Skeletons in the Closet: Tolerance and Nervousness in America and Germany

The thing I like best about my class is that it not only addresses the grammatical aspects of the German language, but also that Frau Peters also educates us about German culture (usually by means of unintentionally long yet incredibly insightful tangents). She uses German newspapers a lot in class because it ties together proper use of German and information regarding current issues in Germany and Europe. There are four tables with three to four people each in my classroom. Each person would find an article to read and then tell the other people at the table about what the article had said. Frau Peters would wander silently and listen to the explanations, occasionally sitting down at a table to join in the conversation.

She came to our table as a thirty-something Brazilian named George was attempting to summarize his article to us. Frau Peters then proceeded to tell us about terrorism in Germany and its social consequences. What I found most interesting were her observations regarding German nationalism post-WWII. She told us that after the horrors of WWII, it was essentially taboo for a German citizen to assert his pride in his country. Germans were so ashamed of what they had done and what they had allowed others to do that they couldn’t openly talk about the positive aspects of being German. Only after the fiasco of the 1972 Olympics could Germans quietly compliment their homeland, since many people from other countries had traveled to Munich for the Olympics. Milena, a Brazilian university student that also sits at my table, asked Frau Peters whether or not Germans openly discuss Hitler, the Holocaust, and the German role in the war. Frau Peters asserted that Germans will openly discuss these issues but Austrians will not. She said that during the war Austria was much more enthusiastic than Germany was about Hitler and his plans. Asking about Austria and the war is an unspoken no-no in Germany’s downstairs neighbor.

Last week I talked about the differences between American and German culture and the impact of stereotypes. Germany’s attitude of the horrors of WWII strikes me as similar to the attitude of southerners after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and, more generally, in response to stereotypes people may believe about southerners. Although we grew up in different states, Bailey and I both remember having a very tolerance-heavy reading curriculum in elementary, middle, and high school.  Both the south (especially Alabama) and Germany are both trying to simultaneously erase their embarrassingly public acts of intolerance while nervously trying to build a more tolerant, rational future. And frankly, I’m glad. The cultural nervousness that emerged first in the 1950s in the U.S. as a reaction to WWII is showing up in increasing ultra-conservatism. Germany wants absolutely nothing to do with war of any kind (although it occasionally offers financial support) and openly displays anti-xenophobia commercials on streetcars. Understanding German and American culture as separate, differing entities is easy for both sides, but the similarities they share strike me as almost uncanny.



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