Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stumbling Stones (Germany #21)

Of late, The Active Voice has been, in a word, inactive. No excuses, but now we’re back. I thought I was through with reporting on my fall visit to Germany (20 posts seeming like plenty). But now that I’ve finally finished Peter Watson’s 964-page opus, The German Genius (HarperCollins, New York: 2010), I feel the need to pen just one more. The book, a gift from family members upon learning of my trip, is a fascinating history of German ideas over the past 250 years. Watson explains that Germany’s late arrival at nationhood in 1871 coincided with its late renaissance and late introduction to the industrial revolution, all of which helped produce the powerhouse nation that set out to dominate Europe in the 20th Century.

There is way too much in this book for a blogger to adequately cover, so I won’t even try. But I do want to make three points before leaving the subject:  1) that the term “German genius” is no misnomer, as evidenced by the list of German geniuses I’ll share with you momentarily; 2) non-Germans do not realize the extent to which today’s Germany was changed by the social revolution of 1968; and 3) Germans today take responsibility--and show many signs of deepest regret--for their nation’s past sins.

#1: The “German geniuses” of the past 250 years include ‘the standard “backbone” of classical music … Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms … as well as scientists/inventors Friedrich Bayer (pharmaceuticals), Carl Zeiss (microscope), Alfred Krupp (weaponry), and Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler (automobile), to name but a few. Watson notes that, "with the exception of market economics and natural selection, the contemporary world of ideas is one that, broadly speaking, was created by, in roughly chronological order, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Rudolf Clausius (thermodynamics), Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Planck (quantum theory), Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Max Weber (Protestant work ethic), and two world wars. The ideas of another German, Gregor Mendel ("father of modern genetics"), are gaining ground fast as the start of the 21st century …”

#2:  Non-Germans do not realize the extent to which today’s Germany has changed. “Despite the successful establishment of democratic institutions in Germany after (WWII), authoritarian thought patters tended to persist and it was not until the 1960s that the modernization deficit was overcome. A crucial factor … was the generational rebellion of 1968, when the younger (generation) … turned on its parents for the acquiescence in horror they had shown in the Third Reich and for their inability to face their guilt; and only then, in 1968, did Germans start to internalize democratic values, develop a counter elite and demand self-government and democratic counter-power…. Henceforth Germany had a critical, skeptical public, an entity that had been common enough in, say, Great Britain, France, or the U.S. for generations, but that had now finally arrived in Germany…. The fourth postwar generation has adjusted to the terrible German past and has the courage to face up to the fact that “almost everyone” in the Third Reich knew what was going on…. (But) many outside Germany still do not grasp (with the Germans themselves failing to see why outsiders do not appreciate this profound truth), the social revolution of 1968, particularly in West Germany, was a much bigger set of events there than anywhere else

3) Germans today take responsibility--and show many signs of deepest regret--for their nation’s past sins. In my other posts from Germany, I’ve pointed out numerous ways this is evident throughout the nation. As I was finishing Watson’s book, I came across the following paragraph--and realized I’d actually seen these “stumbling stones” during my visit to Cologne: “In some ways the most effective--and most beautiful--architectural project (or is it sculpture?), which also presents the face of a Germany we haven’t seen before, are the Stolpersteine, the ‘stumbling stones’ of Gunter Demnig. These stones, set into the pavement, in Cologne to begin with, are slightly raised cobblestones located outside houses where murdered Jews once lived. A brass plate is nailed to each stone containing basic details: “Here lived Moritz Rosenthal. B. 1883. Deported 1941. Lodz. Died 28.2.1942.” The first stones Demnig installed were illegal, but the idea caught on and in 1999 he was officially approved More than a thousand stones are now in place in Cologne and in several other cities.”

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