Despite Munich’s importance in the rise of National Socialism, I saw only one neo-fascist demonstration in the six months I lived there during college — due to violent racism’s appeal to pissed-off, poor Europeans, the former Communist East Germany has a lot more Nazis than the prosperous former West. White supremacy is less of a middle-class thing over there.
The demonstration itself was a memorial for some dead SS Commander, consisting entirely of six skinheads from Ost Bumfuck, Bavaria standing silently in the middle of Marienplatz, holding a cross made of PVC pipe topped with a jerry helmet. The whole display was alienatingly obscure, in a Teutonic sort of way. There were dozens of Polizei and a handful of counter-protesters, but most of the people who came by were just morbidly curious. My German companion was disgusted by my joking suggestion that I spit on them, as if you’re not allowed to assault people just because they’re Nazis.
In the entire time I lived in Germany, that was only suggestion I heard that the Reich’s soldiers served honorably, let alone that their cause was just. This wasn’t because they were all secretly thinking it, either: I never heard a drunk at a bar spouting Nazi sympathies, and the locals were fastidious about facing the truth honestly when the war did come up. My good friend’s great-grandfather was in the Waffen-SS, and her family mockingly displays his combat helmet on a biology class skeleton in her dad’s study (I put it on, and it was weird). There was not a whiff of romanticism to the way they remember him.
In fact, when I asked my friend’s brother Basti why his Hungarian great-grandfather would join the SS (he was ethnic German), he succinctly responded “Well, I think he really hated Jews.”
I was stunned. Presented with the question of an ancestor who fought for evil, Basti did not lionize his great-grandfather as an principled soldier, nor did he wax poetic of his valor at the Suppression of the Warsaw Uprising. He didn’t try to blame the outbreak of the war on English and French aggression, or launch into some spiel about the St. Louis and Churchill starving all those Bengalis to death, or deny vehemently that the war had anything to do with anti-Semitism. He just straight-up said “he really hated Jews” and got on with his day. As an American, my mind was blown. I didn’t know that honestly discussing your ancestors’ sins was an option.
I started to notice other weird things about Deutschland’s relationship with its past. Not only were there no hagiographic statues of Nazi military commanders around, there was not one single Adolf Hitler Middle School to be found anywhere in Germany. Not one Heinrich Himmler Memorial Autobahn. No Hermann Goering Park, or Joseph Goebbels Square. Not one Euro of the German defense budget was spent on bases named after Nazi war heroes. Given what this Marylander had been accustomed to, it was downright eerie.
Crazier still, I never heard a single kraut say that Irwin Rommel was an honorable soldier and a great man, who knew that killing the Jews was wrong but fought for the Third Reich anyway, out of pure, noble patriotism. They never even gave themselves the chance to ignore how much Jew-killing was facilitated by his military genius, because they don’t even celebrate the non-Jew-killing parts of his career. It’s like they were examining their own tragic history with a sober outlook, in order to take responsibility for it, rather than to convince themselves that everything their country has ever done is a moral act.
Whereas in God’s favorite country, that perfect union that defeated Germany in her hour of madness, to save the world once and for all for justice and democracy, whose people’s in-no-way-over-generous self-image is based entirely on that indisputable fact of our wholly glorious history: the honor of rebel bastard Robert E. Lee is still a cause that 150,000 Virginia Republicans were willing to vote for, 500 Nazis were willing to fight for, and one stupid, mentally ill kid was willing to kill for. Food for thought.