Like many Germans of his day my grandfather was a Nazi. He did not talk about it, and I was not interested in hearing. My choicest memory of him is that he would take me almost each afternoon to a local ice cream shop for an Eskimo Pie. Therefore he was the kindest, best and most lovable man in the world. My father, by contrast, would sometimes tell him not to fill me up with sugar before dinner. Therefore he was the worst, beastliest, and cruelest man God had ever created, though he was never a Nazi.
Everything that comes through America ends up ice cream, I learned later in life. Especially our view of history. I preferred chocolate. My father liked butter crunch, which I came later to appreciate, too. There is nothing like having a taste of something to end disputation and encourage wisdom. This includes rutabaga but not cherry tomatoes.
After his funeral, I was told stories about my grandfather. He was considered too old to fight in the German army at the start of the war, but by the end men of sixty and boys of 14 were taken, some conscripted.
Only twenty years before 1948, Germany had been humiliated by the combined powers of the west and Russia, beginning with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, a Russian ally. Via St Petersburg, the Russian Empire sent an ultimatum to Vienna warning Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia. They did it anyway . So many wars are started with angry letters and missed messages.
After the end of that war, when my grandfather had been a very young man, Germany was made to pay a heavy price–lost most of its few colonies, was forced to pay reparations to richer countries, and became associated with aggression, racial hubris, double dealing and later genocide. By 1929, the Germans recognized that they had been humiliated and were spoiling for justice. Justice is a funny word. Sometimes it means vengeance.
I grew up thinking, even as an ethnic German, that these traits were quite exceptional. –And exceptionally evil. If Germany and Germans exemplified them in a special way, then the conquerors of Germany must be benevolent, generous, democratic, freedom loving heroes.
I was 13 when I heard–or remember hearing and seeing in a newspaper– the name Viet Nam for the first time, a bit older when the My Lai massacre occurred. My father was determined I should not go overseas, as we were now in the United States, like many other Germans who abandoned the old world for Kennedy’s new frontier (Ich bin [ein] Berliner].
I was in university when villages were napalmed to drive the Viet Cong from their houses and villages, while their forests were defoliated, while they died of gas which the Pentagon said was not poisonous because it was designed to kill jungles not people, not babies.
The cold war dragged on, too. Facilitated by two great nuclear shields made up of earth- destroying missiles. Berlin became a patchwork of four parts called sectors. Blacks were clubbed into submission throughout the American south, and when I was at Harvard bricks and bottles were hurtled by Bostonians at little “negro” children in pressed white shirts and crisp pinafores, being transported to white-majority schools. Benevolent, generous freedom loving heroes.
In my lengthening life, it has not changed. Russia is celebrating its national patriotic days along with its ex-Soviet republics as its troops shoot to kill and mutilate their ethnic and linguistic cousins in peaceful Ukrainian cities. Fair minded America, having left Afghanistan to chaos after twenty years of false promises, now plots to strip its women of the right to accept or reject an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.
And these words ring in my ears, these words of the Psalmist (quoted by St Paul) in his verdict on humanity, too often fused to make sluggish Christians feel awful about their moral habits and get them back to the church, the font of salvation: “What then? Are we any better? Not at all. For we have already made the charge that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. 11There is no one who understands, no one who seeks the good.” (Romans 3; Psalm 53)
Patriotism is not a bad thing in small doses. Likewise, being a Muslim, or Christian or a Jew whether by birth or choice–not bad at all, As long as we realize it confers no special grace, no special rectitude, no better chance of possessing the truth or being on the right side of moral questions.
We have come a long way since Germany could be seen as the normative Worst Case in human history. These of us who learned our Latin and Greek were never taught that Greeks were savage fighters and Romans beasts to their enemies—think of crucifixion as a “normal” punishment for political dissent or free speech.
My grandfather did not tell war stories because he thought they were unimportant. I would learn my own lessons, only he hoped not from learning about his close calls and moments of danger and glory. And that is the danger of Memorial Days, Victory Days, and Hero Days. In honoring our war dead and wounded and survivors we also elevate war as a solution and something noble. We are encouraged to think that there are degrees of perfection in the pursuit of war, though every page of history tells us this is a lie–and history is the judge, not the glory of the battle And no country is any better that any other in this act: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is not one who understands.”