In Belonging, Nora Krug asks herself, and her relatives, that very question and braces herself for the answer.
Can you be really, really ashamed of your motherland and still love it?
I first saw this book at a wonderful Independent bookstore near my home. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, at least in part because for a work of graphic literature (it isn’t a novel), it looked quite long. Many pages are filled with writing (literally the author/artist’s handwriting), so it looked pretty dense. And you know, I’ve read about the Nazi’s. Over and over. But what stuck in my brain is how little I’ve actually read about the Germans. I had taken some photos of some other books in the store I wanted to read, and funnily, I was pretty sure that the name of this one, the spine of the book, was in one of my photos. It’s as though I didn’t want to admit I was going to read this book.
Ya’ll, I have been guilty of German bias. I’ve always kind of been against owning a Volkswagen because the company was founded by the Nazi’s. I’ve never really had a similar problem with Japan: I lived there. And my dad was stationed there during WW2. I have certainly read a lot of books about the Holocaust, and seen the movies, but I know perfectly well that the Japanese were no angels either. Perhaps the only difference is the deliberate mass extermination of people, but the Japanese certainly mistreated a lot of people and were willing for them to die. I’ve read some books about Japan too.
I’m American, and while deep down I believe that Americans do care about other people (sometimes it’s way deep down I know), I also know that we have committed our share of atrocities as well. I have visited Hiroshima. Whether or not you agree with the American reasons for bombing it, the devastation there is beyond words. You can still see it under shiny modern Hiroshima.
I know from my time teaching in international school, because I had several German students over the years, that they are all too aware of their history. When I was teaching Anne Frank with both Germans and Israelis in the class, I soon found that the easiest way to manage it was just to let them do the talking. The German students certainly knew as much or more than I did anyway. And I have a really close adult friend who has lived in Germany, and I never forgot it when she told me that she thinks that the Germans have beaten themselves up about World War 2 long enough.
You know, that is a part of the story I had never heard before. The only reason I had an inkling at all is because of my German students.
Last spring, I was out with a friend in the Middle East, with a German friend of mine, and I heard what I believe is the nastiest, most shocking thing I have ever heard from a stranger’s mouth. After more than a decade of living abroad, and most of the time being treated very nicely by everyone I met (and this knowing that Americans are not always the most popular people), I saw first hand how Germans get treated. We were in a liquor store and were waiting for the store to get my friend’s beer (naturally) order from the warehouse. To pass the time, the clerk asked my friend and I where we were from. “I’m American,” I said with my customary pride. “I’m German,” my friend said. Now what I heard next was so shocking that I didn’t react…I was certain I had heard wrong, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
The next thing that came out of this guy’s mouth was a word of congratulations. To my German friend. Why? Because he was a Jew killer. If you heard someone say that, wouldn’t you think you were confused?
Once we were in the car, I confirmed the response with my friend, and he said, yeah, that’s what he said, and yeah, that happens. That’s why he doesn’t like to tell strangers he’s German in certain places.
There is a lot of bad blood between Arabs (Christian and Muslim although somehow the talk is mostly about Muslims…note in a liquor store the clerk was almost certainly Christian) and Jews in the Middle East because of the problems in Israel and Palestine, but officially, Jews (which is different from Israelis), Muslims, and Christians are supposed to recognize each other’s faiths. Just saying. But I was horrified to hear that anyone would say they were glad anyone was killed.
So between what my friend told me and this experience, I was curious to read Ms. Krug’s point of view.
Using beautiful photography juxtaposed with simplistic drawings, Krug outlines the complicated, meandering story of both sides of her family as she tries to unpack exactly what role each of her relatives had in the war. Now of course, and the end of the day, the actions of Krug’s grandparents, who were adults during the war, don’t really have anything to do with Krug. But apparently, and I learned this from this book, Germans do feel that they are responsible for the behaviors of their ancestors. So she wants to know.
In the middle of all of this, however, Krug interweaves what she loves and misses about Germany (she now lives in the US). Although I’ve only been to Germany for a short visit many years ago, I am familiar with some of the products she mentions (I gave up Tide for Persil several years ago; it’s better). But also as someone who live many years outside of my home, I know how she feels; there were several bizarre products that I regularly lugged back from the US the whole time I was overseas.
And I can’t imagine feeling ashamed of my country. Have I been asked to answer for many things, as an American, that I had nothing to do with? Of course. Am I sick of the assumptions that are made because too many people overseas learn English by watching American television and movies? And they think we are really like that? Yup. Believe me ya’ll, everyone in the world knows our American business and everyone talks about it. Sometimes it gets old.
It’s easy for us to pass judgment on the Germans or any other country for their behavior, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we are going to act until we are in a situation. When I think about Nazi Germany, I wonder when each person came to the realization that it is actually worse than they thought (not better), and that yeah, this guy was going to get elected, and re-elected, and….
We all are mostly worried about taking care of ourselves and our families, and yeah, some of us, many of us, are just plain scared. Many of us have jobs in which people rely on us in other ways; for example, if you are a teacher, your first instinct is to always be there for the kids because that’s the core mission of your job. So what would I do if I were told I had to sign something, or join something, I didn’t believe in to keep my job? We say we wouldn’t, but we know that isn’t always true.
Yes, I get it: in the face of other atrocities that that happened, what happened to the subsequent generations of Germans may not seem that important. But I do think that it’s important to try to understand the actions of others and put them into perspective. Seriously, I often think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I also was interested to read about many aspects of what happened to the Germans after the war that I didn’t know about. For example, I never knew that they took the bodies of the deceased from the camps through the German villages in open wagons. I’m not even sure how I feel about that since it seems dehumanizing to the deceased, and is a reason I don’t really like the photographs I see of that anywhere, but it is important for people to KNOW and SEE what happened, no question there.
When I finished reading Belonging, I immediately texted my friends in Germany and told them to read this book. I hear that it is hard to get from the library (constantly checked out) and is a bestseller. I’m glad.
Sunrise in Karlsruhe, Germany, where Nora Krug’s family lived.
Check out this free excerpt of Belonging from LitHub here.
Reading Guide for texts in this article:
Quick Reads/Free Reads:
the news article about The Wave from Palo Alto High School, 1967; “The Wave Home”
Belonging, The Wave
Sustained Read: Forty Autumns
If you have never read this classic Young Adult novel by Todd Strasser, you should. It is based on actual events that occurred at a high school in Palo Alto, California, in the 1960’s, when a class asked their teacher why anyone would join the Nazi’s.
Ron Jones, the teacher in the experiment, published a short story based on the events in 1976 called “The Third Wave” (click to read the story), or you can read the novelization based on the 1981 TV film (below).
Here is a school newspaper article about the event, and a link to the documentary that was made in 2010 is below.
This American television version was made in the early 80’s (and was the basis for the novel above)
This German version was made in 2005…just one example of how seriously the Germans take understanding their history.
Books about East Germany
I read Forty Autumns about a year ago. It is also the story of a German family but with more of an emphasis on life behind the Iron Curtain (i.e. being Communist). The theme of a family divided is strong in this book as part of the family was able to leave East Germany, but many did not. Now that we can visit the former Warsaw Pact countries, we can see first hand how the end of WW2 did not bring freedom to many parts of Europe.
Stasiland is another fascinating book about East Germany. Although East Germany was far from the only country affected by the outcome of World War 2, it was the only one in which half of a nation* lived in a Democratic country while the other half were living in a Communist/Authoritarian state.
*The way I am using “nation” and “state”, the “nation” is a group of people who share a culture and usually, a language. The “state” is the political entity.