Today, when I was flying into Washington, D.C., I could see the Pentagon from above. It is strange how the mere sight of this building made me think of what happened in 2001.
Back then, I didn’t know what the Pentagon was or what it stood for or what it meant that a plane had crashed into the building.
In 2001, I was eleven years old. I don’t remember much about that day, September 11, but I do recall sitting in front of the television and watching German news coverage that showed how these planes crashed into the towers. I don’t remember what I felt or thought about what I saw, but I know that I did not understand the significance of the events until many years later. After all, this was happening in America, not where I was; I was not personally affected by what was going on. There must have been a minute of silence held in my school, and I am sure that – just like everywhere in the world – the attacks were on the news every day for weeks. I just don’t remember any of that.
Early in January this year, I visited the National September 11 Memorial in New York City.
Visiting the memorial was very moving, but it also made me feel strangely alienated. Being reminded of all these lives that were lost, of all these people who had lost loved ones made me incredibly sad. I went there with a friend from Boston who shared his own memory of that day with me, which was touching and also gave me a better understanding of the meaning and impact of what happened. At the same time, even though I now know a lot more about the impact that these attacks had both literally and in a figurative sense, I am still only an observer who is watching from the outside, who feels a little out of place at this site which symbolizes national grief. I can feel with the people who were affected, but I cannot feel what they feel.
It has been said that the Germans are tired of talking about WWII. I understand this tiredness: every other year the topic is part of compulsory history classes in school, all students make a trip to a concentration camp, and there are constant reminders all over the media, be it allusions in newspaper articles or on occasions of commemoration. The constant lessons and reminders of what happened – of what we did – fulfill their purpose for the most part: at least among reasonably educated people racist or extremist sentiments are rare and uttering opinions like that is frowned upon. My generation is tired of being cast as the culprit. After all, we were born half a century after Hitler came to power; our parents were born after this happened; most of our grandparents were little children at that point. Why should the holocaust be our fault? We refuse to take the blame for the atrocities which the mistakes of our misguided ancestors brought forth. We know better, or at least we believe that we do. This cannot happen to us. This will not happen to us.
But isn’t this what we all want to think? This cannot happen to us? This cannot happen to me?
I am sure that that’s what many Germans thought in 1945.
Drawing parallels between World War II and the 9/11 attacks is problematic. But I would like to point to the difficulties of talking about what happened and about the aftermath.
In today’s Germany it is impossible to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. The public has difficulties distinguishing between what is appropriate with regard to collective guilt towards Jews, which still needs to be perpetuated, and potentially justified critique of contemporary politics of the country of Israel. In a very recent case, author and poet Günter Grass published a controversial poem which caused an uproar. In short, he accused Israel of being a danger to world peace and suggested that, if they follow through with their threats of starting a preemptive war against Iran, they could become guilty of wiping out a people based on the unproven assumption that the country is developing a nuclear bomb. Yes, the poem is provocative. Yes, some of the content may be inappropriate. Yes, Grass plays down the aggressions of Iranian leaders. But that is not the point. The point is that journalists, in discussing and slamming Grass’s claims, brought up his past as a teenager in the SS. Germany has yet a long way to go before it can start talking about today’s Israel without having to be overly considerate of its special responsibility for the nation.
Something similar happened in the United States after the 9/11 attacks and the government’s decision to start the war on Iraq, which at that time was presented as the right thing to do. Opposition was discredited: critique of the government’s action concerning intervention in Iraq easily resulted in the critic being accused of being “unpatriotic.” Fortunately, this has changed since lies about the operation have been uncovered.
In both of these cases, a national memory, or nationally prescribed way of thinking, the only socially acceptable way, created limitations on what can be said about what happened.
My friend told me about the feeling of unity and of nation-wide grief and confusion that shaped the days and weeks after the attacks.
The booklet that was given to visitors says that the National September 11 Memorial “commemorates the lives lost, recognizes the thousands who survived, and allows visitors to come together again in the spirit of unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11.” I think it is remarkable that this memorial is meant to evoke not only the memory of the victims but also something as intangible as “the spirit of unity,” which is “only” an emotion. I personally don’t remember feeling the spirit of unity, just like I don’t remember anything else that I felt in 2001. Maybe other people will be reminded of what they felt on that day in 2001; what the memorial does for me is create an idea of what it must have been like, and reading the names of all the people who died evokes compassion and sadness.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is there to “remind the world of up to six million Jewish victims of the holocaust and honor them.” One thing that strikes me about the Field of Steles, the main part, is its anonymity. The Steles are plain, there are no names written on them, and they all look alike except that they differ in height. There is an exhibit underneath the Field of Steles, and one part of this is the Room of Names, whose goal is to present as many biographies of the three million known victims as possible. This task hasn’t been finished yet; research is elaborate. But the most visible part of the memorial is the nameless Field of Steles.
Both of these memorials have been erected with the explicit purpose of commemorating the victims. If the 9/11 Memorial is also there to conjure up the spirit of unity, then what else is the Holocaust Memorial supposed to do? The spirit of unity of the 9/11 Memorial implies something or someone who we are to unite against. Who should we unite against when it comes to the Holocaust? Should Germans unite against Germans?
I am not sure which is easier: coming to term with the past and national memory when you’re the victim or the initiator.