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After the Wall Came Down: Germans and their Relations with Each Other and the World
Book Essay on:
Marc Fisher, After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History
by Loni Russell
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Loni Russell
I am a senior global studies major who has had great interest in German politics and history since my study abroad experience in Germany in 2005. I am particularly interested in the political process within the country, and the country’s place in international affairs. In the fall, I hope to begin an internship and studies in Germany.
Abstract (back to top)
The book After the Wall tells the personal story of journalist Marc Fisher, who worked in Berlin for the Washington Post in the early 1990s. Telling his story through his own personal accounts and his own impressions of Germany, Fisher discusses the cultural and political divide caused by the Berlin Wall, and the reactions and emotions felt by Germans and the international community with its fall in 1989. Fisher also explores how Germans in both the former East and West have coped similarly and differently with the burden of their Nazi past.
Marc Fisher begins the book telling short stories of his own experiences living in West Germany, and his feelings regarding German culture. He discusses life in Germany and the little things he finds reminiscent of its Nazi past. He tells stories of his encounters with Germans and what he calls their need for rules and regulations. He also discusses how Germans have wanted to forget their Nazi past, and are almost afraid of discussing it. For example, Fisher tells the story of Anna Rosmus, which the film The Nasty Girl, is based upon. Anna was a young woman who wanted to explore the Nazi past of her hometown, Passau. After further investigation, the townspeople became extremely upset and worrisome of her inquires. She had found out that her town had had a very dark past that no one was talking about. After she published several books and articles on this topic, most of her community had shunned her and could not understand why she needed to dig up the past, and reveal its people. They themselves felt it was unnecessary and only causing trouble for the community. Fisher argues that this is a common theme throughout Germany. Many communities have their own dark Nazi past, yet few Germans are willing to investigate further. Fisher continues by discussing the role of patriotism within Germany, and its virtual non-existence in the public space. Fisher also explores the relationship between East and West Germany, and not just the physical barrier of fences dividing the two sides, but the ideological barrier that formed between the two peoples.The relationship between Jews and Germans has also been a sensitive topic in Germany, one that Germans have tried to understand or avoid. Fisher writes that he has met few people in Germany who actually know another Jew, but many who are fascinated in learning about their culture. Similarly for immigrant communities in Germany, he discusses the difficulties experienced by these groups in integrating into German society.
Essay (back to top)
Marc Fisher’s book, After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History, traces German experiences from the end of World War II, to the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fisher explores the relationships that Germans had with one another, and within the international community. Fisher argues that there is not only a physical wall, the Berlin Wall, between East and West Germany throughout the second half the 20th century, but that there is also a mental wall that builds up between the two halves of a people.
Throughout the book, Fisher explores the role of identity within Germany, including denial, guilt and responsibility. He asks himself several questions about German culture, and through his own experiences and encounters, he tries to find some way of interpreting his interviews and experiences. Some of the questions he asked include, how did East and West Germany deal with their Nazi past, what were some of the differences between the two groups of people? Did they face the realities of the atrocities, or cover them up? How did the division of Germany affect the consciousness of the German people, and the international community? What were some of the reactions by all sides to unification? What is the relationship between Jews and Germans in the present? What does the future of German identity look like? How does the world want to see Germany? Fisher does find many answers to these questions from his interviews as a journalist, and from his own everyday encounters with Germans.
The Wall Within
Struggling with the issue of identity within Germany over the last sixty years has been one of trial and error. Marc Fisher writes, “Even before the fall of the Wall, West Germany was a bundle of contradictions, a nation suspicious of itself ”(pg. 18) . He states that the number one question that he came across since during his time living in Germany, has been from Germans asking themselves, Are we different? How? And why? (pg. 43). Fisher states that the reactions given by Germans are very diverse, ranging from extreme defensiveness to self-criticism that is almost at the point of self-loathing (pg. 44). Struggling with their Nazi past, and the many crimes committed during this time, West Germans have tried to paint a picture of normalcy within the West. This was seen through many political and economic policies adapted by the West. People wanted to move on, they felt they were already aware of what had happened and they did not want to be reminded of it. Fisher states,
Yet, Fisher argues that this is not good for the Germans’ reputation within the international community, nor does it ensure that the atrocities will never happen again. Fisher writes on page 41,
Fisher also discusses the very difficult line of German nationalism, and how Germans have difficulty expressing their patriotism for country, due to fears of looking too nationalistic. Whereas in America, flags of the country fly high on most corners, in Germany this is not common. Balancing a pride for their country and not seeming too nationalistic can be difficult.
The Wall Between East and West
With the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and with the building of other fences dividing the Soviet occupied territory from the Western occupied territory; Germany was now split into two. After the building of the Wall, West Germans were eager to make amends with the East and try for reunification. As the following decades progressed, and the West German economy moved along prosperously and the Cold War was at its peak, West Germans became less interested in reunification and had pretty much given up all hope to be reunified.
The information presented to the public in East and West Germany was entirely different, and this shaped the different ideological views that formed on the two sides. West Germany who had been very influenced by the Western world, especially American culture, had preached words of capitalism and its social market economy. The East promoted socialism, and policies backed by the USSR. The educational system was also entirely different in the East, designed by Margot Honecker, the wife of East German President Erik Honecker, was also another outlet to distribute East German propaganda.
Many East Germans after the fall of the wall were bitter about their situation. As Fisher writes on page 105, “The Easterners had been locked out of their country’s recovery, denied its wealth.” Former East Germans still consider themselves what they call “second class citizens.” Many feel they were punished both by the Nazi regime, and then by the Soviet regime. Many feel a mental barrier between themselves and the western Germans, due to the economic and political situation that they feel was given to the West and denied to them (pg. 109). From the Western perspective, many felt that the millions of Marks that were poured in to the Eastern infrastructure paid by their increase in taxes should keep the Easterners from complaining.
The Wall Between Germans and Others
The relationship between Germans and the international community has been one of difficulty over the last sixty years. Due to the atrocities committed during Germany’s Nazi past, which involved many peoples from its neighboring countries; many countries have been reluctant to allow Germany to have too much power within international politics. One relationship that is particularly sensitive, is the relationship between Jews and Germans. Fisher argues that in Germany today (the 1990’s), “Jews are history, and are forced down the Germans’ throats like bitter medicine (pg 205).” He states that Jews are seen as a tragic loss, and are spoken of with a heavy somber tone (pg 205). Fisher believes there is a postwar German dilemma within the relationship between Jews and Germans. He argues that Germans can never do right when it comes to dealing with their relationship with Jews in their past. pg 206). Fisher discusses the dynamic between Germans and Jews; how when many meet a Jew, they apologize, how many intellectuals spend their entire life writing, reading and researching Jewish literature and religion. Germans are also the next largest groups to Americans to visit the state of Israel; he argues there is almost an obsession by many Germans to learn as much about Jewish culture as possible, in order to repair the wounds of history, yet they are accused of not including enough Jews in the dialogue.
The unification of Germany also presented challenges for the relationship of Jews and Germans. Many East Germans had blamed the West for the atrocities of the Holocaust, and many did not want to bear any responsibility for what had happened. Some anti-Semitic groups in the East also emerged and caused some outrage in the international community. Directly after reunification there was a slight upsurge of violence against synagogues, and this seemed alarming. Germany is definitely under a microscope of surveillance by the world when it comes to anti-Semitism, even if it is advocated by a small number of people within the country, but because of their past, most will be extremely sensitive to their numbers and their activities.
Not only is the relationship between Jews and Germans under a spotlight, but also the relationship between Germans and foreigners within their country. Due to some increases in anti-foreigner violence within Germany, concerns have also been raised. Due to very difficult immigration laws, and many regulations to acquiring German citizenship, many foreign groups have been upset, including the largest immigrant group, the Turks. In the last ten years since this book was published, changes have been made to these laws in hopes of bringing more flexibility. Countries bordering Germany have always been cautious of Germany acquiring too much economic and political power, in fears of a strengthened Germany in the heart of Europe.
Fisher’s journalistic approach to understanding German identity and their past may seem a bit different compared to a historical approach, yet he has helped outline many important issues facing the Germans from the time of the end of World War II, to the early years of reunification.
This book was published in 1995, which should be considered when reading the book. Twelve years have passed since the first publication of this book, which means that many things may have changed since then. Many of Fisher’s accounts had taken place in the late 1980s and the first years of the 1990s. The political and economic situation is a bit different now in Germany, and it would be interesting to maybe read a more updated account of the situation. Another consideration to reading this book is that Marc Fisher is an American, and he is coming from an American perspective viewing the issues facing Germany. How would this book have been different if Fisher were German, French or British?Further research and investigation is needed to present a more modern perspective of Germans in the 21 st century. With most Nazis already dead, do young Germans still feel somewhat responsible for what happened during their Nazi past, or are they tired of being blamed for something they were not alive to witness? What measures, if any, has this generation made to remember the past and never let it happen again? What are some of the repercussions of German reunification over the last twelve years since the book was released? Have their been improvements made to the East Germany economy? Is there still a large gap in mentality between the former Eastern Germans and the former Western Germans? It seems that much could change over the course of twelve years, but it also seems that change in Germany can be a slow process, and so many of the challenges expressed by Fisher are sure to still remain.
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