englishman abroad, history

German Guilt

On Monday, we were at a good friend’s barbecue and I got talking to her father, who has recently retired. He told me a little about what it was like growing up in post-war Germany and travelling abroad as a German. He was one of the first young Germans who went to France on a trip with the German Boy Scouts. One day he was trekking through rural France on a hot summer’s day when his troop happened upon a farm, they approached and asked the farmer for permission to draw water from their well. What do you think happened next?

If you answered ‘They were chased from the property by vengeful French farmers with pitchforks’ then yes, you are correct. It sounds funny, but this young man was not yet even a teenager. A couple of days prior, I had spoken with a Dutch woman who told me about the day she learned about The Indonesian War of Independence at school, and the bad things that her grandfather had supposedly done during the conflict. Both conversations centred on historical guilt. Both conversations put me in mind of British and American attitudes to history.

Many Americans and Britons are proud of their countries’ role in WW2, despite their respective nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing. America is very proud of its history and its struggle for independence from the British, and Britain is still somewhat fond of its old empire. After all, we still have awards like the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and the history of our royal family is interwoven with empire.

Although there is much to be proud or ashamed of in any country’s history, my own thoughts are more ambivalent. Why do Germans still feel guilty about the Nazis? It wasn’t them! Why do Britons harp on about a non-existent empire? It’s long gone! Look at what is happening to the proud countries now: America elected Trump and Britain is leaving the EU. It seems that both places are living in the past. As for Germany, deeply ashamed of its past, it rebuilt and reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse. Looking forwards, not backwards, seems to be the key.

Next week I am on holiday in Tenerife, so there might not be a blog post. Hopefully I won’t get lost, approach a farmhouse and be chased into the sea by  vengeful French expats.

2 thoughts on “German Guilt”

  1. I am a lucky German a lot of times. Since I am walking on a European Ramblers Route, which started in Ireland, I have been welcomed in many peoples homes and luckily was not scared away by angry farmers. Living in Amsterdam, I know that a group of Germans singing their songs loud and then louder with more alcohol consumption can be quite intimidating and that this appearance could trigger the: scare them away – reaction. Considering the age of the group you are writing about, this was probably not the case, but this behaviour happens, and it is ugly – at least in my eyes.
    Maybe the vulnerablity of a single woman walking in the landscape counterbalances the stigma of the past and the present German predominance in Europe – which gave me better chances to be welcomed 🙂
    I started in 2013 in Ireland. There I had many talks about the financial crisis. I was even asked to tell Mrs Merkel that the Irish are hard working people.
    The continued guilt about the past could be an awareness, that we are still working with and benefitting from their systems once set in place – called imperialism. The Germans with the Euro and the Dutch with their trade. The basic ideas of thinking are still present. I just started writing about my experiences walking 1500km through Germany. The influences of an attitude which is technocratic and/or controlling, either to nature or other cultures is present. Fear of other cultures and people of a different color is present next to heartwarming friendlyness on a one-to-one basis. By chance, just today, I came across the work of the historian: Peter Frankopan, who describes Europes imperalism and its decline. The role of the christian religion supporting its cruel imperialism and preventing development in thinking and adaptation to a changing world. Since I am coming from personal experience and observation “only” I am grateful for Peter Frankopans historical factbased view. http://www.peterfrankopan.com/the-silk-roads.html

    Liked by 2 people

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