Saturday, July 05, 2008
If I'm A Racist, You're A Fascist
Germans are probably the most international people on earth and at the same time the most self-centered and blind to everything beyond their own horizon. It's a strange combination – the exact opposite of America, where no one is really interested in anything that goes on outside our borders but at the same time politically we take on more responsibility internationally than anyone else and then some. Wait, that's not the opposite, it's the same thing. Oh no, I was right the first time: it's the exact opposite.
This week Germany's first Madame Tussaud's Wax Cabinet opened in Berlin and of course one of the figures in it was Hitler. A Brit or American would not find anything weird about this: How can you have a cabinet of wax figures depicting world leaders without Hitler? The idea is ridiculous; it would be like teaching math without mentioning the zero.
Not so for Germans: immediately it was a controversy. A German-Jewish leader called for Tussaud's to take down the figure. It was not removed (though a sign was put up explaining that Hitler was bad, not good, in case anyone should come in and be inspired by his image to go out and kill minorities).
It was more than just a little thing. Germans are capable of a lot of indignant anger. The day of the opening, a guy from Kreuzberg – where indignant anger is an art – rushed into Tussaud's and ripped Hitler's head off. To me, that seems a little bit exaggerated. To many Germans I think it was a vindication and the right thing to do: Someone, at least, was insuring that the Third Reich would not come again. That's what the guy thought, I'm sure.
It is unclear why many Germans found it so offensive: You see photos of Hitler in all the school books, in movies and documentaries, all over the place. But a wax figure of it somehow struck the wrong chord. Did people have the feeling that it glorified Hitler? If so, do the figures of Stalin and Jack the Ripper glorify Stalin and Jack the Ripper?
In a weird way, I suspect it was something else: Deep inside, Germans sometimes have a feeling that frivolous depictions of Hitler are disrespectful. Not because they respect Hitler but because Hitler as a source of evil has become so much larger than life that the vilification of him as turned into a kind of worship of him, too, as the ancients might have worshipped an evil spirit in the hopes of pacifying him. Maybe Germans are afraid Hitler's ghost will come back and find his own wax figure somehow not epicly overblown enough, too small, too human, and in revenge will inspire Germany to do the same thing again.
The opposite happened a few weeks ago: When it was clear that Obama, whom everyone in Germany loves, would get the Democratic nomination, the far-left and sometimes cynical, even funny, newspaper "taz" printed a photo of the White House on the front page with a headline that read "Uncle Obama' Cabin."
Many Americans in Germany and in the US were outraged and accused the taz of racism, and the taz people had no idea why.
Germans, like Americans, learn about the ground-breaking and influential book "Uncle Tom's Cabin", which greatly helped the anti-slavery movement, but each country uses the references to the book differently. For Americans, "Uncle Tom" is a racial slur. For Germans, "Uncle Tom" is a symbol or resistance against slavery (which is what the book was). There is even an "Uncle Tom's Cabin-Street" in Berlin. The headline was not a racial slur, but a triumphant celebration of how far blacks have come since slavery in the US: "You've come a long way, baby", it was saying, or, "Finally, slavery is over."
It was one of these things, like the Tussaud thing, where both peoples agreed that racism is bad and that it is a good thing that Obama may take the White House… but in expressing it they appeared to each other to be racists / fascists.