Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When words fail

I still enjoy keeping up with events in Germany even though I'm living back in Utah now. In previous years that could be a little tricky, but the miracle of high speed Internet has made it almost too easy. I can remember years ago, sitting in front of a tinny short-wave radio trying to raise something interesting on Deutsche Welle and having to settle for a listing of ship sailings out of Bremerhaven. Now WDR offers all of their audio content free on their web page. I enjoy the music on Funkhaus Europa, but I also like listening to the news on WDR 2. Sometimes I have trouble choosing among all the great options and it doesn't make much sense to try to listen to them both at the same time. WDR 5 offers a lot of their content as podcasts and so I don't always have to choose. Today, for example, I listened to a good piece that was broadcast yesterday as a part of their Auf Ein Wort feature.

Today, September 1, is the 70th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the Polish/German relationship was the subject of yesterday's Auf Ein Wort. In the Ruhrgebiet it's common to meet people with Polish surnames. Mostly, their grandfathers or great grandfathers came in the past to work the coal mines or in heavy industry. I know Poles who visit Germany regularly and Germans with Polish friends and in-laws. So on the surface, it might appear that the relationship is an easy and friendly one, but then again, it's hard to forget the speed and efficiency with which the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland. And no other victim of Nazi aggression has a stronger reason to complain. Fully ten percent of the Polish population died in the war. It's not a thing many are likely to quickly to forget, nor would we expect them too.

Most of what I know about the invasion of Poland comes from my multiple readings of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus. I read it first in German as a part of, what in my house, we call the "comic book method" of language study. I only got about 40% of the text that first time through, but the pictures helped a lot. As a rule I don't usually read books that are written in English in translation but this book is probably a good exception to that rule. The main character is Vladek, Spiegelman's father, and his difficulty with German syntax comes across as more genuine in German. Plus, the Nazi/cat soldiers are scarier auf deutsch.

German Chancellor Willy Brandt made a famous gesture of reconciliation with Poland in 1970 when he fell to his knees after placing a wreath at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, but it wasn't well received by everyone at home. According to a survey done by Der Spiegel after the event, 48% of West Germans felt the gesture was over done. His opposition tried to use the symbolic action against him in a vote of no confidence held by the Bundestag in 1972 and Brandt survived by only two votes. If Poles want to see that as a fresh affront though, they should also remember that a short time later Brandt won re-election by a landslide: the best showing ever by his party (SPD) in a national election.

According to Wolf Scheller, the author of the Auf ein Wort piece I listened to, we shouldn't have any over ambitious expectations for friendly relations between this current generation of Germans and Poles. German and Polish catholic bishops celebrated a mass together today to commemorate the 1939 invasion, but the wounds are deep. Scheller suggests that it will take a new generation of citizens and that Germans and Poles need to get to know one another better for true reconciliation to take place. But gestures like Willy Brandt's certainly can't hurt. He was asked often about his actions and explained them this way:

Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.

After reading Maus again this past year for the third time, I'd say his actions were justified and courageous.

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