What to do with Germany?s terrible past?
Also an European question – Reflections by a later generation
This text is a short summary of a discourse held on Johannis Day 2001.
To know oneself seems to be the very first premise of freemasonry. This is closely connected with a large range of famous questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? What can I do? Last but not least: What may I hope for? We really need not sit in a dark room like Descartes did to find such questions. European history, especially the German one, lets us find them at once. But what will the contemporary young people do with Europe?s and Germany?s past? As a thirty-year old, I will try to give a very personal answer.
My generation grew up after 1968 with its German culture revolution. We grew up in a completely different climate than the generations before. Our image of Germany is touched first of all by comfort, liberality and a growing European identity, in a multi cultural society. We did not grow up within a classical national state thinking – a divorced Germany makes such thinking difficult – and our thoughts go to NATO, EU and UNO. A generation is coming up that thinks in European terms and that knows how wonderful the palette of the different European cultures is. It makes us rich. Wishing peace, we do not prefer the swords of Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler to create a better world but the free wish of the Europeans to create their Europe. In comparison with 1933, a beautiful change has taken place. Generally we could be happy. But what about the shadows we will find when we deal with history? For Germany these shadows are naturally causing insecurity and doubts. Would it not be comfortable to forget these things? As we see, from time to time this point is in discussion. To forget the twelve years lasting 1000- year Reich would be simple and comfortable, but as the British historian Ian Kershaw says, Hitler will follow us in all the future. Today?s Europe is also a result of one of the greatest civilisation catastrophes. The question „where do I come from“ is in this way also important to understand contemporary Europe – and to learn from. For me this interest in history is a consequence of Kant?s „Sapere aude!“ And only if we know where we come from we know where we want to go .To read in the German past will be very helpful here, as it is a mirror of the darkest side of mankind.
My generation agrees with Helmut Kohl`s statement about having received „the mercy of a late birth.“ What would we have done in those times? It is simple to discuss other people`s mistakes and to judge them as long as someone is not touched for himself. As free people and as freemasons we cannot stop before this question. Would we go for inner exile as many did? For outer exile as Thomas Mann and Willi Brandt did? Would we end up as temporizers, collaborators or – as murderers? End up as persecutees like Anne Frank, because we are said to be „different?“ As heroes like the pupil members of „Wei§e Rose“ who just said what everybody saw: why are you silent, don?t you see what is going on? They paid with their life for this simple wish for justice for all. Only one single free man, Hans-Georg Elser, decided to act directly and nearly changed the course of history – if the attempted assassination of Hitler in Munich would have succeeded. To choose between these ways is the hardest task people have to find – a lot of them, „on the other side of the society“ had no choice. We are happy to pose these questions just hypothetically. But in reality we have to find our answers to what the 3rd Reich teaches us.
The question for young Europeans is: Where do you want to go if you know what can happen? German history shows all that can happen:
- It is a perfect example of the seduction of people with the most cruell results ever. As we see, the possibilities of manipulation are better today than at that time. We know that even today dictators will find their way and we do know this danger for the future of all free states.
- It is a fine example of the abuse of utopia, as e. g. the Platonic one. Based on Plato?s state model and the comparison with the human body, the Nazis said that some people cause sickness to the „Volkskrper“ and the SS seeks the cure. We know where this led to. Goldhagen wrote in his well-known book about a Hamburg police squad, all normal citizens, in normal jobs, fathers of normal families: In Poland they executed in real killing orgies Jews because a) „it was ordered to us“ and b) „Jews are not humans“. Nobody can understand this, but we see it is possible to turn humans into animals. It is a result of a misunderstood utopian thinking.
- It shows how a free country, the Republic of Weimar, could fall into anarchy and dictatorship. Even if history does not repeat itself, the Weimarian example gives an idea of where the dangers are to look for also in free states. Freedom is always in danger if we do not take care.
I am sure that today?s Europe has learnt a lot from this, Germany has done so. Sophie Scholl, a member of „Wei§e Rose“, wrote a slogan in her diary, of Jacques Maritain: „Il faut avoir l?esprit dur et le couer doux“ – we need a strong spirit and a feeling heart. This is a fine wish for the future.
As we see, Germany offers more than Mercedes and Volkswagen. It offers a study of the above mentioned questions and a warning for all people in the future who love some strange ideas. The 3rd Reich means the task to learn from to all freedom loving people. The results of these studies are important for all people – this would give all the Nazis`victims a possible sense. And the best thing is that the study is not for sale – it is for free.