A Conversation, Not Only About Trees

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

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  1. Nicholas Mason says:

    Great stuff here, Rob. Still hopeful Merkel’s side can regain some momentum and redirect the narrative.

  2. Thank you for your post Rob. I can’t think of these lines from Brecht without thinking of Adrienne Rich’s poem “What Kind of Times are These” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51092) which explicitly alludes to his poem. Rich’s poem suggests that “talking about trees” is a meeting place to talk about the “roots,” as it were. What lies invisibly beneath our feet? If we knew the answer to this question, would we tread so heavily?

    Thank you again for your thought-provoking post.

  3. Kristine Hansen says:

    This is a powerful reflection on the human condition and the humanities, Rob. I too hope Merkel’s audacious experiment succeeds. It will succeed only if the Germans (and the rest of us) can see in the face of the Syrians and all who are “other” the face of ourselves and the image of God. Is it possible that study abroad groups could focus on humanitarian work, not just visiting the sites related to great authors and their texts? Wouldn’t the best way of putting the humanities to public use be to show how they encourage us to love and serve our fellow humans? Thanks for this post. I’m forwarding it to people I know.

  4. Brittany Bruner says:

    Thank you for this very insightful post. There are opportunities being opened up in Jordan for BYU students to participate in humanitarian efforts related to refugees if they are able to come. We could learn a lot about taking care of refugees from the Jordanian people.

  5. frank helmrich says:

    lieber Rob, großartiger Artikel mit vielen interessanten Denkanstößen.Man spürt wie gut du beobachtest und wie gut du Deutschland kennst.Ja der ambivalente Umgang mit Nationalstolz, Vaterland etc ist eine deutsche Eigenheit, die man in der USA und auch in den meisten anderen Ländern schwer versteht. Ich lebe jetzt schon länger in Österreich als in Deutschland und doch fühle ich mich immer noch angesprochen, wenn es um Deutschland geht.
    Da ich im deutschsprachigen Raum gut vernetzt bin,möchte ich nur erwähnen, dass man allgemein deutschen LDS-Mitglieder unrecht tut von rassistischen Elementen zu sprechen ,ohne auch die vielen Bemühungen von Mitgliedern zu erwähnen, die regelmäßig an Bahnhöfen standen und halfen, die in vielen Aktivitäten Spenden sammelten und verteilten, Deutschkurse gaben und noch immer geben, ja sogar Flüchtlinge aufnahmen.Nur um ein ausgewogenes Bild zu zeichnen.Natürlich gibt es Mitglieder, die leider ein offenes Ohr für Rechtspopulisten haben, aber es ist doch eine sehr große Minderheit im Vergleich zur Gesamtbevölkerung, da scheint zum Glück das Gebot der Nächstenliebe doch stark zu wirken. Ich persönlich mache mir schon Sorgen, wie stark der Rechtspopulismus an Anhängern gewinnt und wie mit Ängsten Politik gemacht wird. Das kommt mir sehr bekannt vor und macht mir Sorgen. Als Europäer vermisse ich die Solidarität unter den Mitgliedern der EU. Nur mit dieser kann Europa gelingen. Die Flüchtlingswelle wäre in einem solidarischen Europa leichter zu bewältigen gewesen. Ich persönlich bin aber stolz auf Deutschland und Österreich für die spontane Offenheit , auch wenn jetzt leider aus dem Grund von politischen Kalkül Rückzieher gemacht werden.Ich liebe deinen vorletzten Absatz, ein großes Hurra. Liebe Grüße aus Wien

    1. Rob McFarland says:


      Natürlich hast du recht: die deutschen Mitglieder der Kirche sind eine diverse Gruppe, und es ist unbillig, sie als Gruppe mit Rassismus in Verbindung zu bringen. Die Diskussion in meinem Kurs wurde von zwei Studentinnen angestochen, die in ihrer letzten Gemeinde eine unschöne rassistische Dynamik merkten. Deshalb entschlossen wir uns, den Tag der deutschen Einheit mit positiven Integrationsgeschichten zu feiern. Ich muss wirklich zugeben–es waren daher vielleicht 3-5 Mitglieder, die die Diskussion im Kurs inspirierten, und kein rassistischer HLT-Haufen.

      Noch eines als Geständnis: ich ging mit 19 nach Deutschland auf Mission, und hatte sehr wenig Erfahrung mit der grösseren Welt und mit dem humanistischen Gedankengut der abendländischen Kultur. Ich lernte von deutschen Mitarbeitern und Gemeindemitgliedern über Toleranz, Nächstenliebe und Begeisterung für Neuankömmlinge aus aller Welt. Ich erinnere mich an eine alte Schwester in einer Vorstadt von Hamburg, die eine unbekannte afrikanische “Untersucherin” lieb begrüßte, sofort an die Hand griff, und in die Kapelle führte. Während der ganzen Belehrung dieser Untersucherin war die Schwester dabei, und sie waren noch befreundet, als ich längst wieder überm großen Teich war. Solche humanistische, positive Farbenblindheit und Menschenliebe gibt es überall in den HLT-Gemeinden, kein vorsichtiger und ehrlicher Betrachter könnte anders behaupten.

      Bei euch gibt es leider auch Ausnahmen, genauso wie in den USA in den Gemeinden, sogar hier in Provo, “in the bosom of Zion.” Auch in der HLT-Community gibt es diese Ausnahmen, die unerwartet mit negativen Äußerungen überraschen. Diese Ausnahmen habe ich in dem Post angesprochen. Ich hätte es anders ausdrücken sollen, damit es nicht scheint, als ob diese Ausnahmen die Regel bestätigen.

      Am wichtigsten: mit Bewunderung und Demut betrachte ich die vielen HLT-Mitglieder in Deutschland, die Tagein/Tagaus die Flüchtlinge betreuen, bewirten, stärken, verteidigen und befreunden. Ich denke an Schwester Barbara Boll und andere von diesem Menschenschlag, die die Berufung sofort akzeptierten, bevor ich und andere überhaupt erkannt haben, dass es ein Problem gibt. Leicht ist es, in Utah von Idealismus und Pflicht zu reden, und schwer ist es, in Stuttgart, Flensburg oder Moabit die Hände des Herrn zu sein. Alle Achtung. Ich werde den Satz sofort streichen, nicht weil Rassismus unter den HLT kein Problem ist. Ich streiche den Satz, um die wichtigste Story nicht zu untergraben: die Geschichte der Selbstlosigkeit und Mut vieler Deutschen, die eine Integration einführen, die wir Amis von weither nur grob ahnen können.

      viele liebe Grüße


  6. Franziska Schulze Patterson says:

    I had a mixed reaction to this post.

    The issues are important and the observations not off. But as a German I’m really bothered by the concern for Germany’s current racism considering how extremely xenophobic and racist conditions are in the US.

    I am deeply concerned for the rising right wing voices in Germany, but also deeply optimistic because despite the huge pressure we haven’t buckled yet. That, in itself, is amazing and points towards a better nation than it was.

    In the mean time, I have heard more xenophobic platitudes in Church here in the US than I have ever heard in Germany.

    So, this post feels too much like an anthropological observation of “the Germans” to me, which simply feels off…

    1. Rob McFarland says:

      You are right: It is easy to sit in Utah and call for idealism, it is another thing altogether to stand all night handing out food in the Munich Hauptbahnhof and to sacrifice time and effort over months and years as a volunteer in a refugee home or in a language classroom. I would like to think that my family and my ward here in Provo would rise to the occasion like so many Germans and German Mormons have done. I know that many Americans, and LDS members, set up an artificial dichotomy between security and integration. I hope that you and I and others have many chances to teach people about the positive stories that come out of the great German integration project.

      Please also see my reply to Frank Helmrich’s comment above, so that some of my apology to him can be passed on to you, as well.



  7. Eric Ringger says:

    Rob, great to hear what’s on you mind and in your heart. Thanks for the provocation and encouragement. LG aus Seattle.

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