Before I left the states for Germany, I spent a night in a hostel in Queens. After getting settled in my dorm room, I visited the patio for what turned out to be a tremendous view of Manhattan. After sunset, I head to the bar to strike up a conversation with whoever might want to chat. It was there I met a twenty-something from central Germany.
We started talking about all the things travelers discuss when we’ve stumbled into one of the chance meetings that make up a large part of a complete trip abroad: where we are going, where we have been, and where we are from. To this point, the conversation was like any other.
When I mentioned the rooftop patio, the German was surprised, having not been told of the terrace. He expressed a keen desire to see the city from the roof. We take the stairs to the roof together. Once on the roof, the tenor and content of our talk changed. We began asking one another about cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany.
When we spoke of education, he had a lot to say, but the bit that stands out most to me now came when he told me that, in Germany, “We [children] are taught that the Holocaust was our doing – ‘It was you,’ is what is taught.” That bit of experience, though offered without much thought on his part, really struck me. I wonder sometimes what it is like to be the native of a country that had perpetrated, on a state level, such vicious acts of cruelty. There must be a strange detachment between “What I am” – an average, non-violent person – and “What happened because of people like me.”
In the United States, we mostly-Euro-descendants are not taught that we are responsible for the crimes against the natives who were here before us, or for bringing the masses of people from Africa to work as slaves on our plantations. “My family never owned a plantation,” we might say. Though we reap the benefits of the exploitation every day. Especially because the War Between the States makes the mental maneuvering easier for us, we are taught that the people who perpetrated those crimes were different from us. We are better and they are other and distinct from us. I wonder how things would change or have changed for us were we to have a tradition of accountability for our crimes as a nation? The tension between what they were and what they are in Germany is palpable.