Saturday, November 8, 2008

There’s Nothing Wrong with Germans

From San Francisco's CityBike, October 2007

Traveling in Germany is great. The country is clean, filled with friendly--albeit humorless--people. The toilets have self-cleaning seats and the trains run on time. In fact, everything runs on time and functions properly.


It’s equally pleasant as a motorcyclist. The roads are in excellent condition, and the scenery ranges from picture-book villages that could export quaint to incredibly steep, snow-capped granite peaks. I just spent a week there, first covering a big motorcycle rally in Bavaria and then enjoying a few days touring the Tyrolian Alps. Even though it rained the entire time (which meant I had to explain why my crotch was wet from my Aerostich suit every time we stopped) I had a pretty good time, drinking gallons of wonderful beer and consuming enough delicious pork to de-kosher half of Tel Aviv while seeing incredible sights and enjoying a great motorcycle. I just wish the Germans hadn’t exterminated six million Jews.


I didn’t think it would bother me on this trip. The German people have owned up to their atrocities in a manner that--as far as I know--no other group of people has. They’ve paid millions, if not billions of dollars in reparations and have educated their children about the realities of state-sponsored murder for decades. It’s actually illegal to be a Nazi (or a Scientologist, because the Germans sensibly figure they could get carried away too) and aside from a very small number of troubled idiots and losers, they acknowledge that what happened was their fault, was wrong, and they will try to not let it happen again. We as Americans could learn a thing or two from the Germans about learning from mistakes, if we ever learn how to admit to making mistakes.


And so for most of the trip, I hardly gave all that stuff more than a passing thought. But in Munich, I saw a sign that read “Dachau 16 km.” It’s still a town, people still live there. But how can they still live there? How can you write that as your return address on your Christmas cards? How can you tell people you live there? Why does the German department of roadsigns (in German: Deustcheroadsignendepartmenten) even put the sign up? Why would you want to go there?


As I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t just Dachau. It was everybody, everything, everywhere I looked. Those orderly Bavarian villages, the excellent roads, the way everything from toilet seats to subway stations are beautifully engineered weren’t charming characteristics of an elegantly organized society, but reminders that people--these people--turned mass extinction into another expensive government project. Those scenic roads and charming farmhouses were there in 1944 as millions of human beings were being disposed of like chickens infected with Avian Flu.


Leaving the country I handed my passport to a German policeman. I was rushing to make a connecting flight and stepped up to the window before he was done with another traveler. “Please wait your turn,” he said, in clipped, perfect English. Yes, sir! I waited for him to wave me forward, and when he did, he stared at me as he motioned for my papers, staring at me with his pale green eyes. His face was handsome and impassive, with a strong, broad chin and high cheekbones. His hair was a spiky, straw-blonde crewcut. He asked me a few questions about my visit in an disinterested tone, fixing me with a dispassionate gaze.


Was that how his grandfather the SS concentration camp guard stared at the shivering, nude figures during the selektions? How his grossmutti shrugged when she had to find a new gynecologist, ophthalmologist and greengrocer in the same week? Or how Himmler looked over the reams of reports documenting the liquidation of millions of innocents? Like they were observing insects, a temporary problem?


I’m paranoid. It’s likely I’d look at people the same way from that booth after months or years on the job. He could also just be representing that creepy sort of cop that goes into law enforcement because he likes to beat the crap out of people. It’s unfair of me to pick on the fish-in-a-barrel subject of Why the Germans Killed the Jews. Is it a crime to be a good-looking, square-jawed cop?


But being stabbed by those uncaring, bored, pale-green eyes, set in that tanned, handsome face filled me with fear and dread anyway. I was glad to get on the plane.

1 comment:

grammajudy said...

hi gabe - thought I was leaving a comment - but instead forwarded your blog back to you...oh well - you know what I thought of the article - you are such a good writer!