We all have biases. Honesty requires that we recognize our own.
As an American Jew who grew up during World War Two, I long harbored a subtle, quiet bias against Germany and its people. Not just because of the horrors of the Holocaust, but because of the “über alles” master-state evils of the Nazi dictatorship itself, the destruction of human freedom, the lies and violence and repression of opponents and innocents of all persuasions. And the knowledge that many Germans of that time, if not most of them, went along contentedly with Hitler’s policies.
To my generation, Naziism was not an evil moment that has been properly dealt with and put away on the history shelf, as it appears to younger people today. To us, Nazi Germany was a living, powerful threat to our existence, to our freedom, to the world as we knew it. I followed the battle news. I said goodbye to my older cousins and friends going off to war–some of whom did not come back. I collected scrap paper and metal for the war effort: I volunteered as an Air Raid messenger (yes, we had blackout drills in New York City, but that’s a story for another time). And when I graduated high school I joined the Navy. Sure, we were patriotically confident that we would win, but confidence does not equal certainty. This was life-and-death stuff, not a movie with a happy ending, to enjoy with popcorn.
The real happy ending was marred by the greatest horrors as Hitler’s concentration camps and gas chambers were liberated and we learned in gruesome detail the full extent of what he had done—more than six million people put to death simply because of who they were.
So I came by my bias honestly: it was based in reality. Although the Germans surrendered and renounced Hitler and his atrocities, it was impossible to believe that people who had committed such crimes, or who had allowed such crimes to be committed all around them, could suddenly, overnight, become good neighbors we should deal with as if nothing had happened in their back yard.
As the years went on, as the truly guilty German generation died off, I did my best not to let these feelings affect my journalistic or business or social relationships with Germans I met. I reminded myself that this particular German was not an SS officer or death camp guard, and might not even have been alive when all that happened, and I got along fine with that particular German—who often was also treading carefully around an American Jew. By and large I think I succeeded in keeping a lid on my bias, in preventing it from becoming an active prejudice that would distort my conscious words or deeds.
Nevertheless, the illogical, unfair, emotional bias survived. I’ve bought eight or nine cars since World War II and never considered buying a German one. I never felt terribly sorry for the Berliners divided by the Wall. I still feel uncomfortable when my own family name, which reflects the centuries my ancestors lived in northwest Germany, is pronounced starting with the German “Sh” sound instead of the plain “S.” And even when reading about the history of earlier times I have found myself subconsciously rooting for anyone opposed to the Germans. Hooray for Napoleon.
The bias survived, that is, until now. I’m finally getting rid of it. It began to wither two months ago after the revelations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities. In blog posts on June 21 and June 30 I explained that our European friends were more upset than Americans about the NSA revelations because most Europeans have lived under police state repression, while we lucky ones in America don’t know what to be afraid of. And I quoted Malte Spitz, a member of the German Green Party, as follows:
“Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced first hand what happens when the government knows too much about someone…. We have not forgotten what happens when secret police or intelligence agencies disregard privacy.”
The world has changed, I noted; Germany can now teach us the value of liberty and privacy.
And then this past week, for the first time, a German Chancellor visited Dachau, the original concentration camp, the prototype for the others. Chancellor Angela Merkel deposited a wreath, stood in silent memorial to the tens of thousands who suffered and died there, and in a speech to Dachau survivors emphasized the need to learn from Germany’s terrible history. In the face of a rising tide of ultra-right violence in her country and elsewhere, Merkel delivered a telling and symbolic moment.
“The fate of the victims here fills me with deep sadness and shame,” she said, as quoted by a New York Times correspondent. “How could Germans go so far as to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation? Places such as this warn each one of us to help ensure that such things never happen again.”
Thank you, Malte Spitz and Chancellor Merkel. The bias is dead.