A Note on “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” and Modern Germany’s Disavowal of Nazism

Column No. 231

Two weeks ago my dear friend Dr. Don Ardell, otherwise known as “The Well Infidel,” published on these pages an essay on the German song “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” and the role that it played for the German intra-war anti-Nazi resistance movement known as The White Rose Society. 

Don’s essay celebrates the song, the White Rose Society, and its young leadership, among whom were Sophie Scholl and her brothers, the “Geschwistern Scholl.” I sent a comment to Don on his essay, which originally appeared in his weekly “Ardell Wellness Report.” I am sharing a significantly expanded version of that comment with you here. In discussing the historical significance of The White Rose Society, I noted that unlike many other countries that were combatants or otherwise participants in World War II, Modern Germany has both recognized its responsibilities for the indescribable horrors that the Nazis turned loose upon the world and completely turned its back on the political ideology that created them.  I have had several personal experiences that attest to this reality. 

First, I was privileged to attend the 1999 Frankfurt Buch Messe (book fair) as a guest of my academic publisher, Ursula Springer. She is a German who emigrated to the United States after World War II. Here she met and married Bernhard Springer, one of the sons of the Jewish owner of the large German Publishing Company, Springer Verlag. When the Nazis stole the company in 1938, Bernhard managed to make his escape to the Untied States. After the war he remained here and eventually established the Springer Publishing Co. Upon his death in 1971, Ursula inherited the company. I was lucky enough to become one of her author/editors, first for a book entitled “Health Care Delivery in the United States.” Published in 1977 it was the first textbook of its kind. Ursula had taken a flier on me and the equally youthful team that I had put together, and the book became a success, both for us and for Springer. The invitation to join her at the Buch Messe was a result of that success. 

I had several experiences at Frankfurt which were highly instructive about the nature of modern Germany.  That year the Buch Messe celebrated the most important books of the 20th century (that's important, not greatest).  For 1926 it was Hitler's Mein Kampf.  On the cover of the original was the Nazi version of the swastika (that is the Hackenkreutz, the Crooked Cross, the reverse of the original symbol that goes back millennia appearing in art as diverse as that of Native Americans and Hindus).  While the book could be displayed at the Buch Messe, its original cover could not be.  Germany has a law that forbids the display of Nazi symbols. 

At the event by simultaneous translation I heard a speech by the then Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer of the Green Party.  Each year at the Fair there is a designated “guest country.” It is given its own pavilion with all kinds of special displays and presentation. That year the Guest Country was Poland. The first third of Herr Fischer’s speech was devoted to welcoming Poland as the "Guest Country" and celebrating the century’s long cultural connections between the two countries, going back to the Middle Ages.  The middle third took a different, and for me (and for many other listeners from outside Germany too I am sure) a totally unexpected turn. It was devoted to an impassioned apology for the Nazi invasion of Poland and the subsequent WW II. In the speech Minister Fischer stated that modern Germany, while recognizing the responsibility of the German nation as a whole for the Nazi period, regards it, as well as Nazism, as a totally unacceptable anomaly of German history. 


I should note that I may have mis-heard or now mis-remember the use of the word “anomaly” by Minister Fischer. The fact is that in terms of German history, Nazism did not, like Athena, spring full-grown from the brow of Zeus (or in the German case, Wotan). With a credit to my good friend Michael Faulkner a political scientist/historian of modern Europe with a specialty in Germany from 1919, who writes the “Letter from the UK” for TPJmagazine, it should be noted that: 1. The seeds of Nazism go back into the 19th century. First planting their poisonous roots in the early 19th century, the elements of aggressive chauvinism, racism and anti-Semitism were very evident by the late 1800s. 2. Nazism represented the most extreme and aggressive aspect of modern German imperialism that can be dated from the 1870s. 3. Nazism can only be properly understood against the background of the defeat of German imperialism's first bid to become a major world power (in World War I) and a subsequent failed socialist revolution (1918-19) that terrified the capitalist ruling class in Germany. With the subsequent failure to provide a stable bourgeois democratic government under the Weimar Constitution, Nazism essentially was the German form of a triumph of monopoly capitalism over what was a totally divided working class movement. This was done both to secure their profits and to enable a second attempt at becoming a major imperialist power (in World War II).

Returning to Minister Fischer’s speech, the latter third was devoted to an apology for the Holocaust, as impassioned as his apology for World War II.  Oh my. The speech just blew me away. Could one, I thought, just imagine a US Secretary of State making a similar speech about, say, slavery, or the atomic bombing of Japan, or the killing of 2,000,000 Vietnamese, to say nothing of the firebombing of Hamburg in July, 1943 that killed up to 100,000 civilians (more than were killed at Hiroshima), or the Dresden Raid of January, 1945, or etc.? No, I could not.

As for the second instructive experience concerning how modern Germany regards its past, in 2007 (following the 2007 International Triathlon Union Age-Group World Championships held in a totally rebuilt Hamburg as it happened) I had the chance to visit Berlin.  All over the city there are World War II memorials --- to both pre-war and intra-war resisters to Nazism.  One of the most impressive of those is right outside of the old Reichstag building. That is the one whose fire in February, 1993, just after Hitler’s ascension to be German Chancellor (Prime Minister), almost certainly set by Goering and his henchmen, gave Hitler the justification for establishing his dictatorship.  (9/11, intentionally set or not, anyone?)  There is not one memorial anywhere to the Wehrmacht and etc.  (Not that I was everywhere in Berlin, but I was with Mike Faulkner. He knows Berlin inside out. He fully supported that statement.) Compare that to the situation in the US South, where there are memorials to Confederate (that is traitors to the Constitution) "heroes" all over the place, especially on battlefield memorials celebrating Confederate States of America forces’ victories over the forces of Constitutionalism, otherwise known as the Union Army.

Then there is the massive Holocaust memorial in the center of the city.  A field of square columns, it appears from street, where you first see it, as a simple field of those squares. But then you can descend into the field, onto a floor of widely varying heights and all of a sudden you are in a maze. Without the signage pointing to the exits, one could easily get lost in it. A marvelous visual rendering of the Holocaust itself which, after all, was begun publicly as the innocuous sounding “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and quickly became a maze of death. The memorial takes up several square blocks. It can never become inapparent. Then there is the Jewish Museum, also a massive, and most elegant, structure, celebrating German Jewish history going back to the Middle Ages.  It also covers the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly. There, among many other things of interest, I found an exhibit on the first female Rabbi ever.  Her name was Rachel Jonas.  She came from Breslau (Wroclaw in Polish), the same city that my great grandfather came from.  She was thus very possibly a relative.  She was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1942.  And I found out about this in Berlin.

Finally for this note, I would like to note how the Germans now refer to what outside of the country is called “Kristallnacht,” loosely translated into English as “The Night of the broken glass.” As the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says in part:

“On November 9–10, 1938, the Nazis staged vicious pogroms—state sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots—against the Jewish community of Germany. . . . Encouraged by the Nazi regime, the rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized or looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, and killed at least 91 Jewish people. They also damaged many Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes as police and fire brigades stood aside.”

Indeed, since the Gestapo, the SS, and the SA (the Sturmabteilung, the Nazis’ private militia) took an active part in the events, one can say that the events were more than “encouraged” by the regime. Indeed too, “Kristallnacht” is the name that the Nazis gave to the events. However, in Germany now they are referred to as “the government pogrom of Nov., 1938,” placing the responsibility for the horror fully where it belongs.

I just wonder if in our country, if it succumbs to the very real threat of fascism that seems to be becoming more real every day (see my 1996 book published under the pseudonym "Jonathan Westminster," The 15% Solution: A Political History of American Fascism, 2001-2022) and then somehow recovers, will be able to come to terms with it as modern Germany has been able to come to terms with, and turn its back on, the most dreadful black mark on its history.  I also wonder just how many Geschwistern Scholl there will be, fighting back against Cheney and his Savagely Beckoning Le-vinitating O'RHannibaugh Republican Scream Machine, their competing political leadership from Palin on down (or up depending upon your perspective), and their hating, hateful acolytes, as they pull us down into a fascist pit that armed with nuclear weapons might even outdo that of the Nazis in the horrors it perpetrates upon mankind and the world. If the American fascist repression is not as successful as it was in Germany, if there are many more resisters than there were in Germany, and if Constitutional Democracy eventually returns to our beloved land without it having been totally destroyed, in one way or another, by the US fascists, still will that future truly United States be able to do what modern Germany has done in terms of turning its back on its past. I wonder.