Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 4

Apologies in Advance

“Some more centuries may have to pass before one can say:

it was long ago that the Germans were barbarians.”

– Johann Wolfgang von GOETHE

Three weeks after that awful hour in the interrogation room, I touched down in Frankfurt and, from the beginning, it was clear that all my prior knowledge and hurried preparation were going to be hopelessly inadequate. I found myself in a country which was simultaneously fascinating, frustrating and frightening, living among instinctively closed and defensive people; a people deeply scarred by a long dark past – which had only recently been painted over.

Black and white picture of a curly headed German holding a pair of oars

The rescued U-Boot captain from Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Life Boat”, 1944

As an amateur urban anthropologist, I observed a people who could almost be likeable on the surface, but beneath the forced levity were working hard to hide their true selves, like the U-Boat Captain in Hitchcock’s film “Lifeboat.” Much of German society was still working overtime to sweep large portions of history under an ever more threadbare carpet – and said carpet was already struggling to conceal several inconvenient bulges.

Strangely, although I’ve developed a love for neither Bonn nor Germany, and have cultivated a profound misunderstanding for Germans and German culture generally, I seem to have developed a morbid fascination for the subject. It’s a phenomenon that has been remarked on over the centuries by other foreigners, or “outlanders” as the German language labels them without affection. Some kind of a gravitational pull seemed to develop, and I found myself on a tragic orbit, like a tiny planet being pulled closer and closer to a doomed star.

When, in the dead of night, I hear the rumble of a distant freight train or a lone drunk singing football songs and smashing bottles to punctuate the verses, or a group of punks marching in time, I can’t help feeling that the growing gravitational pull from that dying star will eventually suck me into its core and crush me into particles so much smaller than dust that even dust-mites wouldn’t notice them. All attempts which I’ve made to escape have come to nought. I am drawn inexorably to the subject of Germany and the Germans, trying in vain to reach an understanding of the Teutonic lands and those who inhabit them. I feel like a child who discovers a particularly large and ugly spider at the bottom of the garden and, though frightened of it and repulsed by it, feels drawn to the hairy beast and needs to poke it with a stick to see how it will react.

“Dry your eyes, Princess!”

I imagine if any Germans labour through this manuscript, they will find parts of it exaggerated, or even on several occasions not totally factual. This is the problem with anything based on subjective human observation. We all perceive things differently, due in part to where we were born, where and how we were raised and educated, and also in which decades we grew up; and although I started to write about Germany while I was still there, in the thick of it, I finished the work while swatting flies in a shack somewhere on Australia’s coast, and it’s possible that both the heat and the rum may have addled my memory of events.

I would like to assure those German readers who take offence at parts of this volume that I have also gone out of my way to offend the French, the English and the Americans, so don’t feel like you are alone. I may also have inadvertently or deliberately offended some Australian readers, but to them I say “Dry your eyes, Princess.”

Some of what I have written about Germany is probably stuff that goes on everywhere, behaviour shared by people all over the world. I just happened to be in Germany when these aspects of human nature first came to my attention. Thus the anthropological observation occurs against a German backdrop, with German protagonists.

Some readers will say I spent far too much time chewing on Germany’s years of National Socialism, and to that accusation I plead guilty as charged. The stuff was flowing out of every orifice after a while, as I digested endless material to try and understand why and how the atrocities could have happened. However, let me say in my defence that those twelve terrible years have been both directly and indirectly hugely influential in making Germany and the Germans what they are today. Many of the quirks that make modern German society and the modern German psyche what they are now, also made Hitler and National Socialism possible.

To ignore the period and brush over it would be as negligent as to ignore the centuries of Roman conquest and civilisation, or the 30 Years War which killed one in every four Germans in the 17th Century, or Germany’s involvement in the First World War, or the political ructions of 1968.

These are all periods of history which have profoundly affected who Germans are today. The ever-spreading ripples of these events through history have also profoundly affected the people of almost every other modern European country, and many far beyond Germany’s horizons, too – even as far away as Australia. In fact it was events springing from German foreign policy that in large part led to Australia’s establishing its own identity on the world stage. Several of the legends on which Australians like to pin their collective mythology can also be pinned to Germany – like so many misplaced tails on the donkey of history.

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