Michael Shurkin

This past December, when I was touring the castle of Czesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, I found myself standing amidst a pack of elderly German tourists. I listened to their guide for a while, content finally to hear some explanations in a language that I more or less understood, when I took a step backward to get a better look at something that had caught my eye. Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed the old German woman standing behind me. I stepped on her foot. "Mensch!" she barked. I turned quickly, gave the woman my best apologetic look, and said, in German, "Excuse me." Without looking at me, she moved past and growled, again in German, "You should have looked where you were going!"

In my head formed two words that fortunately did not reach my mouth: Nazi Bitch. I moved away to the fringe of the pack, where my Czech friend, Jan, had been watching. Jan is fluent in English and in German, and we normally speak to one another in English. This time I spoke to him in German, and I spoke more loudly than I needed to, loud enough to be overheard. "I don't like old Germans," I said. "Do you understand? Young Germans, no problem. But old Germans…" Jan nodded yes, he understood. Czechs understand these things.

As Jan and I continued to tour the castle, I began reflecting on my reaction to the woman. I was surprised that my response to her had been so visceral and aggressive. Had she been Czech I would have shrugged the incident off and thought to myself, "what a cranky old lady." Had she been American I would have been embarrassed. (Or, I might have lectured her; More than once in my travels I have taken clueless American tourists aside and given them friendly advice such as "shut up.") But she was German, she was old, and I was kind of glad I stepped on her foot.

However much we admire their engineering prowess or drool over their cars, Americans -- and particularly -- American Jews -- are still educated to regard Germans as evil incarnate, even before the recent wave of German-bashing (which, interestingly, has not been nearly as intense as the hatred of the French). Contrary to what one might expect, this hatred is not entirely a post-Holocaust phenomenon. In fact, suspicion of Germany long preceded the Second World War. American collective memory keeps alive the colonial dread of Hessian mercenaries through elementary school textbooks and folk legends such as Washington Irving's Headless Horseman. WWI propaganda saw the evolution of the demonic Hessians into the modern Huns, the spike-helmeted barbarians who raped Belgian nuns and sank the Lusitania.

However, it is certainly true that World War II and, above all, the Holocaust, overshadows everything. The scale of the horror perpetrated by Germans in the 1940s makes it almost inevitable that we should identify them with evil. Hollywood has certainly reinforced the idea, having made "Nazi," "German," and "evil" virtual synonyms, and we Jews have invested enormous emotional and material resources into remembering and imagining what the Germans did to us. So effective was this endeavor that, as a child, I was convinced that my family had directly suffered from Nazi persecution, when in fact the only ghettos my family knew were the cozy neighborhoods of Flatbush and Newark. This may be an extreme example, yet I am willing to bet that very few Americans, Jewish or not, can think Germany without referencing the war and the Holocaust. We have yet to let go of history.

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Image: Czesky Krumlov

April 2003

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