The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.
Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat, by Edgar Reitz.
It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my then German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.
Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.
The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial.
It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.
Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins.
Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.
“For the first time I understand the Germans.”