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…

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