The never ending life of the others
The never ending life of the others
Sometimes it feels like in Germany there is an endless need of discussing the past. The past is omnipresent, like a lingering shadow that refuses to go away.
The past for us is two terrible regimes which amassed endless guilt and negatively affected the lives of millions of people, not only by bringing suffering to others but also by making people willing cogs in the machine, making them guilty not necessarily by direct action but by simply tolerating the circumstances or supporting the regimes that created them by taking part in their machinations.
Not everybody was a hero who stood up against the powers that were, and not all the stories of heroes have been told – many simply died quietly for their belief.
The aftermath of the Third Reich created endless problems for the Allies starting the necessary German “Entnazifizierung”, meaning the attempt to remove and replace all the people in power who had been somehow involved in the Nazi regime or had supported it actively. Of course it turned out to be an impossible task – some politicians and civil servants were quite successful in adapting to the new circumstances and simply carried on as before. So it could happen that after the war you went back to the university and were confronted with exactly the same professors as before, now suddenly claiming to be on the right side. And Karajan was also still conducting, as before. The student revolution in the 60’s was a direct effect of this situation.
The fall of the wall and the DDR created a similar problem. By all accounts the DDR was a rigid dictatorship which suppressed free will and treated dissidents and critics harshly. As is well known it used a perverse system of informants and spies (the “Stasi”) that permeated every level of society, meaning that even your closest friends could never be completely trusted. Sometimes it seemed like everybody was spying on everybody.
The question is always: how innocent were the people who were close to the system, worked successfully in it, profited from it? Could they actually have managed to live a life completely untainted from the crimes of the state while actively supporting it?
That question has been brought up again and again. It is also relevant to artists. Right now there is a controversy about the celebration of the 100th birthday of Hans Pischner, who was a high functionary in the SED-system of the DDR, but also a successful performing cembalist and longtime director of the “Unter den Linden” opera house in East Berlin.
When reading the Wikipedia entry of Pischner (available only in German and in shortened form in Dutch) one has the feeling that everything written has been retconned to make Pischner seem like a kind of wily hero within the system – fighting for the free expression of art and helping others while simply only pretending to be a servant to the state. It seems strange that that very system which he supposedly fought made him long-time cultural minister and gave him the highest and powerful posts throughout his life, which he also successfully kept until the fall of the wall.
East German composer Johannes Wallmann has BarenboimPischner the laudations for Pischner’s 100th birthday (Pischner is still alive) and has written an open letter to Daniel Barenboim, reminding him that Pischner was responsible for repressions and was an all too willing executor of the will and ill of the system.
Sometimes it seems that until today not a week goes by without reminders of the past like this. Either it is found out that famous people have a skeleton in the closet by having been in the Waffen-SS or something, or yet another one turns out to be a Stasi-spy who was a traitor to his friends.
Making a truly informed statement on all these cases is difficult. Human Personalities are manifold, people also change, and for every willing slave to the system there might be others who have accepted the guilt that comes with that burden, and who are truly regretting their part in it. Sometimes people were forced, some were scared, some just went along with it. Every case is different, every story individual. How to tell them apart? And also there is an ongoing necessity of some kind of forgiveness, even in the face of wrongdoing and guilt, because without forgiveness there can never be any kind of healing. But the people who suffered should never be forgotten, also that is an important truth, because otherwise there is the danger of repeating the crimes of the past.
When will this endless parade of guilt and accusations in Germany end? Probably never – and while we are looking at the rotten bones of the past we probably amass new guilt that future generations will hold us accountable for.