A Forgotten Generation

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’  If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?  Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

 So spoke Abraham Lincoln in March, 1865.

Not quite two years ago I had occasion to visit Freiburg im Breisgau, on the edge of the Black Forest, and where 27 years ago I got to spend what’s still the single most enjoyable year of my life. On those few occasions when I am able to visit Germany I always make a point to stop in for at least a day or so. Yes, I am something like a dog and his vomit in that respect. This last time I popped into the principal bookstore downtown. While studying there in the mid-1980s I did most of my shopping there. Granted, Freiburg is a university town (and has been since a couple of centuries before Columbus blundered ashore; in fact it was Martin Waldseemüller, a Freiburg cartographer, who named “America” after Brer Vespucci), but even by those standards it’s an exceedingly fine bookstore.

That visit I picked up Das Amt und die Vergangenheit, a history of the German Foreign Office during and after the Third Reich. It was commissioned by the government and published in 2006, I think, and was written by four authors collaborating. For a book ordered and written by committee, it’s a very useful read. I propose one day to blog it as well, but for the moment I want to concentrate on two books I bought for an aunt of mine. 

She’s an aunt by marriage. She and her four sisters were born in East Prussia; in fact they were so far in East Prussia that their hometown ended up in the Soviet Union after the war. And therein lies her story. Their father had already been killed on the Eastern Front, leaving the mother with four daughters, the youngest of whom cannot have been older than four or five. A very good friend of their father’s was on the staff of the commanding general in that district, and he came to their mother and told them that the war was lost, and that when the Red Army approached they were Major So-and-So’s wife and children. Understood? Sure enough, the Soviets arrived, and they all piled into the major’s staff car with his driver and adjutant. On the way to the airfield they were strafed by a Soviet fighter, killing the driver and wounding the adjutant. Edith, the oldest, once in my presence related looking back through the rear window of the staff car. The entire horizon was lined with columns of smoke and flames from burning villages and farms. 

They made it onto the last plane out of that airfield. A friend of their mother’s stayed behind. She was raped upwards of twenty times a night. At least, however, she was not shot afterward. 

The family, the youngest violently sick with a raging fever that left her largely deaf, fetched up in Denmark in the refugee camps for a number of years.  At one point they got split up. The oldest sister, who could speak English, got a job working for the Americans and met some ol’ boy from what’s still way on out in the sticks. They married and she moved here, eventually bringing after her the third sister, who met and married my father’s middle brother. I think she’s been back to her hometown once since the Wall came down; there wasn’t much left of the old place. The Soviets have done a decently thorough job of obliterating all traces of the original inhabitants. 

I’ve never heard her say much about “wie es gewesen ist” – how it was – but she’s long had a reflectiveness that seems to me at least to be several orders of magnitude more inward than one would expect, even among her generation of older Americans (one pretty much gives up looking for that trait in younger Americans, which of course makes it all the more pleasantly surprising and pleasurable when one stumbles across it). She got into transcendental meditation decades ago and that seems to have answered some need within her. 

But back to the point at t’issue, as Constable Oates might say.  Among the subjects that over the past decade or so have become less taboo in Germany is the experience of the Germans – ordinary citizens – as victims of their own war. There has since 1945 been what for a better expression I’ll call an exiles’ lobby (Bund der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten is one of the larger groups, I think), but that was always more focused on the politics of the division and the removal of ethnic Germans from what used to be the eastern provinces. They had, after all, to make room for all the Poles whom the Soviets kicked out of eastern Poland. If you imagine two entire populations ripped from their ancestral homes and shoved 100 or more miles west, that’s about what happened immediately the shooting stopped. [In the Deutsches Museum in East Berlin I recall seeing one of the placards that the Soviets just pasted around town. It allowed that within twenty-four hours all Germans were to be gone, taking with them only what they could carry in their own hands. Transportation was not arranged.] 

But the discussion, the engagement, the (and it’s a wonderful German word that captures the sense of grappling with an issue and wrestling it to the ground, there to pull it to shreds) Auseinandersetzung with the civilian German war was either swept under the rug or simply ignored. “We got through it alive somehow and that’s all we need to remember,” seems to have been the parole for the better part of 50 years. There were also enormous guilt feelings, the commonly accepted notion that how in God’s name could you talk about German war victims, with all those pits full of human ash and piles of emaciated corpses underfoot? No, better just to shut up, show up to work, bust ass all day long, save up for retirement, and keep your head down.  If you want to see how it plays out when an entire society takes to heart the divine injunction to “let the dead bury the dead,” then Germany from 1945 through the mid-1990s is a pretty good Exhibit A. 

That is changing. In that bookstore I saw two books both of which I bought for my aunt. The first and shorter is Flucht über die Ostsee – Flight over the Baltic – which is a collection of reminiscences of the refugees who were trapped in the eastern provinces when the Soviets broke through to the Baltic to the west of Danzig in early 1945.  All Prussia, Memel, Pomerania, and several other areas were cut off from the rest of the country. The government began Operation Hannibal in late January, 1945 to evacuate as much of the civilian population, war convalescents, and other mission-critical people as they could. The Wilhelm Gustloff was part of the operations, until she was sunk with anywhere up to 8,000 dead.  They had the evacuees on liners, tugboats, U-boats, freighters, anything that would float and could weather winter navigation.

Where people went to depended, of course, on where they started from. Many made their way to the Baltic shores and then down to Danzig and Gotenhafen, where they took ship for Denmark, Lübeck, Travemünde, and any other port that could berth a ship long enough to unload them. Others went straight to Danzig. It was bitterly cold, and the treks of civilians were frequently under air attack, especially while travelling over the frozen Frishes Haff (the gulf of the Vistula) to the Frische Nehrung, that long spit of land that parallels the mainland, all the way down to Danzig. Entire wagons would drop through the ice, instantly extinguishing the family and all its possessions. Or bombs and strafing would tear family members to shreds (one woman who tells her story saw both parents reduced to bloody piles of flesh by the same bomb), leaving children to depend on the charity of strangers. 

Important to remember is that by and large the only adults of able body were the mothers. The men and older boys were detained, either in the eastern districts themselves or at Danzig/Gotenhafen, not allowed to go onward. The older girls frequently were assigned to military or quasi-military support units, and so not allowed to leave. Only the decrepit and the aged males were allowed to leave. So not infrequently you’d have two or more generations of adult women, trailing multiple children (and not seldom nursing infants), and lumbered down with old men, sick and frail. 

In all, it’s a story that ought to be better known in the U.S.  Our schoolchildren will spend days learning about the Importance of This, That, or the Other Pet Constituency in the Construction of the Western Trading Posts, but they grow up in pristine ignorance of events which to this day shape the political landscape of Europe.  Don’t think that’s a problem?  Our Dear Leader chose September 17, 2009, to share in a telephone call with the Poles that we were craw-fishing on putting them beneath our missile defense shield, a shield which the Poles quite correctly understood to offer them significant protection from resurgent Russian interference.  Anyone less profoundly ignorant of history (and folks, it’s the State Department’s damned job to know these things) would have understood that day to be the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.  For a good, if somewhat brief, look at what happened next, see Janusz Bardach’s Man is Wolf to Man.

The other book I bought my aunt is called Die Vergessene Generation – The Forgotten Generation. It is specifically about the children, and more particularly about the children who were born between roughly 1937 and roughly 1950. Their older siblings had some – not much, to be true, but at least some – seasoning under their belts by the time things got really, truly horrible for the urban German population (and the eastern rural one as well). If you were born in 1934 then you were ten by 1944, when the bombers began to have it pretty much their own way, and when the Soviets crossed the border into Germany proper the next winter. It was their younger siblings who were exposed to all the delights of industrial-scale warfare, and especially the joys of the clash of races on the Eastern Front, with no psychological defenses to speak of. 

After the war they were also the ones most likely to get lost in the emotional shuffle. “Oh, you were too young to remember,” they’d be told. Or, “Just be thankful we’re alive.” Or, “That’s just how the war was,” or “You must remember we didn’t have it all that badly.” But they did remember, in some cases with repressed recollection, but they remembered all right. Being thankful to be alive and being aware of the plight of others are intellectual responses to dealing with one’s own misfortune and emotional trauma. It’s precisely that intellectual/emotional maturity that the 1937ers and younger just did not have when they shot the works. Their war experiences pole-axed them, and after the war their parents and older siblings were too busy re-building the country to notice these seething little masses of emotional wound gazing about them, hungry, cold, and absorbing the terrible lesson that this might well be the new normal. By the time one is an adult one generally forgets how defenseless children can be, how telling a little girl that there is no room on the sledge for her favorite doll will be a memory that will still be with her when she 75 years old, and that she will instantly be able to call up the hurt and the bewilderment of that precise moment. It’s idle to dismiss that experience with the observation that surely a doll is pretty small potatoes when Marshall Zhukov’s boys are coming out of the woods: To that little girl it’s pretty big stuff; more to the point, all the hurt, the bewilderment, the awareness of being Utterly Unprotected — not by mama, not by papa, not by older brother or sister — which children that age cannot articulate, will attach themselves to that moment of I Have to Leave My Doll Behind.  The adult that child becomes may go decades before finding the words to engage, to grapple with that wounding, but the simple memory of that doll will bring all the old trauma back to the surface.

The children in the cities were also dunked, with no preparation and no internal structures to enable them to process the experiences, into the horrors of the first massive aerial war. In “Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch,” (“The Rats Sleep at Night, Though”) a short story by Wolfgang Borchert, the story is told of Jürgen, a boy of nine (significantly he’s the only person in the story with a name; the others are types). He’s lying towards sundown in his hiding place in the pile of rubble that was his home until a few nights ago.  He’s exhausted, but knows he must awaken.  He opens his eyes to see an adult regarding him.  The old man attempts to reach this child in the rubble with an offer to see his rabbits.  Jürgen can’t leave his post. Why?  Well, the teacher at school had told his class about the rats in the rubble, and how they ate whatever they could find, including the victims. And little brother is still down there, the boy says. He was only four. The boy thinks if he stands watch over what was once their home and is now his baby brother’s cairn, the rats won’t get to him. But the rats sleep at night, though, the stranger says. 

Fiction, of course, but you can jolly well be sure that little scenes only marginally less terrible played out daily, hourly, in the big industrial targets. 

Die Vergessene Generation is about those children, now in their 70s, and about their children. Many of them (not all, to be sure; even small children can have remarkable emotional recuperative capacity) have spent their lives with vague but still oppressive feelings of disjointedness, detachment from family, difficulty forming or maintaining friendships, anxieties that wash over them at odd and usually inopportune times . . . in short, all the behavioral and psychological traits of people who have something deep within them with which they’ve never made peace.  In at least some instances they’ve managed to pass along their emotional baggage to their own children.

They’re now beginning to talk, some for the first time.  Ever.  The book  intersperses discussion of the history of the (mis)diagnosis and (mal)treatment of these emotional disorders (short version: keep ’em drugged up), and how these issues fit into the larger psychological exercise of Admitting and Understanding of what Germany exactly did during those twelve awful years, with narratives of specific individuals.  One of them concerns a child of Kriegskinder (war children) who has never heard his parents speak of the war, and whose relationship with his parents has always been missing significant substance at its core.  As an adult, he finally asks his father, who explains to him that when your mother and I met and realized we would remain together, we spent an entire night telling each other everything that we experienced in the war.  We promised each other than what we said that night would never leave that room.  Ever.  It was the end of the discussion for that child.  Imagine being told that a huge — perhaps the major — portion of what makes your parents who they are (and therefore who you are) is and will always remain Forbidden Territory.

Then there’s the old woman who as a child and with her own family unable to feed all the mouths (Europe, particularly Germany, starved for well over a year after the guns fell silent) was put off onto neighboring adults, including one who more or less whored her out to pedophiles in exchange for food and cigarettes (the only current medium of exchange).

I opened this post with that quotation from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural because I think what he was trying to capture, and in a way to prepare the country for, were the same issues, the same prism through which the experiences of the war children must be viewed.  Germany gave vent to urges calling forth the worst human nature can be; that part of the world which had the ability to stop it before it exploded all over everyone failed to do so, consciously averted its eyes, buried the truth in hopes that it would not be called upon to step forward.  And the Almighty gave to the world that terrible war as the woe due those by whom the offense came.  The wealth and cultural heritage piled up by centuries of toil was blown to dust within a matter of months.  Today we study the Holocaust not to identify the perpetrators; they’re dead, mostly, and have finally been delivered over to Justice.  We study it because we need to know what lurks within us, what we are capable of doing when we loosen our grip on those parts of our heritage which trace their roots back to the Sermon on the Mount.

The war children will take to their graves the knowledge — admitted even to themselves or not — of what their parents and grandparents did.  Like it or not, that is a guilt which in fact, as one of the Nuremberg defendants allowed on the gallows, a thousand years will not erase.  And yet these deeply damaged people are just that: wounded innocence.  They are the child in Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga,” wordless, uncomprehending, capable only of fear and hurt, two of the most elemental, animalistic, de-humanizing sensations which it is given us to know.  As Die Vergessene Generation makes the point:  The first step in whatever healing is possible must be permission to grieve, validation of pain felt on one’s own head.

My aunt read the book twice before she lent it back to me to read for myself.

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