Thursday, September 01, 2005

There Began a Time Without Masks

I'm hesitant to post any more of this. In the last decade, there has been a bursting open of literature and critical studies in Germany of the experience of average German citizens in the destruction of their homeland during the Second World War. It's not as though the German guilt has magically lifted, but certain brave and purposeful writers have forced past it, put it aside just far enough to consider the experience of the individual human being in that awful time. Sebald, Grass -- writers as hostile to Nazism as any you can name -- have gone into this necessary work.

And I suppose I have read enough of it now to be able to read the documents as simple human experiences -- like the tale of a Georgia family in the face of Sherman's March or a Hiroshima resident on that one August morning. They can be disconnected from the larger matter of collective guilt for the length of the examination, to ask and answer the question, "how did people behave during this experience?"

But I've learned that you still can't introduce this matter online without the comments instantly veering into questions of guilt and military justification. And more often than not I'll be called a Nazi apologist, or accused of violating the "no Hitler" rule in modern political discourse. So be it. I'm not talking about the present, or the political past. I am interested, journalistically, in the matter of how men and women behave under intense pressure. That is aside from my historical interest in conflicts and international relations.

I've already mentioned Nossack's "Der Untergang," a reflection written just months after the firebombing of Hamburg in 1943 (in which Nossack and his wife lost everything). Here is what he says (translated ably by Joel Agee) about refugees. It's a warning. Some things will be different -- the difference between Germany and America, between a deliberate military campaign of destruction and a blind natural calamity.

But read it, if you care to, with an eye for what may be the same, and what may lie ahead as the United States somehow arranges itself as a spare bedroom for a city of half a million.

Already during the night and at daybreak the first refugees had arrived. Some of them barefoot and in their nightshirts, just as they had leapt from their beds and run into the streets. They brought with them an uncanny silence. No one dared to question these mute figures seated by the edge of the road. Just wanting to offer them help seemed too loud an action. Then trucks arrived. The people on top of them were crouched and remote. Where are we going? Why are we stopping? Why don't you let us sleep some more? Their hands clutched bundles of incomprehensible belongings like a final weight that kept them on the ground. No lamenting anywhere, no tears. Without a word they stepped off and let themselves be led away. Only a small ugly dog leapt cheerfully off its mistress's lap and ran yapping to the nearest tree.

The people giving them shelter tried to be just as quiet and sparing in words. It must be said that the population's readiness to help was genuine beyond expectation. And not just near the city, but even further away. Not until reaching southern Germany did the refugees encounter open reluctance; at least that was the general rumor. But it may be that the people of Hamburg just didn't understand the different way of life there. I infer this from the sarcastic bitterness with which those who returned ridiculed the food, the living conditions, and the alien faith of the southerners.

But even where we were, the good relations changed in the course of a week. I am not speaking of cases where the refugees encroached on their hosts or made outrageous demands. There were those, to be sure, but many took this position: We have lost everything, now please give us half of what you have! and laid their hands in their laps. And on the opposite side there were enough people who thought: It's not our fault, so what business is it of ours? And when they gave anything, it was out of fear. This pitiful fact -- that those who were spared felt envied from the beginning -- may very well have lit and then fanned the spark of envy in the refugees. And though this may be hard to believe, a point was reached when the refugees were begrudged the few new things they had received as gifts or as allocations from the State. Or else -- but it is only now that I ask this question -- could there have been a deeper reason? Did those who had been forced to hazard the leap into nothingness become objects of envy because they had already gone through the ordeal that was awaiting everyone else?

There began a time without masks; the familiar disguises dropped off of their own accord, as had occurred to the two pine trees during the night. Greed and fear exposed themselves without shame and suppressed all tender feeling. We all had to recognize during those weeks that the scales we had used for weighing were no longer accurate. Those nearest to us or those whom we called friends either kept complete silence or evaded their duty with a few shabby words about the hard times that made it impossible for them to help. The concept of kinship completely broke down. Ask a hundred people today, regardless of their class and whether they suffered losses or not, ninety-nine will answer with a dismissive grimace: Better a stranger than a relative! It is a fact, so let it be stated as such, without bitterness and without drawing hasty conclusions. Instead, let us hold to the heartening experience of seeing those who had been most distant, sometimes the most fleeting acquaintances, or business associates, step into the breach without hesitation and with such kindness that one is shamed into asking oneself whether one would have done the same if the situation were reversed.

But even the most generous hand can become tired of giving, and it is even more difficult to learn to let oneself be the recipient of gifts and to receive, always and only to receive, without thereby losing one's freedom. But does this sufficiently explain why such discord arose so quickly? No, I believe, rather, that people expected something entirely different of each other, something of which they were not capable. Who can blame the helpers for being disappointed when they had to realize that what they had offered -- shelter, food, and clothing -- basically didn't make any difference at all? Perhaps something like pleasure flitted across the recipients' faces, but it didn't linger. They would walk through the strange rooms, touch an object, hold it, and look at it absently. The host would follow them with his eyes and expect some statement like: We, too, once had something like this -- and perhaps then he would have given it to them. But instead, the stranger would put it aside, and the unspoken question would fill the room: What is the use of still having such things? It would have been easier to assuage loud lamentation. It is very probable that such laments were expected, or at least a forced self-composure indicative of suppressed tears. Those who were known to have experienced unimaginably frightful hours, who had run through fire with their clothes burning, stumbling over charred corpses; before whose eyes and in whose arms children had suffocated; who had seen their houses collapsing right after their father or husband had gone back inside to save something or other; all those who had spent months hoping for news from the missing and who at the very least had lost all their possessions in a matter of minutes -- why didn't they cry and lament? And why this indifferent tone of voice when they spoke of what they had left behind, their dispassionate manner of talking, as if telling about a terrible event from prehistoric times that would be impossible today, that is almost forgotten except for the shockwaves that still faintly agitate our dreams? And then this muffled voice, impervious to daylight, and so timid, the way one speaks at night, outside, when one doesn't know where there might be an ear secretly listening.

And what did the victims expect when they seemed to accept all the good that was done to them merely to please the givers? The instinct of the helpers rebelled; not only because their gift was robbed of its value, but because they themselves were robbed of all security and began to have doubts about their own possessions.

I now dare to give an answer to that question. We expected someone to call out to us: Wake up! It was just a bad dream! But we couldn't ask for that, the nightmare closed our mouths to the point of suffocation. And how could anyone have awakened us?