wanted an eye patch and a limp so as to perpetuate the stereotypical image of a German soldier. I insisted on playing the Rommel-like figure as a human being with dignity because the German soldier of the Wehrmacht, who came back from the Russian front, was decent and brave and tough and fought for his country just like any other soldier. I remember a conversation with Curt Jüergens on the way to the theater in New York where I played his son in a Broadway play. He thought I should go back to Germany because in America I would play nothing but those damn Nazi roles, and I said it may take me a while, but I was determined to help destroy that caricature. I was determined to show that we were human beings with all the strengths and frailties, with all the feelings and thoughts, of any human being.

 

I remember my son coming home from grade school one day and telling me that he had been called a Nazi, and asking me what that meant. I remember my trying to explain something I had taken years to study and understand to a little boy.

 

I remember reading William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Alan Bullock’s Study in Tyranny, and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, and the best book about that faithful period, Sebasian Haffner’s Anmerkungen zu Hitler (Anecdotes to Hitler).

 

I remember Simon Wiesenthal, during an interview, saying that the actual perpetrators of atrocities numbered about a hundred thousand, and Henry Kissinger say under no circumstances is the postwar German generation to be held responsible for Auschwitz. I remember admiration and respect of the German National Soccer Team, playing the World Cup in Italy. And then we became world champions. It was almost all too good to be true. Then came some editorials in the newspapers about the renaissance of German power and the caricature of Helmut Kohl as the new Hitler, and the many scathing remarks made by the cheap English press and character assassination by Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, all warning of German power while bemoaning the loss of their own.

 

As a German, I wanted to shout out to the world “When will you ever stop talking about those damn twelve years? When will you ever give us credit for more than forty peaceful democratic years during which Germany has been an exemplary democracy, a loyal ally of the Western Alliance, an unwavering friend of both America and Israel, a patient initiator through its Ostpolitic with a Communist East, and a country that has opened it arms to more politically disenfranchised, the persecuted and hungry, than any other except perhaps America? When will you ever talk about and acknowledge the untold contributions made by German immigrants who toiled for you, America, as carpenters, farmers, mechanics, long-shore-men, doctors and nurses, coal miners, machinists, lawyers, surgeons and generals, teachers and scientists? When?” I ask.

 

Well, it will happen when we German immigrants and Americans of German descent start talking about it, and when we start addressing the issues that concern us, when we open our hearts and extend our hands to each other and to those who were wronged by another generation, when we became aware of our profound contributions to the success in freedom and democracy that is America.

 

For that purpose, a few friends of mine and I have founded the German American Cultural Heritage Society of Los Angeles. We want to preserve the histories of German Americans and their immigrant ancestors – be they Catholic or Protestant or Jew.

 

Our formerly divided Germany will become one again. Let us not forget Reagan, Bush, Baker and Mitterand, Kohl and Genscher, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze who made the seemingly impossible a reality, and the thousands of brave East Germans who courageously cried out for freedom.

 

Because of our historical legacy, we Germans have a profound responsibility to be tolerant of others and to cooperate as equal partners in this world of many peoples. Tonight, let us remember the many positive contributions the Germans have made to mankind.

 

What does it mean to be German? It means that we are part of a community of mankind with a specific and complex heritage, and I am proud of that heritage. Thank you.

 

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