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On Memorial Day, a Plea to Ignore Demagogues (Guest Column)

Michigan protest
Paul Sancya/AP/Shutterstock

Today is Memorial Day saluting veterans and a few weeks ago we observed the 75th anniversary of the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany. The Americans and the British call it Victory in Europe Day, the Germans call it Tag der Befreiung, Liberation Day, because that’s what it was for them, although it took Germans many years, if not decades, to understand it as such, and to even begin to come to terms psychologically with what their nation had done to the world. In all 6 million Jews were murdered, more than 50 million civilians died in WWII, more than 2 million soldiers were slaughtered, and more than 5 million prisoners of war died. About 420,000 young American men gave their lives in the battlefields of Europe so I could eventually be born in a free country, without having to raise my right arm, or click my heels when some guy with a swastika armband walked by. As a person of German descent, I don’t see a way to be a product of this historic debt, this salvation from evil, and not be an Atlanticist.

There is no German of my generation, at least no West German, who did not grow up with the twisted feeling of deep gratitude for all the bombs that were dropped on my native country during the heroic effort to end the barbarianism of the Third Reich, while at the same time mourning the fact that many of us never knew our grandfathers because they fell in those same battlefields, or our family members who perished in the city bombings, as a result of what our ancestors did to to their European neighbors.

It ended with the complete collapse of Germany. Hitler had promised the Germans a Reich that would last a thousand years. After only 12 years rubble and shame was all that was left of it.

Because of our history, any sense of pride in our country, or patriotism, has always been an odd and somewhat unnatural feeling for most Germans after the end of World War II. I’m very proud what has become of my native country in the 75 years since then, although I have not lived there for a long time now. While Germany today certainly has its share of fools and people who hate, it has become mostly a modern, peace-loving nation of people who appreciate solidarity, kindness, decency, and reason. However, it took a long time for that goodness to return, and to have a chance to grow. It took the full collapse of the nation, and a benevolent victor in America to help bring back civility and decency, instead of just dismantling what was left and turn Germany into farmland.

It’s always worth remembering that for Germany VE Day doesn’t mark the liberation of a people who had been held hostage by a crazy dictator. In fact many, if not the majority of Germans, approved of Hitler until the end, looked the other way, or at least somehow accepted what he did, because they liked what he was selling, promising them to bring Germany back to former glory, whatever that meant. He was extremely popular with a large part of the German population. As a result, a whole generation of children was born into a fascist society and became brainwashed from the moment they could talk, and were brought up through a totalitarian education system, starting with the Hitler Youth. My father was only 2 years old when Hitler came to power. After it was all over he was 14 and didn’t know what to think or believe in anymore. He had no home, he had watched his father being murdered before his eyes when he was 9 during the first days of WWII, and he had been forced to carry a rifle and wear an oversized uniform when he was barely a teenager, until a kind British officer told him to take it off and go home to his mother. So many Germans like my father didn’t know how to relate to anything after Liberation Day. It took a long time for them to feel like anything made sense again.

America, the country that back then so heroically led the liberation of Europe and started the rebuilding of West Germany as a democratic, peace-loving nation, has been my home for many years now. I love this country and its people more than I can express in words. I have felt more at home here than I’ve ever felt at home in Germany. It was incredible to be surrounded by the pragmatic and optimistic energy of people who didn’t care where I came from, didn’t think it was silly to have big dreams, and embraced me with open arms. FDR and Harry Truman liberated my country, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan kept it free during the Cold War, I got my first green card under George Bush, and I witnessed Barack Obama become the first black president shortly after America became my home. My love for this country and its people was never connected to any particular party.

I can’t even begin to express what it does to me now when I see pictures of Americans forcing themselves into their elected government buildings, carrying rifles, Confederate flags and swastikas and screaming hateful messages about “sacrificing the weak” and the Auschwitz slogan ”Arbeit macht frei” when all their own elected officials are doing is trying to keep them safe. I know that these misled people are a minority, but if German history teaches anything, it is that totalitarianism starts and ends with minority rule that’s being encouraged and enflamed by demagoguery. As Yeats wrote, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. If my native country’s history on this day shows anything, it’s that it takes a long time to recover from evil, IF evil is defeated. It’s that evil can consume the hearts and minds of a nation, and destroy the world.

For the first time in a very long time, I don’t know where I belong anymore, but I try to hang on to the hope that the bold, kind, and dynamic America that I grew up loving and admiring, the America that so passionately and courageously led the fight against Nazi Germany and built the Pax Americana, has not been lost for good, and might still return.

Democracy is the highest value that I have known in my lifetime. It’s something Germans have not taken for granted ever since they lost it during the Nazi regime. It is something that hundreds of thousands of young American men lost their lives fighting for, restoring it for my parents, for my generation, and for the rest of the Western world. I wish peace to the world, and good luck and good health to all of us in these trying times.

May our better angels still prevail. Let us all hope and do what we can that the past 75 years of Transatlantic peace and prosperity will not turn out to have been just a glitch in a cruel, dog-eat-dog history of the world. Thank you, America, for what you did for Germany, and for the world. Thank you for liberating us.

Gandulf Hennig is a director and writer, known for the documentaries “Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel” and “Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself.”