Last night I lay awake worrying about a canceled pizza-bake off we had planned for a church Young Men’s activity. As I lay there in bed, my mind wandered to the election, then to Vladimir Putin, and then to the people of Aleppo who are at this moment being disintegrated and incinerated along with the shattered remains of their once beautiful city. How, I thought, could I have ever worried about mozzarella and my healthy, safe priests? I whispered a prayer for those Syrian boys, girls, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, all of them experiencing a horror that I have only encountered in my studies of the Holocaust and the February air raids on Dresden.
In the early days of the Third Reich, the German Marxist author and dramatist Bertolt Brecht penned the following lines in a longer poem:
Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist.
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!
(What kind of times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime,
Because it ignores so many horrific deeds!)
I had a very lofty plan for this blog post, pondering history and aesthetics. But faced with Aleppo, the looming election, and German Reunification Day on October 3, I am afraid that the trees will have to wait, for there are so many Untaten (literally: un-deeds) that cannot be silenced.
Not that speaking and writing about trees is inherently neglectful: in the eponymous Baroque novel, Grimmelshausen’s hero Simplicissimus dreams of German society as a tree, with the fat, sated and cruel aristocracy in the branches weighing down upon the roots of the poor, struggling peasants. Or Annette von Droste Hülshoff’s mid-nineteenth-century masterpiece Die Judenbuche (The Jew-Beech) describes a tree that stands as a monument to a morally bankrupt German town that remains silent about the murder of a Jewish member of the community. These conversations about trees do not leave out any horrific context. The words and branches are laden with insight, criticism and uncomfortable truths.
A few days ago, I chatted with my German Cultural History students about how we should observe the German holiday. We agreed that singing the national anthem was out of the question: even with the first verse purged from polite memory (“Deutschland über alles” replaced by the “Unity, Rights and Freedom” of the third verse), most Germans have a very fraught and critical relationship to their identity as a nation. And now, with a country reeling under the weight of a million Syrian refugees that have crossed their borders in the last year, German identity is again under strain from an increasingly virulent nationalist fringe.
We agreed, as a German cultural history class, that there was a better way to celebrate the German holiday: Instead of singing the German national anthem, we decided to post stories on social media about people have worked hard to successfully integrate refugees into their German communities. We hoped that our posts about Germany’s better angels might steer the refugee story in a positive direction, not only for the LDS members of German wards, but also for our fellow Americans who face daily rants about the danger of Syrian immigrants, those so-called “poisoned Skittles” being passed to us in the ubiquitous candy bowls of social media.
I am not dewy-eyed about the unbelievably fraught and complex process of cultural integration, with its endless micro-aggressions and lapses into violence and cynicism. I dare not make rosy prognoses about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s idealistic, principled but logistically overwhelming decision to accept millions of refugees that no one else would take, and to offer a future to people who wanted to flee Aleppo and other cities. She meant to hold Germany to a moral standard that would separate her country from a past century full of brutality and bigotry, but she may well have fueled a backlash that will take the German people down that same dark, well-trodden road.
But the articles that my students posted tell another story, and it is a story that is important for the Humanities Center. As I have read through the successful integration stories that the students have posted, I have been struck by how many of these success stories have to do with the humanities. In one story from the city of Stuttgart, I read about masses of volunteers who are teaching the German language to wildly heterogeneous classrooms full of little children, teenagers, and older refugees. Their teaching methodology strains at the task, but these teachers power through the challenges and cheer as the students learn to say “Arbeit” and “Freund.” Another article prescribed travel as a way for Germans to develop the kind of empathy needed for the great task of integrating others into their own community. Finally, several of my student’s articles pointed to the transformative power of art as a way to prepare citizens to create a more tolerant, engaging and integrating community.
Language, reading, films, travel, empathy, self-criticism, self-awareness, understanding and applying moral imperatives from art: is this not the homeland of those who study the humanities? Have we not all been integrated into this homeland by caring, brave, patient role models who were citizens in the Humanistic heartland? Van Gessel once wished that every member of the church who had fallen into moral transgression could meet with a bishop who had read Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Travis Anderson has passionately argued that films can function as empathy machines, as places where we can safely and temporarily inhabit the lives of people very different from us, allowing us, to misquote the Book of Mormon Prophet Alma, to suffer with those who suffer, and to mourn with those who mourn. Michelle James extolls the virtue of allowing men to “walk a mile in the heroine’s petticoats,” to understand the constructed nature of race, gender, nationality, religion, and those other seemingly insurmountable walls between communities.
What kinds of times are these, when a conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it ignores so many horrific deeds? Brecht, being Brecht (and being German), does not launch an aphorism like that without including a heaping side-serving of biting irony, and a call to action. Watching Germany’s few-and-far-between better angels as they attempt the huge experiment of integration, I wonder how we can change our conversations. If successful integration of refugees is a not just a humanitarian work, but a humanistic task– a job for language teachers, study abroad directors, and wise and thoughtful readers and viewers—how might our conversations branch out to become morally and politically relevant? I would like to hear from you, and not just about trees.
This post is written by Rob McFarland, Department of German and Russian