Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Oppression and Birthrate: Additions

Germans resent that Americans keep bringing up WWII and the Nazis to them in discussions of war and morality. Their resentment is not unjustified. Germans can honestly declare 1) They have felt enormous guilt, and made cultural changes in response. 2) It happened a long time ago, and few now living had any serious part in the events. 3) They believe they have learned something it would be wise for Americans to learn as well. I grant that all three are mostly true. They have certainly been more apologetic than other nations which have committed atrocities. They have taught a mostly accurate history to their children.

I will briefly quibble with all of the above, though my opinions on the matter are somewhat tangential to the overall post. All people oversimplify for the sake of narrative and remembrance. The Germans did learn from their experience; yet over time, the lesson becomes streamlined, and important parts dropped away. They originally learned that nationalism and religion are potentially dangerous, and can be used to motivate them to evil. They refined this to a belief that nationalism and religion are dangerous, which is less true, but not bizarre. Germans are now gradually adopting the belief that nationalism and religion are not merely dangerous, but evil. They have moved gradually to the wrong lesson. To Americans, it sometimes appears that they have learned no lesson at all. This is understandable in terms of the current result, but it is an unfair characterization of Germans.

As evidence, I will note the tremendous response of German audiences to Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" and Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit," when those black comedies played in Germany in the 1950's and 60's. The German audiences saw with painful clarity what has since been lost: an illustration of how everyday people could become fascists. (Current readings on both plays are watered down, and the original oppressors and victims are as likely to be reversed as maintained. Sigh. Truth is painful.) Both playwrights meant for the works to be generalizable to larger issues of collective guilt, but the unmistakeable references to the previous two decades have been cast off -- much as the Germans have cast off important parts of the lessons once learned.

But what I think about the guilt of Germans, or about collective guilt, is less important than what they themselves seem to think. All of Western Europe has a suspicion of nationalism and religion, and also has non-sustaining birthrates. German (and Austrian, and Italian) birthrates are lower still. It is not that I accuse them of dealing only partially with national guilt -- it is that they seem to believe it themselves.

Related posts:
Oppression and Birthrate

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