People’s interest in the past: a significant phenomenon

By Zubeida Mustafa

HOW much can a country change in thirty months? Not much, especially if it happens to be an industrialised one where the society has already attained a high degree of development. Hence I did not expect to find too many changes when I visited the Federal Republic in March this year compared with October 1981 when I was there last.

Past13-01-11-1984-5 Past13-01-11-1984-4 Past13-01-11-1984-3 Past13-01-11-1984-2There was a new Government in Bonn to be sure but that does not usually signify as major a shift in a Western democracy as it does in Third World countries. As far the signs of economic progress and cultural advancement one can see all over West Germany, the recession would have to be really severe and the stagflation considerably bad to create a big and visible impact on the life of the people.

In fact, in a way it was reassuring to find that not much had changed. It meant that the traditional West German efficiency, which ensures the smooth and clock work-like functioning of all organisations, has been carefully preserved.

So strong is the streak of efficiency in the German character that it shows in every walk of life. The human chain from Stuttgart to Ulm which was drawn up last autumn to protest against the deployment of the nuclear missiles was a masterpiece of planning and organisation, so I was told.

Technological progress

Not all Germans would agree with this assessment, for a common complaint today in West Germany is that people are not working hard enough now. They are losing their zest for work. But this observation usually comes from those in the forty plus age group. They belong to the generation which built West Germany from scratch after the Second World War and can claim credit for the economic miracle which had today placed the Federal Republic in the first rank of industrialised nations.

The miracle is now over but West Germany continues to be better off than many of its European neighbours. In fact one can take its progress quite for granted until reminded of how hard the Germans have worked to achieve what they have. I found the visit to the Siemen’s Museum in Munich very instructive. It vividly brought out how far this nation has travelled on the road to technolgical progress to build up its economy. There are original nineteenth century models of telephones, telegraphs and dynamos on display here. As far back as 1856 the Royal Bavarian Railway had a magnoelectric pointer telegraph and in 1870 the 11,000-kilometre long Indo-European telegraph line from London to Calcutta was inaugurated. Berlin had a telephone exchange in 1881 — the model I saw looked so primitive but I marvelled at its efficient working.

A trip through the museum is like travelling in a time machine. When we moved over to the modern period, the latest telecommuncation technology really fascinated me. Using the videotelephones and text terminals which enable you to see on a receiving set the person or document at the other end was quite an experience.

\It all seemed so “other worldly” to a visitor from a country where even the ordinary telephone system cannot be maintained properly. But the sight of the bombed out Memorial church on the Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s main boulevard, brings you back to the reality of West German life.

Here is a nation which saw near total destruction in a war its own leaders launched over four decades ago. Having rejected the fuhrer and his doctrine, the Germans got down to the task of re-huilding their divided country. They have done a remarkable job. While the Federal Republic is a modern and highly developed State it has preserved its history and architecture in the facade of its “new old buildings” as a German put it so ingeniously. That is how you see so much of Gothic, Baroque and Romanische styles around.

Major development

But the church on the Kufurstendamm has been left untouched to remind people of the horrors of war. A new church has been built next to it in modern style. The decision to leave the old church in its ravaged state was an unusual one. For a long time Germany’s war time history remained a dark but closed chapter for the West Germans. They would rather forget it.. It is probably the only European country which has no monument to the unknown soldier.

It is, however, now clear that the West Germans are emerging from the shadows cast by the Nazi period. The post-war generation feels no responsibility or guilt for what Hitler did — its members were either too young or not even born during wartime. They can talk objectively and with detachment about this period of German history. This is a significant phenomenon. This also shows why the rise of the neo-Nazis and other right-wing groups has been possible. There are people in the Federal Republic — of course a very small minority — who are willing to shout Nazi slogans and raise their hands in Nazi salute. They are officially banned but they manage to exist and publish their literature. “Deutschland uber Alles'” (Germany above all) has been found scribbled on walls.

That people are interested in the past is evident from the widespread interest aroused by the Hitler diaries last year. They were later found to be forged but the fact that people wanted to read them and Stern magazine paid DM 9.3 million to obntain serialisation rights indicates that the Germans are more history-conscious today than a few years ago. West Germany is opening up and this certainly is a significant development. For instance, I found that people are now taking a broader view of society and are willing to look at their problems squarely in the face. Many of the earlier reservations are melting. Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boell are no longer discussed in hushed up tones. The problems of women are talked about more freely as is the radical feminist with her unconventional views, Alice Schwarzer. Many issues are aired quite freely — be they pertaining to young people, the punks and even men and women cohabiting without taking the marriage vows. This is understandable. A new generation has come of age and it is not weighed down by the inhibitions and feelings of its elders. Thus it is common to come across people holding positions of responsibility in the Government and at the universities who in their student days had participated in the student revolt of the sixties. They are no longer the fiery radicals of yesteryears but their attitudes are different from what they confronted from those in authority when they were young.

In any case life is not a bed of roses for the youth. With not many jobs available for them, they face tough competition in higher education as well as employment. There are some who feel they lack a sense of direction. In the earlier years, everyone felt that he just had to get on with the job of rebuilding the country and there was plenty of work to do. With that task completed, things are no longer the same. I met a number of young people who had no steady job.

Then there is the ambivalence many feel about their natonal identity. Nobody cares much for the Russians but the American presence is also coming to be questioned. Earlier, the Americans had been gratefully accepted as protectors against what many West Germans then perceived as expansionism from the East. But few of the younger people now see matters in such black and white terms. The shades of grey cover larger patches.

For instance there was a young free-lance journalist in Stuttgart who expressed the fear that blind trust in the US could be dangerous for West Germany would be crushed between the two superpowers. He did not want the missiles on German soil and he said it quite blankly. Another young lady in West Berlin meaningfully asked, “What is the use of the missiles if I am dead because of them?”

This generation does not feel obliged to the United States for the massive aid it gave the Federal Republic in the early post-war years. “The Matshall Plan actually helped the American economy and tied West Germany down to the West,” they declare. It is obvious that there are some among the youth »vho are looking for new moorings. They are challenging the long-established ideas and are lending support to the unconventional trends that have been thrown up in West German society. Politically the Greens are a manifestation of this phenomenon. Socially there are the skinheads, who shave their heads, and the punks— those non-conformist men and women who dye their hair of every conceivable shade and dress shabbily to show that they reject the norms laid down by society. These trends appear to be so uncharacteristic of West Germany — a nation noted for its discipline. But that is why the skinheads and punks are socially rejected. Discipline is still the keyword. In fact some of the people I met, obviously SPD supporters, criticised the CDU Government for its strong streak of disciplinarianism. They complained that it has improved the law and order situation in the country by cracking down hard on public demonstrations. The cause of unrest has not been rooted out.

But few would deny that there is less violence — whether leftist or right-wing — in West Germany today compared with a few years ago. The posters carrying pictures of wanted men and women, I saw in West Berlin in 1981, have virtually disappeared and not once did I hear the shrieking sirens of the fire brigdes and police cars I had become so familiar with last time I was there. But the slogans on the wall were still there — this time dutifully daubbed with paint in places of official significance.

Source: Dawn, 01 November 1984