Ursula Hegi, Tearing the Silence: Being German in America

Posted March 31, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

Tearing the Silence: On Being German in AmericaTearing the Silence: On Being German in America by Ursula Hegi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A non-fictional collection of interviews with Germans who were children during or after World War II who then emigrated to America.

My Take
Oh, wow. An excellent and easy read with the interviews broken up into individual stories. This raised so many conflicting emotions within myself. I’ve always wondered how post-war Germans felt about what their parents did in the war. How they reconciled love for a family member with the horror of what that family member likely did in the war. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure they were just following orders… And, yes, I believe there was an atmosphere of terror that affected the average German. Enough fear that they hunkered down and did what they could to protect their immediate families, maybe friends. From their own government.

Almost all of them felt that they should not be held responsible for what happened during the war. And, how could they? They were children. That’s like holding the children of a serial killer responsible for what he does.

Another points out that this genocidal behavior is not exclusive to Germans. That today we have the Bosnian, African, and Middle Eastern issues—and that’s not an inclusive list. For all the guilt heaped on Germans (whether they were alive then or not), we certainly aren’t doing much about the “ethnic cleansing” occurring today. In spite of the much better media coverage we have of the same type of atrocities. In some ways, we are as guilty as German adults in WWII. By our silence, we condone what’s happening. And we don’t have their excuses.

Yet another points up a similar human trait. That of a collective descent into brutality. Yes, some use this as an excuse to avoid responsibility, but others use it as a step toward understanding. Other interviewees mention that they are much more conscious of prejudice with their personal understanding of what it is like to be set apart, to be derided for being other. Some use this to excuse what happened—that they suffered, too. Others use it to understand.

So many talked of the good that Hitler did…no crime (who’d dare?), the Autobahnen… They are angry that Hitler lost the war. Not that he promoted genocide. Do they ever wonder about the good Hitler could have done if he had sunk his energies and the money into fixing their economy in a positive way? If he had the money to build the Autobahnen and manufacture armaments, he certainly had the money to invest in more positive products. It was Hitler’s path, the one that everyone passively accepted that destroyed that Germany. But then, wasn’t that part of the German psyche as well? To allow their “father” to tell them what to do?

Everyone talks about the awful fallout of the German surrender after World War One and how it destroyed the German economy. Well, that’s one of the results of losing a war. Ya rolls the dice and ya takes yer chances. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war and the Germans joined in as their ally. There have been many theories about the assassination being an excuse to expand their boundaries, and, knowing history, they are probably quite accurate. So I have no sympathy for the post-WWI Germany. It’s sad that Wilhelm II lost his throne over it. Idiot. Hitler rose to power through his promises to fix that economy. But all he did was find a scapegoat. Someone he could blame for all their ills and allow them the excuse of hiding behind someone else. Not accepting their own culpability. Bullshit. It’s that same non-acceptance that led to WWII.

Some of the interviewees talk about the abuses they suffered from their parents and it makes me wonder how much of the German culture of obedience and loyalty, of cleanliness and order, throve within my own family. It was the norm for children of my generation to be physically disciplined. Sometimes, I think we need a bit more of that back! But the extent to which so many of these parents took it…whoa. What part of that is German? Or is it a part of human nature? That need to hurt.

Interesting point Hegi makes about not seeing soldiers of other countries as soldiers. That only Germans were soldiers. Some others have peculiar conflicts. One man sees blaming one group of people for their ills as stupid and, yet, he also turns it around and feels the entire group that accepted being sent to concentration camps were stupid. Because he wouldn’t be a sheep. Give me a break. Everyone is different. And everyone is the same. There are good and bad, brave and cowardly people in every ethnic group. It’s not who you are as a nation or a country, but who you are as a person. As my niece would say when she was much younger: go away me from. I just don’t want to deal with someone who is that much of an idjit.

One quote that made me feel better about some issues I can’t forgive in my own life was from Eli Wiesel at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz when he prayed to the “God of forgiveness…[to]…not forgive those murderers of Jewish children…” Hegi mentions that “forgiveness is healing when it is appropriate, but only too often forgiveness is trivialized, misused.” As though by saying someone is forgiven that you will automatically feel better.

Reading the life stories of these people made me so sad. Even leaving aside the “collective guilt”, they have had a difficult personal life due to the psychological traumas of growing up in a war zone, surviving the abuses heaped on them by their own parents, the shunning for being Flüchtlings (refugees). All of which has caused many of them to be incapable of long-term relationships, trusting in others, finding a place for themselves whether it’s emotional or physical. It’s a unique look that causes me to wonder how other children caught up in war zones survive. The traumas they suffer that follow them throughout their lives.

All mention the silence. Oh, they each have a different story to recall as to how the “silence” manifested, but each has a different reason or excuse. It’s enough to make me realize that they knew. Maybe not while it was occurring, but, eventually, they knew. A few hide behind this. Others…others acknowledge it in their own ways. One person’s comment has stayed with me: “My father didn’t care for Hitler at all. So there was a certain amount of silence. You just didn’t talk about the war in the open.” No kidding. When talking against Hitler would take you to a concentration camp…

Beate has an interesting story when she realized her mother did know more than she would admit. Then there’s an interesting comparison between Catholicism and Nazism. Oh, to be fair, “Catholic” is simply a stand-in for any religion that rants on about how they are the only true religion.

Another good point. So many parents who did not tell their children what was happening. And that not knowing only made things worse for the kids as their imaginations would go into overtime coming up with scenarios that were actually worse than the truth. Parents. Kids know. Don’t hide from them. You don’t have to lay it out bluntly. You can always find a way to explain it in a way that makes sense. That works at their level. Just don’t lie or refuse to talk.

Arghh, there’s another interviewee who complains about her father not coming after her once he was released from a Russian prison camp. She claims she’d have moved heaven and earth to find her own child if that had been her. So, in spite of her father being told that his family had dumped him and run off to America, she still expects that he should have done all the running. She couldn’t be bothered to make any effort of her own.

A scary observation raised by Sigrid when she points out that some Germans are ordinary people. “…that this can happen in a very ordinary way.” That we need to recognize the capacity of humans to do evil and stay “alert to what can happen if government legitimizes or rewards evil by providing” the “proper” excuse. One interviewee is angry that some Germans make the excuse that others do it. She points out that “the thought-out, planned, organized, rationalized evil that makes it different from all those” makes it different. Yes. And no. Yes, it was a planned extermination sanctioned by the government. Yes, it’s mind-blowingly…I can’t think of a word horrible enough to encompass the thought behind this…! And no. It’s not the only time a government has promoted such an extermination. Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to downplay the Holocaust. I just don’t think it’s right to blame the post-war generation for their parents’ actions (or inactions) and reading these stories draws parallels to what is occurring TODAY in our own country and in too many others.

The scary point that several made is that our own country is heading down Hitler’s path. Yes, it could be an exaggerated fear, but it pays us to be vigilant. To not allow a descent into such fear that we marginalize, inter into our own concentration camps the people we are pushed into fearing. Hitler used the stereotypes about Jews and the lousy German economy to create the Jewish scapegoat. Aren’t we doing the same today?

Is it part of the human need to feel superior to others?

The Cover
The cover and the title are perfect! Omigod, they are soo perfect! The cover has a huge black rectangle covering most of a sepia-toned “black-and-white” simple collage of a row of people (you can just see their calves and dresses) and a little girl in pigtails with Hitler providing his Nazi salute behind her. I’m not sure what the sketch represents in the upper right corner. But that giant black “silence”, the hulking representation of covering up, refusing to acknowledge what happened to the Jews in Germany is so evocative.

The title states exactly what Hegi intends with this book, Tearing the Silence. Diving under the denial, ripping away the veil of the refusal to accept the horrors perpetrated by Germans.

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