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Ben and Dieter: A Speech to the Israelis

While I was writing this paper, the German Social Democrat, Fritz Erler, died. A country that has always pursued the wrong models has lost a model man. When the German middle classes succumbed to national socialism in 1933—often against their better judgment—the high school student Fritz Erler said: “No.” And stuck by it. This man who scorned ambiguity dared to resist, at a time when many others sought the refuge of “inner emigration.” At twenty-five he was brought to trial and jailed. In the spring of 1945 escape saved him from transfer to Dachau.

I’m bound to the country I come from by background and language, the obligations of tradition and historical sins, by love and hate.

I was born in Danzig in 1927. At fourteen I was a Hitler Youth; at sixteen a soldier, and at seventeen an American prisoner of war. These dates meant a great deal in an era that purposefully slaughtered one year’s crop of young men, branded the next year’s crop with guilt, and spared another. You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi, but old enough to have been molded by a system that, from 1933 to 1945, at first surprised, then horrified the world. The man who is speaking to you, then, is neither a proven anti-fascist nor an ex-national socialist, but rather the accidental product of a crop of young men who were either born too early or infected too late. Innocent through no merit of my own I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace. Today, at thirty-nine, I occasionally have talks with eighteen-year-olds. They feel—twenty-two years after the unconditional surrender—that their fathers left them a bad mortgage and they can’t understand why they’re being asked to pay it off.

The young people of my country are no better and no worse than the young people of other countries. With understandable egotism they want to make a fresh start without having to be marked men, without having to drag the ballast of guilt into their futures. A number of friendly adjectives can be applied to the young people of my country as appropriately as to those anywhere else: they are outgoing, polite, ready to help, eager to discuss things; and even relaxed, unless they are forced to speak as representatives of a Germany they never knew. Some of these young people have made the adjustment to their circumstances, the great adjustment that levels everything. Poorly taught, and hard pressed still in school by the demands made on them both inside and outside Germany, more and more of these young people take refuge in political indifference or in protest that is politically indifferent.

Heretical though my thesis may sound, it is entirely possible for a twenty-year-old student to venerate, in her little room, the photograph and memory of Anne Frank, and yet, confused by the contradictions of reality, go out the next day and vote for a party that only barely camouflages its readiness to step into the boots of the NSDAP. How can a twenty-year-old girl be expected to recognize symptoms of Nazi revival in this aspiring party of the radical Right, when an early member of the National Socialist Party is allowed to hold the chancellorship today in my country? Why should she reject Mr. von Thadden’s nationalism when Christian politicians, spurred by occasional opportunism, try to top Mr. von Thadden’s neo-nationalistic hubris? How difficult is it for young people growing up to remain reasonable in the blare of such political gangster jargon, and make political decisions based on political reason? I say reason, although I know that all appeals to reason are but flickerings on a TV set which has had its sound switched off. We are still holding forth, but our listeners’ ears have grown to tunnels; not a single word sticks. We don’t talk past each other; we talk right through each other. Do you still know what I’m saying, when I say reason? No? then I’ll try a story.

My story is called BEN AND DIETER.

I can see them clearly, doing their laundry in red American army gasoline. Their voices tangle in quarrels, in laughter. Ben and Dieter did exist. I observed them during the summer of 1945 on the Fürstenfeldbruck air base in southern Germany. I watched them skillfully and systematically swipe American K-rations to sell on the black market. Before they could function as a team, a getting-acquainted period was necessary, because neither man saw an accomplice in the other, at first. A third person was required, a catalyst.

DIETER AND BEN—or Ben and Dieter were seventeen at the time. Ben had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and Dieter, a soldier at sixteen, had, without knowing quite how, survived Rundstedt’s Ardennes offensive. Ben lived in a displaced persons camp; he was a DP. Dieter lived in an American prisoner of war camp near Fürstenfeldbruck. He was a prisoner of war.

Both groups, the DP’s and the POW’s, worked at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base in the spacious barracks that Hermann Göring had built for the Great German Air Force. Dieter, who was still close to his school days, served as an interpreter for a small group of POW’s who were put to work as dishwashers in an American army kitchen. His school English became more and more colored with the kitchen slang of the American army cooks. Ben, in a DP group, worked for the same outfit. He was in charge of the laundry room and pressed the well-cut trousers and shirts of American soldiers who, smartly dressed, relaxed, and armed with small presents, would go fraternizing in Fürstenfeldbruck and Landsberg on the Lech. It was unavoidable—and it was not avoided: Dieter’s kitchen squad and Ben’s laundry boys clashed during the short break after meals behind the complex dishwashing apparatus of the American army: the garbage can, the soapy-water can, and the chlorine-rinse can. Adolescent former concentration-camp inmates and adolescent former soldiers whose uniforms still showed the outlines of the Nazi eagles that had been removed. Their fighting amused the American kitchen bosses. Their hatred was blind, single-tracked, always in the same direction. Both groups spoke camp and barracks German: “Spread your cheeks! Line up on the man in front of you! You jerks!” No matter how each had survived the system, it was the same system that had molded them both.

In addition to a company dog that also lived off the kitchen, the outfit for which both boys worked in exchange for exotic-tasting meals kept a kind of cultural attaché, a lieutenant named Hermann Mautler, nearsighted and about thirty, who had been allowed to leave Vienna with his parents still in time, in 1938. Mautler was a historian. He had studied at Princeton and returned to Europe with the American army. He believed in his field, in enlightenment, and in reason. He tried to put a stop to Ben’s emotional outbursts and to Dieter’s instinctive aggressions by explaining their motivations to them. Much to the delight of the American kitchen bosses we see him rush into the melee. We see him administer enlightenment. He assembles both groups on the sunny lawn in front of the barracks building. We listen to him speak with intelligence, modesty, and little understanding of the situation. Ben and Dieter are not interested in what he has to say. Ben says: “Turn off the speech, man.” And Dieter prefers the clover in the grass to Hermann Mautler’s education. He is looking for a four-leaf clover; Ben is telling jokes with sinister punch lines thought up in the camp at Theresienstadt; Hermann Mautler tries and tries. His is the boring, laborious task of reasoning. Step by step he wants to analyze Ben’s route to the concentration camp for him; he wants to demonstrate to Dieter for what criminal purposes he has been schooled, and by what means.

The man of reason achieves a peculiar success: Ben and Dieter stop fighting; they unite against Mautler. The system to which their young minds and their language were subjected is still effective. Ben and Dieter cut into the middle of Mautler’s skillfully prepared speech on “Anti-Semitism in German schools and universities,” bursting out with the song: “O, you lovely Westerwald.” Ben had been forced to memorize and sing the German soldiers’ song in the concentration camp; Dieter grew an inch taller while learning to sing the song on the troop training grounds at Fallingbostel. Hermann Mautler doesn’t know the song, but he’s heard of the Westerwald. Diplomatically he tries to bridge this gap in his education, asks to be filled in, and gets laughed at: “What a jerk! Doesn’t even know ‘O, you lovely Westerwald’ and goes around making speeches!” But Hermann Mautler isn’t ready to give up. For two more weeks he continues trying to administer his education; for two more weeks he talks into the sometimes hummed, sometimes roared words of the Westerwald song. He makes a few desperate efforts to win over his pupils by joining in the song: “O, you lovely Westerwald/Cold whistles the wind across your heights so bald….”

I WANT TO REMEMBER exactly. Ben and Dieter hated Hermann Mautler. They hated his superiority. They hated his skillfully diplomatic attempts at effacing this superiority. They hated him because he had been molded by a different system—the name Princeton became an insult. They hated him because he was right; right all the time. To Ben and Dieter, Mautler was the “adult,” and anybody who had survived Theresienstadt or the Ardennes offensive at seventeen hated adults. I don’t know whether Hermann Mautler finally gave up, or not. The dissolution of the POW and DP camps saved him from total defeat. Dieter was released from the prisoner-of-war camp. Ben found passage on a freighter to Israel. Today, both are gentlemen of forty, married, fathers of children. They have a profession and still a good bit of life left to live.

Can we be absolutely sure that Hermann Mautler—and with him reason—was defeated at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base? I’m not sure. Reason does not wage blitzkriegs; its campaigns are not followed by instant victory. Reason operates slowly. Hermann Mautler’s fight against ignorance has stayed with me although at the time I understood him no better than Ben and Dieter did.

What was Mautler’s isolation made of? If I remember accurately, it was his assignment to “take care of the cultural needs” of two American companies, one including Negro soldiers, the other exclusively white. We—meaning Ben’s and Dieter’s groups—saw the hatred between white and black soldiers fan out in tiny particles over their day-to-day lives. Why should we be different? We, at least, had one thing in common: “O, you lovely Westerwald.” Hermann Mautler stood apart from any group. He wasn’t black and he was too intelligent to take refuge in his position as a white man. Of course he knew how Theresienstadt had come into being and about the crimes that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds had been the victims of right up to the last days of the war, but he couldn’t join in the singing of “O, you lovely Westerwald,” and when he did, it sounded wrong: we sensed his educational intent.

What did Hermann Mautler do wrong? Was he not a good enough teacher? Every word he said was right. Only one thing stood in his way: blind, amoral reality with its primal demands. I remember that while Mautler preached enlightenment and reason Ben could think of nothing but neckties, fashionable colors, stripes and dots with bold-checkered jackets and herringbone trousers. The title of his passion was: I want to wear civilian clothes. I don’t want to hear anything. Why can’t he shut up about his Weimar Republic? I want to wear silk shirts.

And Dieter could think of nothing but a girl who walked past at noon every day on her way to her job with an American outfit. Dieter had never been to bed with a girl.

IS THIS THE END of my story? Has it emphasized a special case and made it more interesting than it actually was? This story can be continued and varied. There were once two wise old statesmen who carried out their political designs forcefully and sometimes ruthlessly. One was named Ben Gurion, the other Konrad Adenauer. Both thought they came from those good old times long before the crime. That made them conservative and enabled them to become friends. But one old man had a capable, hard-working, inconspicuous aide among his supporters whom, for conservative reasons, he did not wish to give up; and his friend Ben Gurion could understand this. But people in Konrad Adenauer’s country and in Ben Gurion’s country said: “What! The Hans Globke who is helping Adenauer run the country is the same Hans Globke who wrote the appendices to the Nuremberg race laws, who helped prepare the murder of six million people.”

Objections to Hans Globke were voiced loudly and softly, violently and calmly, in great detail, accusingly. None of this disturbed old man Adenauer, nor did old Ben Gurion want to abandon his friendship with Konrad Adenauer. So all of us had to get adjusted to the idea of Hans Globke and his partnership with Konrad Adenauer, the same Konrad Adenauer who was Ben Gurion’s friend.

Since, however, getting adjusted to political crimes gives license for new crimes, I ask myself: “Were the two old men any more intelligent or reasonable than Ben and Dieter? Will this story go on forever? Will reason, as represented by Hermann Mautler at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base, by the Social Democrat Adolf Arndt in the German Parliament, always be defeated because Ben and Dieter didn’t want to give up their ‘lovely Westerwald’? Because Ben Gurion doesn’t want his friendship with another old man broken off on account of a Hans Globke? Is this how history is made?” It would seem that our history, at least, is made this way.

A man from one of the two Germanys comes and tells you a story. Why does he tell stories instead of exhorting you to seek reconciliation, brotherhood, and penance? Because he doesn’t want to auction off shopworn goods that stand in our showcases today, dusty and pathetic like old marksmanship cups and athletic trophies.

It is too late to call upon our consciences. Twenty-two years after the spread of mankind’s greatest crime was brought to a halt by the unconditional surrender of the Great German Reich, adjustment to the crime is spreading. It has become a chapter in a schoolbook, a subject at the mercy of history teachers.

I come from a country in which an undercurrent of restoration is beginning to show itself openly. I come from one of the two Germanys—we do have two—each of which is still denying the other. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we be satisfied and praise this inoffensive nation, which is still obediently accepting the effective control of the victorious powers, for its economic and cultural achievements? The catalogue of our accomplishments can brighten the booths at any fair. There was plenty of applause to help the German Wirtschaftswunder, the miracle of reconstruction, the girl-and-football miracle make headlines. I don’t mean to be purely ironical about our achievements. My country is worthy of praise. And if you asked what makes it lovable and liveable for me, I could praise it without getting loud about it. But I did not come here to praise all kinds of minor achievements—besides there is no shortage in either country of loud-voiced soapbox orators preaching neo-German greatness.

The defeated and destroyed Germany showed the world what the world knew anyway: that the Germans can be an efficient people. But was that enough? Have we at long last succeeded in winning peace after a second lost war? Have we blotted out the dread of the negative side of our efficiency from the minds of our neighbors to the East and West? Have we been able to convince them that desire for revenge has not taken root among us, that Nazi revival, underground or above, will be checked, that our imperialism lies buried in the Caucasus, and on the North Cape? After almost two decades of stupid and schizoid foreign policy the two Germanys are isolated within their systems of alliance, notwithstanding the stereotyped declamations of loyalty from both sides. We are viewed with suspicion and cautious respect. Our inability to find peace, state beside state, Germany beside Germany, will eventually exhaust the patience of our neighbors, if not today, then tomorrow.

And what can be said on the positive side? Our language has an idiom: “to dirty one’s own nest.” It is often used as a political insult, for instance to describe analytical TV programs or criticism which lack a “constructive” element. Even this talk about adjustment to political crimes will be described as “dirtying one’s own nest” as soon as it reaches the readers of the Federal Republic. Because I have neglected to sing about the “lovely Westerwald.” Since I refused to ride utopian hobby-horses my speech was not about reconciliation and brotherhood. I spoke of the loss of Fritz Erler. I spoke of Hermann Mautler’s defeat. Two men on the treadmill of reason were my models. Because reason is my sole concern. It stands helpless in a world of increasing adjustment. It needs help, your help too. Do you understand me?

(translated by Helen Mustard, Venable Herndon, and Ursule Molinaro.

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