Jesse Owens and Lutz Long

Berlin, 1936, the Olympic Games. The great American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, wins the gold medal in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the 4×100 meter dash, as well as in the long jump.

What many people don’t know, however, is that the silver medalist in the long jump, the German Carl Ludwig “Lutz” Long, had given Owens the kind of advice that only a true colleague, and friend, would give.

Going into the 1936 games Long had been the reigning German champion and holder of the European record. The Nazi hierarchy – and the German people – had anticipated gold for Germany.

In the qualification round Owens had fouled twice in a row by stepping on the white board delineating the jump-off point. A third foul would have disqualified him. Jesse Owens would have failed to advance to the final round. The crowd, the millions listening by radio, and especially Owens himself, were unsettled.

After that second fault, Lutz Long walked over to his competitor and advised him to simply imagine the foul line to be located one foot closer than it actually was, saying that he just had to avoid fouling a third time, and that his third jump would easily be enough to advance to the next round.

Some sources claim that Long went so far as to lay down his white towel marketing where Owens should leap from, ensuring that he would not foul a third time.

Jesse Owens took the advice given to him by that German, advancing to the final round, and then setting a record which would hold for decades. Lutz Long took the silver.

Immediately after the medal ceremony, when Owens and Long stepped off the podium – and in full view of Adolf Hitler and many of the highest ranking National Socialist officials – Lutz Long, the German, smiled, shook hands with Owens, then hooked Jesse’s right arm into his left and proceeded to walk with him around the track, smiling, talking, congratulating.

1936. Tensions in Europe were very high. The German regime was espousing a crude racial theory. And in the United States, an African-American like Jesse Owens was treated as a second-class citizen, at best. With the world watching, and in conscious defiance of his own government, Lutz Long, a German, reached out to his archrival to give a small bit of helpful advice. Unsolicited.

Postscript: After the 1936 Olympic Games Jesse Owens was celebrated triumphantly in the U.S., only then to be forgotten for two decades, and to struggle financially, until the 1950s brought him a presidential appointment as American Ambassador of Goodwill by Dwight Eisenhower, and with it lucrative celebrity endorsements as well as a long, healthy, happy life.

Lutz Long, his German friend, died in battle against the Western Allies in Italy at the age of thirty. Fast forward the video above to 1:38 mins:

“You could melt down all of the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating for the twenty-four carat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment.” Jesse Owens

Max Weber – Bureaucracy

Ever heard of Max Weber (1864-1920)? He was a German sociologist, historian, jurist and political economist. Weber is among the most important theorists on the development of modern Western society. he saw himself not as a sociologist, but as an historian. What did Weber write about bureaucracy:

That it constitutes the most efficient and rational way to organize human activity. Bureaucracy means systematic processes and organized hierarchies, which are necessary to: maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism.

Nibelungentreue

A German with extensive experience living and working in the U.S. made this comment:

“I more observed that you make easier commitments in some cultures, and somewhere it takes more time. Then, in some cultures you can adjust when the boundary conditions dramatically change, and in others you stick to you word whatever happens. I guess that probably is the concept of Nibelungentreue, which has both positive and negative implications.”

About Nibelungentreue see what Wikipedia has to say here.

Lincoln visits troops

President Abraham Lincoln was know for making unscheduled visits to Union officers and troops. Successful American leaders never lose touch with their people. Conversely, capable team members find ways to remain in constant communication with their team lead and other important members of management.

American Optimism

Mark Shields is a long-time political journalist. He has had a nationally-sydicated column for decades, and is well known from his weekly analysis with David Brooks – a New York Times columnist – on the PBS NewsHour. Listen to minutes 7:28 to 9:25.

Americans immigrants

The past, especially the recent past, helps us to understand the present. But it is only from the present, from the current starting point, that we can go down new paths, move in a different, perhaps even radically different, direction. All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The historical consciousness of the American people is greatly influenced by the immigrant experience. Imagine what it was like for those millions upon millions of families to take that step, to leave their home and to risk the unknown.

For most of them not freely. For many it was a question of survival. For others it was about freedom. They wanted to decide their own fates, and wanted the same for their children. Nonetheless, the decision was very difficult. It meant leaving everything they knew, everything that gave them security. Once they left, however, the present and past of their native country would no longer be relevant. But what do human beings have other than their past and present? The unknown, insecurity and risk? Or do they have opportunity?

In such situations people have to make hard, tough decisions, about what they take with them from the past and the present. Of course all immigrant groups, including the waves of Germans who came to America, brought their language, customs and traditions. The older generations continued to speak their mother tongue. Foreign-language newspapers were published in all of the major American cities. All that they knew and brought over lasted, however, only for a certain period of time.

The everyday challenges of life in America rubbed and pulled away, layer for layer, the recent present and the past of the homeland. The immigrants took on, layer for layer, the realities of the current present in the United States, like having old skin replaced by new. It was painful. The time came in every immigrant family when the children no longer wanted, or no longer could, speak the language of the old world. 

Many parents who immigrated demanded of their children that they assimilate as quickly as possible, that they forget the old language, customs and traditions. They had decided to leave their homes, towns and homelands. They refused to get stuck between two realities. To move forward demanded that they leave behind what they had known. It was time to go down a new path. The cares, worries and chores of the day left them no other choice. 

That path to and in America was difficult, hard, rough. Many did not make, did not succeed. Every wave of immigrants had to fight for their future in America. Everything which weighed them down, every form of ballast, had to go. And that meant much that was associated with the homeland. For many, even for most, however, throwing overboard the ballast of the past set them free.

A German strength

Bonn. I remain standing. Ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor. 

On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.

I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war. 

The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.

I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade. 

The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, my boy, is growing up in Germany. My own flesh and blood. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.

This brief video is about the Romans in Bonn.

“For the first time I understand the Germans”

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.”

Unhistorical thinking

The Germans often consider Americans as a people to be either uninformed or uninterested in their own history, and equally uninformed about the recent history of given situations, allowing them to make decisions only based on the present. Americans appear to not think things through, not thoroughly. They can appear to Germans as Dünnbrettbohrer, literally people who only drill through the thinnest of boards.

From the German perspective their perception is not false. It’s what is behind the German cliché that Die Amerikaner gehen mit dem Kopf durch die Wand, that Americans try to go through the wall with their heads, meaning forcing solutions in situations which they have not fully understood.

But are Americans really so un- or a-historical? Partly, yes. I think of the region in which I grew up and the people there, me included. Philadelphia. Many of the most dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War against England took place in and around Philadelphia. Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is very well known and visited every summer by countless Americans and guests from other countries.

It is where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted, debated, passed and signed. Philadelphia was the capital of the insurrection, Independence Hall the meeting point of the conspirators.

Several critical battles took place in the area. On September 11, 1777 British troops defeated the colonists under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Two weeks later, on September 26, Philadelphia was conceded to the British under General Charles Cornwallis.

On that day Washington and his troops counterattacked in Germantown, roughly five miles north of Philadelphia, against just under ten thousand British soldiers. It was an attack by night, from four different directions, with the hope of forcing a quick surrender. Because communications among four groups broke down, and due to shortages of munitions, the attack failed. Washington and his men were pushed back to White Marsh.

There, between December 5th and 8th, British troops pursued and attacked the revolutionaries several times. General Howe had hoped to end the war before the winter had set in. Washington‘s men held, though. The redcoats pulled back into Philadelphia. Washington and his troops moved into nearby Valley Forge.

But how many natives of the Philadelphia area are familiar with these events? I certainly did not hear of them during grammar and high school. I don’t recall any school trips to the battlegrounds or to a museum. Nor did my parents interest us six children in them. Nor have I ever seen a documentary film on television about those battles in and around Philadelphia, my home region.

Why? Perhaps because the United States and England (UK) have been close allies in two world wars. Perhaps we Americans don‘t like reliving bad old times. Perhaps because the events, regardless of how momentous, go back to the 18th century, long before any of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Scotland and primarily from Germany. That part of American history was not a part of their history.

If Americans indeed have a less developed sense of history than the Germans, maybe because change in American history and culture is so ever-present. Maybe Americans, in comparison to Germans, are more tolerant of – open and willing – to embrace change, to drive change. 

The momentous decision in and of itself to immigrate to America, to leave the homeland behind, makes almost every other decision in life seem far less dramatic. Change is less intimidating to Americans. On the contrary, the more change is accepted as a fact of life, the less relevant are the past and continuity with the past, and all that much more important it is to be able and willing to adapt to new situations.

“No more old churches!“

2003. I‘ll never forget a statement made by an American engineer who was on delegation to Germany for a German customer of mine. We had met for the first time to discuss a project I was assisting them on. Team-building measures, workshops, seminars, etc. During one of the breaks we were doing a little smalltalk. I asked him what he’s seen in Germany thusfar, and what’s on his list. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t want to see any more old churches!”

I was a bit shocked, felt insulted, was irritated. As student of history I thought: “How ignorant can someone be not to know or to recognize that German and European history cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity and the Church.” Ok, perhaps he had been shown enough churches already. Still, I felt embarrassed as an American. Fortunately, no German colleagues had been present.

On my way back to Bonn that day I imagined well-intentioned German colleagues taking their Sunday to pick up their American colleague and driving to Cologne to see not only the cathedral, but also several of the beautiful Romanesque churches within twenty minutes walking distance. In my mind’s eyes I see him bored and saying: “This is all interesting history, but I want to see modern Germany.”

For the more exact we can define our starting point and its direction (trajectory), all the better we can adjust it. My response to the American colleague would have been: “Sure. But before we can truly enjoy getting to know the modern Germany of today, let’s start with how Germany has become the way it is today. On that basis we’ll really begin to imagine the Germany of the future!”