Nationalism's Psychotic Side

When I was a kid in the Bronx during World War II, my mother got me to eat my vegetables by playing a war game in which the spinach or the broccoli were the Germans -- the evil ones to be gobbled up. The tastier items on the plate were labeled Americans, British and Russians -- the good guys. Even now, on the 60th anniversary of Germany's defeat, I experience a twinge of anxiety over my mother's mealtime allocation of ethnic virtue.

The problem was that my father was a German-born Protestant farm boy who had come to the United States as a teenager and spoke English with a pronounced accent. My Jewish mother, who was 19 when she fled the Soviet Union soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, earnestly assured me that my kindhearted father was not one of the bad Germans. Nor was his brother, who took me fishing quite often.

Out on the pier, the fishermen were a typical sample of New York City's ethnic stew, and German and Jewish Americans mingled quite happily. One of my assignments was to search out the men keeping kosher to see if they would keep their "junk fish" for me -- especially the scaleless eels my uncle liked so much.

Despite the terrible backdrop of the war, ethnic tension on the pier and back in our neighborhoods was not particularly pronounced. This followed the national pattern. German Americans at the time constituted the largest immigrant group in the U.S., firmly assimilated into the dominant culture. The patriotism of relatively few German or Italian Americans was questioned. Meanwhile, the Japanese Americans of the West Coast were being rounded up and shipped off to grim desert internment camps while I was being indoctrinated by comic books to see the Japanese as bucktoothed savages.

But there wasn't much time to think about all this because U.S. involvement in the war was quite short. Forgotten in President Bush's legitimate criticism of postwar Soviet behavior last week was our own nation's reluctance to enter the war while Hitler's armies conquered France and marched deep into the Soviet Union.

It seemed to me as a child that no sooner had the dead been memorialized by the gold stars placed in the windows by grieving mothers than the war was over -- and, seemingly overnight, the Russians and Germans reversed their good-guy, bad-guy roles in the tabloids.

In the six decades since, I have visited Europe a dozen times trying to figure out why my father's relatives went along with killing the relatives of my mother, and am most often drawn back to Hannah Arendt's defining phrase, "the banality of evil."

Sadly, if not unsurprisingly, I could find no trace of my mother's family left in Lithuania or Russia; whether any survived Hitler, the war and Stalin, I'll probably never know. In my father's hometown in southwestern Germany, life goes on as if uninterrupted, however, and one day I managed to find and surprise another uncle, who had only heard of me as the half-Jewish son of his brother, yet welcomed me warmly.

It was hard, though, while eating the Scheer family's dumplings, to connect the dots between Auschwitz and these pleasant, normal people. When I asked if the Nazis had been strong in the area, my uncle just shrugged. "You were either Red or Brown, and we were not Red," he said.

Even the Protestant church where my father was baptized has been led by a minister who wore a Nazi uniform. My aunt and uncle's wedding certificate was bound into a hardback copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," signed by the village mayor.

I believe that my German uncle, the spitting image of my American father, was a decent man who, like the new pope who once joined the Hitler Youth, was swept along by events far beyond his control. He recalled that as a teenager, Hitler was a distant voice on the radio promising to return order and prosperity to a depressed country. Little did he know that the highway built near the town in the '30s, eagerly welcomed for creating local jobs, was intended to carry tanks to conquer Paris, or that the coming war would leave him near death on the Russian front.

After the war, my late father never visited Germany. He couldn't get over the shock that his "landsmen," whom he had respected as the best-educated and most industrially proficient people in the world, had descended to the lowest level of primitive barbarism yet recorded in human history.

What disgraced the German people indelibly was nationalism gone mad, and against that rapacious force the high standards of civilization offered scant protection.

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