It’s the summer of 1969. Nineteen years old, I have just finished a year as an exchange student at Rugby, the British boarding school where the game was invented. I am riding a small motorcycle as I head off for the Continent to tour around before heading home to start college. After Brussels, The Hague and Amsterdam, the next stop is Vienna. Getting there means transiting across West Germany. Given the distance and the fact I am a complete novice about traveling in strange places alone, I decide to make the trip by train, while the motorbike comes along in the baggage car.
At the age of nineteen, I’m a novice about a lot of things. The year at Rugby just gave me more things to be confused about. History turned into something measured in thousands, instead of hundreds of years, as I’d been used to thinking in a homeland where the Revolutionary War happened a really long time ago and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock a really really long time ago. Everywhere in the school there were panels listing the names of the old boys fallen in the two world wars. But I’d also learned about the Thirty Years War, that happened just as the Massachusetts Bay Colony was getting up and running. That was when something like a third of Germany’s inhabitants were wiped out by the armies crisscrossing the country. “The cockpit of Europe,” Mr. Hele, my history tutor had called it.
Still, in 1969 it’s just twenty-four years since the end of the war and since the world discovered the horrific atrocities Germans committed against people Adolf Hitler declared subhuman or a threat to civilization. I grew up knowing about those atrocities. Already in elementary school, I read in our local daily newspaper about the war crimes trials still going on. That the war ended with the division of Europe and Germany into two ideologically combative halves complicated things all the more. In junior high school, I watched John Kennedy boldly tell the world “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Bad Germans committed the crimes of the Third Reich. Good Germans in the western half of the great city of Berlin had the full backing of the Americans and British who won the war in the west. And besides, good Germans were taking a lead in establishing a new European order that would bring the continent’s long history of bitter and destructive internal conflicts to an end.
Adding to my confusion, going back to early childhood, what I first learned about German things left warm and positive feelings. Grimm’s fairy tales showed up early in elementary school readings. Music with German titles and German performers captured my attention when I had barely made it to kindergarten. I had not yet turned six, when my father set up in the living room the new hi-fi he built in his spare time in the basement. He christened it by putting on a recording of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with Haydn’s Toy Symphony on the flip side. For a long time, I refused to go to bed if I did not hear the sounds of those strings wafting up the stairs from below. Eventually, I found out Dad had learned German in high school and college. He loved talking about it, singing it in the church choir and quoting snippets of German wisdom from writers like Goethe. Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven and Bach were household names. My favorite hymn in church was “Glorious things of Thee are spoken,” which I knew followed a melody by Haydn. I did not yet know that “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” was sung to the same tune. Plus, Dad was a scientist and his interest in science rubbed off on me. It didn’t take long before I could cite the names of great German scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as if I knew something about them.
When I started boarding school at fifteen, I chose to learn German to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Once I knew the language well enough to read, I read with enthusiasm. Rainer Maria Rilke and Hermann Hesse laid claims to my soul. Reading Wolfgang Borchert, Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass writing about the Third Reich and the Second World War, set me wondering how ordinary Germans now felt about those grim times. So, boarding the train for Vienna, I contemplate the long haul with mixed curiosity and apprehension. I know enough to know how little I know. Uncertain about how Germans will respond to a young American masquerading as a Brit traveling alone. Besides, I wonder how my language skills will hold up.
At Rugby, I learned that wearing a jacket and decent trousers, even if without a tie, was the expected dress for a young man of a certain class out in public in those days. Blue jeans and t-shirts had not yet crossed the Atlantic. Anyway, I really don’t want to advertise the fact I am American. The downsides of that I also learned at Rugby. I board the train in Amsterdam and find a compartment with an empty seat by the window facing forward. I pull out a copy of Der Spiegel newsweekly I picked up in the Amsterdam train station and settle in with it to get a feel for the German take on current affairs on the ride. Shortly after crossing the border, a middle-aged German man takes the seat across from me. “Guten Tag,” he says. “Ein wunderschöner Tag zu reisen. Wo fahren Sie hin?” Awkwardly, I acknowledge his greeting in German and agree that it is a fine day for traveling. I tell him that I’m heading toward Vienna. Sensing my awkwardness, he asks where I am from. “Die Vereinigten Staaten,” I say. His face lights up, hearing that I am American. He compliments me on my German and wants to know more about what brings me here. I feel uncomfortable, struggling to hold up my end of the conversation. He leans forward, obviously eager to connect. It doesn’t take long, just long enough for him to be sure I can hold my own. After that, he can’t contain his excitement.
Neil Armstrong has just uttered his historic words “the Eagle has landed” and walked on the moon. He saw it broadcast live on TV, staying up until the middle of the night local time to see it happen. Startled to find out this is what has him so excited, I don’t know what to say. I nod and respond clumsily, “Wirklich?” “Really?” is the best I can do. I haven’t followed the daily news since I set out. I knew there was yet another Apollo mission out there, heading for the moon, but I didn’t know it had reached it, or that it had released its lander for the descent.
His eagerness to tell me all about it startles me more than the event itself. He tries harder and harder to tell me more and more about it, making sure he’s getting through to me. I get what he’s telling me, though my reactions don’t show it clearly enough for him to be sure. For me, the big news is not the walk on the moon. It’s that for the first time I am having a conversation with a stranger at least three times my age in a language I never had to speak in real life before, despite three years of schooling and feeling pretty comfortable reading it. Besides, for a know-it-all kid my age, the walk wasn’t such a big deal. In fifth grade I listened over the school intercom system to Alan Shepard’s first space flight in a Mercury capsule broadcast live. Year by year the space program crossed one threshold after another. President Kennedy said we were going to the moon and so we went. What’s to get excited about? Yet the moment sticks. He can’t contain his excitement about the landing, while my mind keeps focusing on our differences in nationality, age and life experiences. The intensity of his excitement strikes me. He gets off the train a few stations further on. Down deep, I know something special just happened. But it will take years to sort it out.
In 1973, I spend time in West Berlin polishing up my German language skills and working for a few months as a gardener for the British forces still occupying their quarter of the city. Despite having a supervisor who drank too much and when he did liked to say “things were better under Adolf,” with the Wall a constant presence, I tune in more to the weirdnesses of living where the Cold War divisions can be seen in the shape of concrete, barbed wire and watchtowers, than to how the commands for the planning and implementation of the Holocaust were issued by people who lived and worked right there in Berlin.
Five years later, I return to West Germany to do research at an archive for the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The doctoral dissertation I have in the works concerns an epistolary novel he wrote in segments as the French Revolution unfolded. I spend a year in Stuttgart forming close friendships. I meet Doris, who will become my first wife. I have long heartfelt conversations with her mother Ursula, my landlady Frau Bäuerle and others who lived through the Third Reich and the war. They are willing to talk, once they are sure I bring an open mind to our conversations. During my stay, the American TV series “Holocaust” is broadcast. Having visited Auschwitz and knowing the history portrayed only too well, when the series ran in the US the year before I reacted with disgust at what I perceived as the “Hollywoodization” of one of humanity’s darkest moments. Frau Heinrichs, the secretary in the University of Stuttgart’s Foreign Students Office, gives me a heads up the broadcasts are about to start. I have a warm relationship with her, going back to when I first arrived six months before. She helped me get my bearings and find a place to live. I sometimes stopped by her office to say hello when I had business in the building. When she tells me, I dismiss it. I share my opinion that it trivialized something I thought people in Germany already had a much deeper take on.
To my surprise, the broadcasts unleash long-suppressed conversations between the generations. Leading newspapers and magazines run cover stories about it. “Where were you when this was going on? What did you know? How could this happen?” my age peers suddenly begin asking their parents, determined to get answers, no longer willing to observe the postwar social contract that there are certain things we don’t talk about. In Germany, just like everywhere else in the western world, young people spent most of their time and energy in the ‘70s challenging the Establishment and the status quo. It startles me to discover they had not yet dug deeply into how on a human level their homeland became the launching pad for such horrors and how, when the war came back to Germany, the foundations for the Cold War division of Europe were laid.
I didn’t know that the Germany I’d become familiar with had gotten on with its life, dealing with the struggles of reconstruction, coping with being on the front lines of the Cold War, and working on European integration, by taking the hardest and bitterest topics off the table for polite discussion, even while the great authors, playwrights, historians and social theorists I read strove to discern the roots of the moral catastrophe. As an informed and sympathetic outsider, I watch from the sidelines as the nation gets on with a long-deferred search for the healing that comes with confessing the truth. Another ten years later, with my own life on the line, I will enter a Twelve-Step recovery program. There I will learn the practical lesson that deep healing requires frank acknowledgement of all that has gone wrong, for which I am accountable. One reclaims one’s humanity and sheds the curses of one’s legacy by owning up to them forthrightly.
Twenty-five more years down the road, I visit Europe again for the first time and meet young Germans who are the children of my peers’ generation. By then, Germany has not only reunified, it has established a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate and other Holocaust memorials across the country. There may be a recalcitrant minority who still believe Hitler had the right idea, but it is considered a hate crime to promote that view publicly. “Stolpersteine” – actual “stumbling blocks” – have been laid down in sidewalks at sites where Jewish people were hauled away. So, when I meet them, Millennials from Germany seem not to carry the same psychic burden their parents and grandparents struggled with. They have become citizens of the world, like the other young people I meet.
Returning in the memory of the moment in the train, finally I discover why the sheer intensity of that brief connection mattered more to me than either the light of the moon walk or the darkness of the war. In his enthusiasm, that excited old man who had so mystified me had stopped being German and became human. He had done what he most wanted when he joyfully shared with me in words I half understood the news of the lunar landing. He revealed to me that the landing was a much bigger deal than I, youthfully presumptuous, could allow. Humanity, not only America, had done a thing he, at my age, never thought possible. All the things that separated us he cast aside when he claimed our humanity in that moment by sharing it with me. Forty-five years down the road, at last I got it.