German Immigrants and the Nazi Past: How Memory Has Shaped Intercultural Relations

Article excerpt

SEPTEMBER 2000, CHUCK CADMAN, A MEMBER OF THE CANADIAN Alliance, spoke in Parliament in favour of Bill C-334, which would permit relatives of deceased veterans to wear their war decorations. To support his case he made public the following memory of his father, a Canadian soldier liberating the Netherlands in 1945, and his mother, a Dutch immigrant:

   Neither of my parents spoke much about the
   war. They did not have to. My mother's traumatic
   experience of years under the Nazi
   occupation was evident in her reaction whenever
   she heard someone speak with a German
   accent.

   I remember once as a teenager bringing a
   schoolmate home. He was the son of recent
   German immigrants. He was tall and lean
   with sharp square features, blond hair and
   spoke with a heavy accent. My mother was
   very gracious to him but after he had gone
   she asked me not to bring him around any
   more if she was at home. She had no problem
   and no objection to me associating with him
   but to be in the same room with him was just
   too much for her. (1)

Some Canadian and American readers will recall similar sentiments, especially if they had had the kind of experience that Cadman's mother did. Others will also recall such intercultural encounters, but from another perspective: that of Cadman's "Aryan"-looking and German-speaking friend. Karin Lippert, who came to Long Island, New York, in 1953 as a nine-year-old, speaks from that perspective. I interviewed her in New York in 2000:

   I made a friend who was Jewish and her parents
   then became involved and said that we
   were not allowed to be friends and furthermore
   ... that I was a Nazi. So there was a lot
   of tremendous hatemongering at a particular
   point when I was in seventh grade against
   me, because of this one person whose family
   was very anti-German; who then got a group
   of black kids to believe that not only was I
   anti-Semitic but that I was anti-black, because
   I was a Nazi. So that I then was threatened
   in school and I had to be brought home
   by the police for several weeks--until the
   principal of this school brought everybody, all
   the kids, into a room and talked it through.
   He was really somebody who was ahead of
   the time, as a mediator, frankly. Because it
   was a very ugly situation: I was thrown up
   against my locker, I was threatened with a
   knife. My books were badly damaged. I was
   threatened quite a lot at school. In gym class
   I was afraid to go into the showers. It started
   this whole period of fear of being in the gym
   class. I was particularly vulnerable there'.

Cadmans and Lippert's stories are not simply opposing sides of a bigger story, but rather two points on a broad continuum of experiences in societies created by immigrants. Indeed, many German immigrants (non-Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria), and people they came in contact with in Canada and the United States, were able and willing to understand reality in ways that were much more complex than a simple victim-perpetrator dichotomy. Lippert said that from the very beginning she and her family were aware that as Germans they were privileged over most other ethnic and racial groups: "You got a real sense of the racial discrimination here, coming from the outside, because we expected to be discriminated against. You see, because we come from Germany, we just lost the war, and it was a very short time." Moreover, Lippert explained in detail the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the neighbourhood and the various social problems plaguing her junior high school, which constituted the context for the attacks on her. As an adult she became active in the civil rights and women's movements and wrote for Ms. magazine.

The Germans-as-World-War-II-victims narrative has been the most popular private genre in postwar Germany, and it is not my intention to introduce it into the North American context in the form of the immigrant-as-victim narrative. …