I really, really, really never thought I'd say this: I owe the German people an apology.
I was about five years old. I was sitting on the couch in the living room with my brother Greg. We were wearing our matching nightgowns that my mother had sewn. They were bright red, bell-shaped, with bell-shaped sleeves. Mommy had originally made them as the angel costumes for a Christmas pageant. Greg and I were engaged in innocent play. Hard to believe, given how distant we became as adults, that we used to be each others' default playmate.
The small, black-and-white TV was on. And suddenly I was wrenched out of the evening, out of playtime, out of that warm cozy feeling kids experience when they've gotten through the day without being eaten by a dragon. Childhood is not only a time of abundant wonder, it's a time of rich and easy gratitude.
I can see, in my mind's eye, the images on the TV screen. Skeletal corpses, stacked one atop the other. The camera moved quickly. Its speed worsened the violation, the horror. If I saw a pile of corpses like that, I would not move quickly. I would have to stop, and it would be a long time before I could move again, and some part of me would remain in place before that sight forever, I think.
And I wouldn't be dedicated to *seeing* the corpses, and displaying them to others. I would want to try to rescue them, at least by covering their nakedness, and placing them under dignified headstones.
My mother hadn't planned for me to see this on TV, but I had, so she had to explain. She did. "This is what THEY did to US."
And that's how I understood the Holocaust, Nazism, World War II, for the longest time. What THEY did to US.
My mother was born in a country that no one could spell, and both my parents came from countries that were part of the world threatening, in the Cold War, the country in which I was living, we were poor, and there was one language in the house and another outside it. I very much grew up in a world of US and THEM.
Czechoslovakia had come to be only after 1918 and the end of WW I. Before that my people lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire that burned Slovak schools and aristocrats who lived off, and oppressed, the peasants. Czechoslovakia's birth as a country was a big deal to my mother.
When her homeland was only twenty years old, THEY gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler. My mother thought of her birthplace as Hitler's first victim.
Czechoslovakia may or may not deserve that title. One thing is clear, though. The world should have done something in 1938 when Hitler was clearly a threat, and the world did not.
On September 30, 1938, THEY signed the Munich Agreement handing Czechoslovakia to Hitler, and signaled to him that he could do any vile thing he wanted and meet minimal resistance.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, "the man with the umbrella" gave a speech in London. "The question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for our two countries and for Europe … [I bring] peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep." I wonder how many of the cheering Londoners would later be trying to get a nice quiet sleep only to die in the Blitz.
They should have taken Hitler on then. They didn't. "Anglo-German relations" superseded consideration for the Czechs and the Slovaks.
THEY – not just Germans, but the Western world, did that to US.
My mother told me about the Slovak man, Jozef Gabcik, who, with his Czech partner, Jan Kubis, assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the highest ranking Nazi to be killed by the resistance. My mother told me about Lidice, a village in Czechoslovakia, that was erased from the map in retaliation for that killing.
I hated Germans.
It's funny; I live during a time of powerful political correctness, ostensibly all about stopping prejudice, but no one has ever given me a hard time over my most carved-in-stone prejudice.
I've traveled in a dozen or so European countries. Never Germany. If I am listening to classical music on the radio and I can hear recognizably German lyrics, I get up and cross the room to turn the radio off.
Otto's essay "Ripples of Sin" was the first chink in my anti-German armor. Reading that essay, I felt some budge in my anti-German prejudice.
OTOH, I read about WW II regularly, and it's inescapable – the Germans mass murdered people. They. Not us.
Now, I think, my anti-German prejudice is finally dead. Here's why.
I recently posted a review of Richard Weikart's excellent new book, "Hitler's Religion." The book makes clear that neither Nazism nor Hitler was Christian.
The reaction to the book astounded me. Readers of the review insisted the opposite: clearly Hitler was a Christian and Nazism was carrying out Christian values.
I've been working on a blog post that addresses these wacky assertions that both Hitler and Nazism were Christian. In composing this blog post, I've been revisiting the history of the Third Reich. WW I, the Versailles Treaty, the stab-in-the-back, the Reichstag Fire, "we knew nothing": I knew about all this before, but I've been seeing it differently as I compose my piece.
Suddenly I'm getting it, in a way that I never got it before, that atrocity really isn't a German thing. Atrocity isn't a Christian thing. Atrocity is a human thing.
Of course I knew that before. But composing this blog post about Nazism not being Christian brought this awareness to the forefront of my mind. It was like a math problem. You have two. You have another two. You put them together. It's inescapable. You get four.
You hate that four. You rage against that four. You want to blame that four on German national character or Christianity or the man with the umbrella. That provides an escape. This isn't about you. It's about them. The Germans, the Christians, whoever.
You can't. It's math. Two plus two equals four. And human nature is human nature.
Humiliate people. Kill a lot of them in a pointless war. Burn the Reichstag. The kind of thugs who you only registered before as the weirdos on the edges of your high school memories suddenly attain a prominence that they never would achieve in normal times. Suddenly they are at the foot of your bed in the middle of the night causing you terror and pain. And you agree to close your eyes to anything they ask you to.
I fortuitously tuned into "Playing God," a Radio Lab broadcast I had heard before. The previous time I heard it, it didn't really register. This time, it did. It addressed journalist and doctor Sheri Fink's Pulitzer Prize winning reportage of what happened at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina. The hospital lost power and sewage. Over the course of the next five days, hospital staff decided to euthanize patients. It took just five days without electricity for them to reach the conclusion that killing the unfit was their only course of action.
And something else happened while I was working on this piece addressing the "Nazism = Christianity" canard. Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president of the United States.
First, only Hitler was Hitler. No serious person says that Trump is another Hitler.
That fact doesn't excuse us from blinding ourselves to the parallels.
For me the parallels played out on Facebook, and they demoralized me and I may never see humanity in the same way again.
People I liked. People I trusted. People I thought of as intelligent, as decent, as Christian. Some Jews. Voiced their support for a personality disordered conman who disseminated anti-Semitic memes and Mussolini quotes, a man who cozied up to the KKK, a man who acknowledged that he was a serial sexual assailant, a man who mocked women for menstruating and lactating, a man who called for death for the Central Park Five *after* they had been exonerated by DNA evidence, a man who praised a dictator who murders journalists and may have poisoned with dioxin the head of a neighboring country.
Surely my nice, decent, intelligent, Christian, Jewish, Facebook friends would never support Trump.
But they did.
Because they felt humiliated and threatened by political correctness and ripped off by "socialism" – aka Obamacare.
The day Trump was sworn in, three different Team Trump Facebook friends called for death to Clinton voters. We have more guns than they do, they bragged. I want a "body count" of anti-Trump protesters, one Trump supporter said. Follow up posts repeated the call for body counts. And of course Team Trump is calling for an abrupt end to Obamacare, without any replacement. That will, of course, result in some deaths.
And these are people who have never seen war fought over their own soil, who are well-fed and have roofs over their heads and live in the undisputed richest and most powerful country on earth.
Germany, I owe you an apology.