On our visit to Germany, our hostess, my mother’s sister (my Tante) Elsa, served delicious Leberwurst (liverwurst). I cut a circle and spread it out across my bread. Tante Elsa firmly remonstrated, “In Deutchland drueckt man nicht die Wurst.“ (In Germany one does not press the sausage.) To the postwar Germans this generous serving was an affirmation of sufficiency—affluence, compared to what they had endured.
My aunt was asking me to conform to local practice. It was polite for her to teach me manners. In German culture, that was not only acceptable; it was required. We had a duty to clue in others to our way of doing things—roughly, to correct others.
That played out equally following our return to America. After I had introduced a girl to my parents, they privately told me that I had to tell her to stand up straight and quit slouching. They said, “If you don’t do that, you don’t lover her.” She was a nice person, but at that stage of acquaintance, I wasn’t concerned with loving her to that extent.
This mindset carried over to diabolical extremes in the Hitler Youth—the Brown Shirts. They were programmed idealists intent on their duty to spread German order through the world. Principles of constancy and honor morphed into arrogance and conquest.
This brought widely felt repercussions. A Swiss citizen told me that during or shortly after the war he had been on a train outside of Germany. He was being bitterly shunned by the other passengers because of the German accent in his English. When it came out in conversation that he was Swiss, they apologized to him saying, “Why didn’t you tell us? You’re all right!”
Possibly cultural insensitivity works in many different directions.
We Germans have punctilious insistence on doing things right. We value truth over feelings. We are always willing to knuckle down and work harder, including facing the truth. I have heard that other descendants of Germans suffer emotionally when their American classes study the holocaust. Perhaps I don’t suffer the shared guilt because my parents left Germany because of the abusive policies. They and I are the very first to denounce Hitler’s excesses.
Is it politically incorrect to find fault with German ascendancy? If so, let’s do away with political correctness. As a German American I insist on being brutally frank and honest to make sure we purge this terror forever. That is a very German position to take, owning the past in order to make corrections. Germans are almost Spartan in our willingness to make people stronger. However, let us now consider best ways to encourage improvement.
Sometimes things don’t turn out as we intended. My parents sacrificed so that I could be born outside Hitler’s influence. I landed in a country with its own national guilt. As I expect to be shunned for German association with racism, I expect to be shunned for American use of slavery, nuclear weapons, torture, and capital punishment. Again, I do away with denial and superficial political correctness. Our redemption from the past is to face it and make corrections.
My son came back from the Marines with a slogan that shows how Americans are equally strong in facing responsibility: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This blog is about how we help each other. If you are hard on me, you are helping me bear my burden so that I can improve my life. Your role is to keep the burden bearable; mine is to use it for growth (resistance training, articles 15 and 31).
Together with that toughness, Americans are especially good at caring for people’s feelings. While we Americans are mindful of shortcomings in ourselves and others, we constructively approach issues with kindness. Typically, our American objective is not to prevail but to help. We improve each other and the world using positive orientation and encouragement. My parents supported this country faithfully and although they had felt persecution, I never directly suffered any disadvantage for being German American.
I frequently praise the honesty and stability I found in Switzerland, a country with four official languages and many local dialects. Successful pluralism has emerged over more than six centuries of sharing a crowded space. There were some battles. When George Washington’s army attacked on Christmas morning, they were copying a battle strategy that had been used between two Swiss cities. However, over time there emerged a strong confederation intent on peaceful coexistence. America is far short of six hundred years, but it is blessed with the cultural diversity that will teach us what we need to learn. Despite internal battles, we are learning adaptability. We have the potential of peace.
Caring for each other’s feelings brings happiness. It requires us to examine ourselves to come to right perspective. We can learn this perspective from a superlative demonstration that appeared decades ago in the Dennis the Menace comic strip. Dennis is being reprimanded for bad table manners. His frustrated parents ask, "what would you say if we behaved like that?" His response is classic: "Nothing, 'cause I'm polite!"
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1975-102-14A / Hamann / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5419006