A German Girl's History Lesson

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I like reading about history. My favorite subject is reading about early civilizations of the Sumer people and the Middle East, but I just kind of dabble here and there. I have read a few books on the Greeks and Romans. When it comes to European history, I thought I got a good education up until WWI. This is when my field of knowledge stops. I seem to have picked up on that thread when I found Lew Rockwell’s web site, and it’s been a long overdue education for me.

I am not an expert on any epoch of history. There’s a fascination and wonderment though when I read about it. When it comes to human action by an unenlightened mind, not much has changed over the years. But WWI and WWII have been taboo subjects in general when I grew up in Germany. It’s something that wasn’t much talked about in social circles or gone into detail during my school education.

My parents were young children when the WWII ended. I am the post-war generation who hated what our previous generation did, without understanding any of the dynamics that led to any of the wars. I never bothered to go into the details of the wars nor seek any valuable lessons from it. I felt ashamed over my country’s recent past. I remained closed to the subject of Germany’s 20th century history. Denial and history don’t make good partners for truth. Hating one’s own past without understanding is even worse. I love my home country, but despised its political past.

A few months ago I cleaned out my garage and came across some old notebooks. They were from my history class in 9th grade. WWI was depicted by drawing arrows from and to poignant reference points. Nothing more than a few time frames, names of people and a few facts. WWII notes were even sparser.

I remember little about my WWII education. All that I do remember is that Sister Inge, our history teacher, made us sit through an hour-long black-and-white video about the atrocities of the Third Reich regime. We were about 15 years old at the time. Scenes of the concentration camps flashed across the screen. After the movie, I think we tried to discuss it, but it was difficult. Sister Inge, a young nun at that time, was not able to help us deal with these kinds of images. We were shocked to say the least. It turned our stomachs really. And as school children, we were left on our own to process this insanity. There were no adults to teach us or help us understand our own history. Germans are great in math, literature, music and science. History is more difficult. It requires looking at oneself in the mirror, and who can without guilt blurring the picture? We were left with disgust and horror about our own past and nobody to turn to. We had no objective view from anyone that could tell us what really happened.

My brother told me that they did debate it when he went to Gymnasium (High School). I also caught a few documentaries on TV, but most of them were presented in the views of either the victor or the loser. I cannot recall ever seeing education that walked the fine line of seeing the entirety of these events. I also was a girl, and war was something men did, and I didn’t understand any of it.

The two most famous wars in history were just a big blur to me. The word "Krieg" (war) left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve heard it talked about all my life, but not from the standpoint of history that seeks truth. The material that I read on Lew Rockwell was very new to me at first. Talk about coming out of denial.

I heard about the war from people that lived through it and what it did to their lives. My mother’s aunt had to move in with my grandparents after her apartment was bombed in Frankfurt. She stayed with them until she passed away. The word "ausgebombt" (literally meaning bombed out) came up pretty often during conversations about WWII when family members talked about it. People were displaced in every corner of the country, because they lost their homes during the bombing of the cities by the allies.

In the rural areas, people like my grandparents had to run to the cellars to escape artillery shots from the allies who were firing at the Nazi’s on the other side of the hill; in between was my grandparents’ village. Caught in the cross-fire, the farmers were seeking shelter in their cellars among the potatoes and sugar beats. Built deep into the earth underground on the outskirts of town, these cellars provided protection for the villagers. Barrels of apple cider (called Most, an alcoholic beverage) were stored in these cellars. It was good for calming the nerves during heavy artillery fires. Country life had its benefits.

Just this summer I visited Wuerzburg with a friend. She took me to the small memorial downtown Wuerzburg that had a miniature replica of how the city looked like after the bombing of the allies. Three houses remained intact; everything else was destroyed within 20 minutes. A city over 1,300 years old went down in ashes. The temperature was 200 degrees Celsius. I stood there for several minutes. I was speechless. A plaque on the wall read "Nie wieder Krieg" (no more war). The people knew what war was. It’s ugly.

My father’s family had to move out of their home for American soldiers to move in and use it as barracks. My grandmother said they buried all of their possessions in a cedar chest with valuables and personal memoirs. The Americans had metal detectors looking for buried treasures in people’s yards. They couldn’t find my grandparents’. It was Uncle George’s idea to burry it behind the house in the vegetable garden, and it was never discovered. The cedar chest is now in my garage holding my children’s baby blankets. Looting was done in every war, and is still being done today regardless whose side they are on.

My paternal grandmother kept talking about the "fires" she saw in the skies. Schweinfurt was being bombed, which was over 40 km from her village. She dreaded those nights. She was alone with her two boys, one of them my father, while my grandfather was working his way back from Dunkirk, France, as a German Reichsbahn (railroad) supervisor.

My grandfather told me that he collected German Nazi soldiers’ uniforms, belts, pistols and boots after the war. They were a hot item on the black market, because American soldiers wanted to trade these items for war souvenirs. In return my grandfather received sugar, flour, coffee and of course, cigarettes, from the Americans. People found ways on how to feed their family and get a smoke.

A cigarette break between a German and American soldier even stopped the war for a few minutes, and let them talk man to man before they returned into their enemy/allied positions. Uncle Eddie used to talk about his treatment as a POW prisoner in Texas. The British handed him over to the Americans after he was captured in Africa. He landed in a German POW camp in the South of Texas. He used to talk about it so many times after a few glasses of homemade plumb schnapps during family get-togethers. He picked cotton and loved American cigarettes. He fell in love with Texas as a prisoner of war. If he only knew how bad it can get 60 years later in another war as a POW.

One night, my grandfather told me a story about the SS coming through the village on horse wagons loaded with supplies. They forced their way on his property without asking for permission. He was told to feed the horses and to give them shelter for the night. One of the officers had a birthday and since my grandfather was a baker, the officer ordered him to bake a cake. I noticed the fear in my grandfather’s voice when he told me the story. He said that one of the officers threatened him with his life, if he didn’t hurry up. Maybe that was the moment when it hit him that he really had no rights on his own property. It is kind of bizarre that the greatest threat of the war came from the superior attitude of one’s own countrymen’s police force. He experienced first hand the big difference between policing one’s people and governing one’s people.

The stories that I heard over the years were German people’s stories but they really could be any other countries’ stories. Any civilian that lived through the two wars can tell stories on how the destruction or involvement of their country affected their family life. Their stories will contain sorrow for their losses. Or it can contain fear and horror of what they had to see and endure. When I read the stories of the Sumer people, how they lamented the destruction of their city-states, I could hear the same content in their story. They mourned and cried in the rubbles of their city.

These are just a few tidbits that I received from my family while growing up. I didn’t really like to hear these stories, since they scared me as a child. It was during the Vietnam era where I became even more concerned. One day my dad and I were driving home in his 1963 VW Beatle, when I asked him what gorillas fighters were, and why there’s war. I had visions of apes and what are they doing fighting. My poor dad was sort of lost for words. His own parents lived through two wars. What can he tell his own daughter at such a young age what war really was? All he could do was give me the black and white version that the Americans were the good guys, and the communists were the bad guys. This is also what the consensus seemed to be for most post-WWII generations, or at least for a while until people wanted to take their country back again. The explanation at that time made sense to my childish mind. I could totally relate to black and white. The confusion about war continued.

I grew up about 25 km from the former East German border. I didn’t feel the icy winds from Siberia, but I could feel the chilling political climate. And I felt caught in the middle of it with the iron curtain so close by. For years Americans performed their field maneuvers in our area. We were overrun with tanks, trucks and camps during their annual field maneuvers. Even if it was just playing war, it looked like war. I once heard from my father, that if the Soviets rolled over the border with their tanks, within three days they would be standing near the Rhein River. What a depressing thought for my German post-war generation’s future. In my black and white thinking it did give me a sense of security that Americans were there. After all, Americans will help us Germans now should the Soviets decide to attack our little country. And why would they want it anyway? What is it they are wanting from our little farmland? The farmers were getting more irritated with each passing field maneuvers, because it destroyed their crops and their roads. I don’t know if the farmers were reimbursed for their damages, but I just know that our little county was a hot spot area. Germany tired under the threat between two super powers.

We would often take our bikes and ride to the camp sides of the Americans during their field maneuvers and talked to them in our school English. They were friendly, and they had all the yummy candy and gum. American treats are famous. My mother received chocolate treats for the first time after the allies made it to her village. Candy is like heaven to a kid. My mother also said that since her older cousin was very pretty, American soldiers came by the house after the Americans moved into the village and showered them with coffee and sweets. These are friendly gestures made by individuals that wanted to reach out to the locals. These were good intentions. Women in Berlin were not so lucky. They were raped by the thousands, often repeatedly by the same gang of soldiers of the Red Army. I take the candy over rape. Rape is one of history’s many violent war abuses to the innocent.

The only problem with sugar is that it causes decay. History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors and that means it gets sugar-coated into a believable taste that can be swallowed by the next generation. Coughing it up and getting rid of it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. But truth can wash it out and get rid of that awful taste. This is where real liberation seems to come in. Somehow this is what happened when I stumbled across Bob Wallace’s articles by accident. It was his writings that attracted me to LewRockwell.com because his articles were amusing and so insightful. They made me laugh and learn.

He’s also the one that directed me to Richard Maybury’s books such as "Whatever Happened to Justice" and "The Thousand Year War." That alone was an eye opener about the continuation of wars and how they all connected with each other. I began looking at my country’s history in a different light. The articles that I’ve read on Lew Rockwell gave me a glimpse into a history that I tried to ignore for most of my life. I wasn’t a part of that and never wanted to be, and so I stuffed it into a drawer (metaphorically speaking). All I knew was that it was "bad" and it created a great deal of guilt and shame for my country. It never occurred to me to seek out "what led to these wars" and "who were the players that made it worse rather than better?"

I learned about human sacrifices and scapegoats, and how dominant it has been throughout history, and still are today. Ethnic cleansing and finding scapegoats for one’s troubled life is a cowardly way out of self-responsibility. I learned that the Balkan countries were a hot spot waiting to explode prior to WWI. I learned that the threat of Russia and France always lingered in the background to attack Germany before WWI. I also learned that the "peace" treaty of WWI was a punishment rather than reconciliation. It just led to fighting the next one. Politics is always the main player for trouble. And the most obvious one is that empires just create an unhealthy environment for society to flourish. Too many countries of different cultures forced under a one-rule government are asking for trouble. Rome gave us the evidence even if it took several hundred years before it fell. I also come to find out how America’s politics got them into the war. These are just a few insights that I received. I still know very little. It’s a lot of information to absorb and to digest.

Just this past summer I went to Vienna for three days. The city is very beautiful and charming. The two residences of the Habsburg Emperors were very impressive. Die Hofburg looked like it was designed after Roman architecture. I took a tour through Schloss Schoenbrunn. I stood in Kaiser Josef’s bedroom. It had a Spartan look with a simple bed and a desk and a few pictures. The man lived like a soldier. A few rooms down the hall, in the Blue Room, is where the next emperor had to abdicate his throne in 1918. It was the end of a long reign of political failures that could have been avoided had the Habsburgers remained a kingdom instead of becoming an empire. Ironically their famous coffee — a mélange — is a leftover from a previous empire that ruled over Austria — the Turks. Odd that enterprise and trade are the only good things that stay behind once an empire falls. The Turkish coffee culture became Vienna’s calling card for excellence.

Another profound education I received is from an e-mail correspondent. He is from the former USSR and came to the US the year before me. Over time we shared a few of our life experiences here in America and about our countries’ histories. It’s like we’re both seeking answers to the turbulent past of our country and its people. His family lived through the slaughtering of his own people by the Germans and Russians. At first I was not very receptive in talking about wars. But his persistence kept me on my toes in reading up on material I never would have bothered to read on my own. I knew Germany was economically and financially ruined after WWI. I just didn’t know how bad it really was. A country indebted to the victors was waiting for a savior — a hero — and a people; a scapegoat and human sacrifice, to pass on their pain and guilt. Hitler and the Jews seemed to have been the answer.

This is where I stand with my own country’s history. I don’t intend to spin it into anything less or more than what it is. It’s a dark epoch in our modern history. It’s a snapshot of time that shows that these patterns were repeated many times in the past. With each new technology it gets more destructive and also more complicated. Humans have greatly advanced and yet with all their new inventions, we still lag behind in using this power wisely. Our emotions rule too often.

Grandiose personalities with power in their hands are dangerous. They are very receptive to oppressed and enslaved masses. They will seek out a god-like human that takes the path of grandiosity, eccentricity and uniqueness to free them from their burden. I tend to think that a good way of double checking if such a personality is truthful and real, would be to see if he can walk in humility. Another good sign is if he shows wisdom and takes the path of righteousness. It’s also good to see if he knows that he only points to the path to liberation and not take the world by force. But to recognize these positive traits in a man, one has to be one to know one, and that takes an individual mind to figure out, and a heart to live by what he learns. It’s a narrow road to walk and it can get very lonely at times.

I thank Lew and everyone whose articles I read for their insights and understanding. It’s through American Libertarianism that I am learning about my own country’s history in a different perspective. I never thought that seeing one’s own history requires also the objective of others. These Americans have been my liberators in a totally new sense. They liberated me from ignorance and given me some understanding. My thanks also go to Bob and Dan for their insights and encouragements. I don’t always agree, but that’s not to say that I can’t learn something new from it. I hope that my country’s lessons and patterns can teach others to be wary of the same path that it took when it was the most vulnerable. I can now look at my country’s heritage. I see its richness in its culture and in its people. This is the country of my fathers. I speak my mother’s tongue. It will always be the place of my birth that I love.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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