I spent my elementary school years in post-WW II Germany. Though my father was US Air Force, we lived off-base in a German village. The crowd was a combination of American and German kids—we taught them baseball, they taught us soccer.
Though the war had been over for 15 years when we arrived in Germany, its remnants were everywhere—from the bombed-out ruins in Frankfurt to the older villagers missing an arm or leg. For us kids the war’s most immediate impact was in the dense woods that surrounded our village. Once in a while a kid, either lost or adventurous, would wander deeper into the woods and chance upon an unexploded hand grenade, usually the ‘potato-masher’ type that the Germans employed. One kid’s older brother discovered a large, ivy-ridden mound that, when all the foliage was removed, proved to be an abandoned cannon.
When I was eight, my parents took us to Dachau, the original Nazi concentration camp. We saw the photos of the liberated prisoners, toured the barracks where they slept, four to a bed. Stood in the gas chamber. The horrors hit home in a manner that surprised me, even to this day. (Just recently I took my two daughters back to Dachau. I was stunned to find how much I’d remembered—in detail—from that visit.)
Returning to our village, I remember viewing my neighbors through a different lens. The woman at the bakery who tousled my head and slipped me an extra Dumkopf, the men in the butcher shop, the old man who took our tickets at the cinema—I wondered how much they knew about places like Dachau, what they’d thought of Hitler, what they thought happened to all their Jewish neighbors. I didn’t have the language skills or the temerity to ask the villagers these questions, but they stuck with me for my entire life.
In 1971, at the age of 17, I went back to Germany for the summer. In the campgrounds I’d find myself most evenings sitting with Germans of all ages over our separate dinners. When the news got out that there was an American in their midst, a crowd would form and we would exchange questions and opinions about the other’s culture. Every conversation, every one, had these three things in common: 1) JFK was great; 2) Muhammad Ali was their favorite athlete; and 3) Why did we Americans treat our black citizens so badly?
For my part, I asked the questions I couldn’t ask when I was a kid: 1) Who and what was Hitler to them? 2) How much—and when—did they know about the different campaigns against the Jews? And 3) What did they know—or suspect—about the camps.
And just as my German inquisitors were consistent in their questions to me, they also, to a person, had the same answer to my questions: “Glaube mir, Tom. Wir hatten keine Idee.” (Believe me, Tom, we had no idea this was happening.” I wasn’t in a position to argue with much conviction (or facts) with them at that time, but I didn’t believe them. Then or now.
Once I became a lecturer in Holocaust Studies, teaching at schools such as Santa Clara University and UC Santa Cruz, I found the tools and knowledge to debunk “Wir hatten keine Idee.” Raul Hilbert, the dean of Holocaust scholars, showed, just by analyzing the use and schedules of the German train system, that both the knowledge and complicity of the average German was more than initially suspected. They knew. What they did about it—or could do about it if they didn’t want to join their Jewish neighbors at Dachau—is a different matter. And a different campground discussion.
Flash forward to today: To its credit, Germany has done an admirable job of owning up (and owning) the Holocaust, both in its educational system and in how it has memorialized it in different manners and settings throughout the country. It is Germany’s ‘original sin’ and they are penitent and have created laws that identify and restrict hate groups in their midst. It doesn’t always work, as witnessed by the recent far-right gains in German politics, but the country is serious about both its past and its future.
Now contrast that with the US. Where is the government-developed curriculum that focuses on our systematic isolation, repression and destruction of the Native American? A campaign that was so clear in its multiple steps—stereotype them; vilify them; isolate them; take whatever they own; and ultimately exterminate them—that Hitler spoke admiringly about it as a model for his own campaign against the Jews. And, now, just as we’re starting to own up to our own ‘original sin’—slavery—we have our own far-right citizens demanding that it not be taught in our schools.
What’s wrong with this picture? And isn’t a bit embarrassing that we Americans should be looking to Germany for lessons in citizenry and justice? I’d love to say that we’ve just lost our way temporarily during the last presidency, but that’s not true. We haven’t faced up to our past in any meaningful way, which is a large part of why the ultra-nationalist, America First, and white supremacies are the fastest growing political populations in our midst.