Although many decades have passed since the end of World War II, the last big war fought on Western European soil, it could be argued that memories in Europe run long and deep about the past, particularly as relates to why a totalitarian state should be avoided.
Almost to a person, I’ve heard from people here about Germany’s past. At least three people explained stolperstein (translation: stumbling blocks), that commemorate victims of the Holocaust.
Thomas Mann, native son of Lübeck, became an American citizen, ultimately. By the time the Allied troops were bombing the city of his birth, he was in California, recording lectures, called “Listen, Germany!” that would be broadcast on the radiowaves by the BBC with the hope that Germans would hear them.
When Lübeck was bombed, Mann responds. His response, while not exactly what his fellow men wanted to hear, is nonetheless practical and… right. He says:
Now the time nears and is already here, when Germany must sob about its own sufferings, ahd this cause for sobbing will increase while a world which did not want such service to humanity , and was not prepared for it, adapts itself to its task of defense and becomes the apprentice who surpasses the master. Did Germany believe that it would never have to pay for the misdeeds which its lead in barbarism enabled it to commit? … Hitler is boasting that his Reich is ready for ten, even twenty years of war. I assume that you Germans have your own ideas about that – for example, that after a fraction of this time no stone will stand on top an another in Germany.
Look, the past matters. But the present and the future matter more, because moving forward we have the opportunity to do better and to learn from our past. And if that is truly the case, I have much admiration for the very thoughtful way Germans have learned from the past to create a more tolerant and humane culture.
As I prepare to leave Germany and head to Greece, I want to mention that I have had an unsurpassed warm and inclusive experience here. Simply, the Germans who hosted us and connected us to interesting, stimulating people and conversations, are quite remarkable and I’ll always remember their generous spirits and willingness to stretch our minds. Sehr vielen Dank!