What We Think About When We Think About Germany


This week, Germans will be focusing on one of the most important chapters of the country's history; note to anyone outside Germany: it's not the chapter that immediately leaps to mind

Looking over the Sunday papers from Berlin, New York and London has conjured up an odd little network of ideas about Germany's profile in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Like I say, it's a network and not a straight line, so bear with me.

The Berliner Zeitung and the Tagesspiegel, the top two papers in Berlin, tabloids aside, have issued special editions this weekend on what's known in English-language history books as "The Berlin Uprising"; Germans refer to it simply as "17. Juni" as in the "Strasse des 17. Juni," the main avenue cutting west to east through the center of what was once West Berlin right up to the Brandenburg Gate, beyond which East Berlin began and where the avenue is still known as Unter den Linden. Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the day in 1953, not quite four years after the founding of the German Democratic Republic, when tens of thousands of workers, not just in Berlin but throughout East Germany, went on strike and out into the streets.

Anger had been building for some time. East German workers were not only saddled with the job of rebuilding the part of Germany most ravished by war but also with supporting the occupying Soviet army. Having been folded into the Council for Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) wasn't helping much, either. But the unpopular government turned the screws tighter by raising production quotas by ten percent in early June 1953, then saying they'd moderate their own demands, and then, on June 16, running an article in the state paper, Neues Deutschland, proclaiming that quotas would be raised after all. It was the last straw.

The first rumbles were heard that very day. The Soviets were alerted (and the Americans as well, who gleefully broadcast news of the next day's strike over the radio late that night) and the lines were drawn by dawn. Things went peacefully enough at first, but as Alexandra Richie writes in her monumental history of Berlin, Faust's Metropolis, "Unbeknownst to the East Berliners dozens of T-34 tanks - the same tanks which had taken the city eight years before - had been moving in towards the city centre." While government officials cowered in the cellar, the German Volkspolizei and Soviet army opened fire on the demonstrators. By the end of the day, the total number of casualties for all of East Germany would be 267 dead and 1067 seriously injured.

Preceding similar uprisings in Hungary and Prague, June 17, 1953, was not only "a landmark in Cold War history," as Richie calls it, it also marked a sort of point of no return. Richie quotes a friend who demonstrated, was arrested days later and sentenced to six years' hard labor: "The events really divided East Germans into those who could live with the regime and those who could stand it no longer." For those in the second camp, options were running out. In 1961, the Wall would go up and stay up for nearly four decades.

But turn for a moment to the New York Times and the London Observer. There's no mention of June 17, 1953, but that's not the point. There may or may not be something on Tuesday, but it's hardly the mission of either paper to toss a few column inches at every anniversary of some significance to every country outside their own. But there's a piece in each, quite lengthy pieces, in fact, on Hitler and the Holocaust.

Set aside for a moment the obvious notion that the Third Reich, its rise and fall and terrible aftermath on the one hand, and the erection and fortification of the Iron Curtain on the other cannot and should not be weighed against each other on a sort of scorecard of horrors. What's interesting about the articles besides the fact that Hitler and the Holocaust compel more attention in the US and the UK than the German-German conflict and even, by extension, the Cold War is something a little more complicated: the articles are about that attention itself.

In the NYT, Barry Gewen poses "a troubling question: Are too many Holocaust documentaries now being made?" Anne Thompson's Observer article adresses another one: How do you portray Hitler on film? Can there be right ways and wrong ways? And she opens by noting, "The Internet Movie Database lists 190 films featuring Adolf Hitler." Most are docs, but still.

The news hook for Thompson's piece is that there are three more coming down the pipe, too. And here's another twist: These things are made because they pull in viewers. The US television network CBS, for example, saw "strong ratings" for its four-hour mini-series on Hitler's rise to power. But Gewen points out that most Holocaust docs lose money: "Most movie audiences want to be entertained; they don't want to dwell on the sealed boxcars, extermination camps and mounds of corpses that are the staples of the Holocaust narrative."

So, to lay out a few implications of all this. For most of the world, the Third Reich is still the most dramatically engaging chapter in all of German history. Spielberg has made his Holocaust movie, his World War II movie and Nazis are perpetually pestering Indiana Jones; yet it would be next to impossible to imagine Spielberg directing a film about June 17, 1953, despite the dramatic shootings and so on, despite the historical consequences. In fact, besides The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set against the backdrop of a romanticized Prague Spring, it's difficult to think of any mainstream movie meant for a global audience that deals with ordinary people's suffering under and resistance to Soviet totalitarianism. Other than one or two dramatic escape flicks, on the silver screen, the Cold War belongs to spies.

But at the same time, when it comes to the box office winner, Hitler, his henchmen and all they left in their wake, the perpetrators' narrative is more of a draw than the victims'.

None of this is meant to implicate moviegoers. What does well for a movie studio or TV network has to do with the nature of what anyone would want for an evening out or on the couch. Nonetheless, no one would argue that movies don't have an enormous influence on the shape of history in collective memory. One of the things that means is that the very first association with "Germany" most people outside it have will remain "Hitler" for years to come; as for what else all this means, I'll let you pick it up from here.


"Philadelphia it ain't." That is the curt assessment of Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times of the first draft of a constitution that would make the European Union something more than it is now. How much more is still a bone of contention among the 15 current members and the 10 more set to join next year, but if this draft is eventually approved more or less intact, she's right about one thing: Europe's new constitution won't, of course, be as historically significant as the one drawn up by the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in the US. Nor is it intended to be.

But on a symbolic level at least, that is, on top of all the details aimed at smoothing out the bumps in the road between members in terms of trade, legislation, law enforcement and so on, the document would establish that EU law will take precedence over national law, and that's quite a big step towards, as Sciolino puts it, "a mega-Europe of 450 million citizens, larger than any population mass except for China and India, and an economy of more than $9 trillion, close to that of the United States."

Performance artist Erin Cosgrove is taking RAF chic to its desolate end, or at least that's what one could surmise from R.C. Baker's piece in the Village Voice.

In a similar vein, though a bit more promising, Barbara Teufel's Gallant Girls is described by Lynn Rapoport in the San Francisco Bay Guardian like so: "Part documentary, part drama, the film is an accounting of the years between 1987 and 1991 in the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, as lived through by a group of anarchist punks battling the state, the press, and the International Monetary Fund."

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