(Article by guest author Benjamin Duffy)
If there’s one thing that David’s Medienkritik does well, it’s pointing out some of the inconsistencies of German criticisms of the United States. Ray did an excellent job of exposing the Orwellian credit card snooping of the German government and then compared it to the American S.W.I.F.T. banking “scandal”. When the US government was “caught” watching a few thousand international banking transactions in an attempt to foil terrorist attacks, the German media was up in arms. When anti-child pornography units in Germany looked through a full 22 million credit cards in order to identify 322 suspects, it was hailed as a victory against child pornographers.
I suppose it’s the natural tendency of human beings to want to scream “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black!” whenever confronted with criticism from abroad. In a cross-cultural dialog, this tendency works both ways. How dare you criticize us, when you have done the same or even worse? How dare you criticize our society when yours is even more rotten?
I’m not sure that this tactic is wrong to use in every circumstance. When I hear from Germans that the United States is a racist nation in which minorities are not allowed to rise to the highest positions, I ask them why nearly every German CEO, Abgeordneter, cabinet member, and university scholar seems to have white skin and a nice German name like Merkel, Mueller, or Schroeder.
In the United States, on the other hand, we have minority Senators (Barack Obama, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Daniel Inouye, and Daniel Akaka), numerous minority Representatives, as well as Presidential cabinet members Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State, former National Security Advisor) and Elaine Chao (Secretary of Labor). General Eric Shinseki, an Asian American, became the Army Chief of Staff, while a Jamaican-American named Colin Powell, born poor in New York City, rose to the level of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court. And the United States is a racist nation? Heck, a recent article in Die Welt even used the word “Apartheid” to describe race relations in America. Look in the mirror, Germany!
What irritates me the most about the constant harping of the German media is that they seem less concerned with what is wrong in their own backyard than with what is wrong with the United States. School shooting in Colorado? Big news. School shooting in Erfurt, Germany? Not really that important. Race riots in Los Angeles? Extremely newsworthy. Race riots in France? Not so much. It seems to spring from malice towards the United States, as if every news item is supposed to be a stick in our eye. It’s almost if they know who their enemy is (the US), and then intend to follow their enemy around and make sure that every slip-up (real or imagined) is shown to the world in the worst light possible. Then they wonder why we think that they’re anti-American.
Still, sometimes you wonder if “two wrongs don’t make a right”. I remember the time that Ray came to speak at the University of Massachusetts on the topic of German media bias against the United States. I remember personally inviting a German lady I knew. Let’s just say that her political beliefs were fairly orthodox for a German. When I handed her the flyer for the event she seemed shocked—shocked!—that anyone would think that her nation’s media system was biased against the United States. With a frown on her face, she uttered the words that I would hear quite a bit in the following weeks—“I don’t think that the German media is biased. I think Fox News is biased.”
Honestly, I had no idea how to respond to that comment. Is Fox News biased? Well, they do have quite the stable of conservative opinion commentators. But opinion commentators are hired to do exactly what their name would suggest—to give their opinions. Real media bias occurs when the media feeds you slanted information and tells you that it’s one hundred percent objective and dispassionate. In any case, whatever media bias Fox News has, it can absolutely never compare to the outrageous media bias of the German media, which makes almost no attempt to hide the fact that it sees nothing meritorious about the United States. Despite its lack of journalistic even-handedness, Germans seem to lap it up as if it were the unvarnished truth.
Finally the day of Ray’s presentation came. When the question and answer session came, the forum suddenly moved away from the subject of German media bias toward (you guessed it!) the media bias of Fox News. Ray had clearly wounded the pride of the largely German audience, and their response was to prove that the American media were no better.
As I’ve mentioned before, whatever pro-American bias the Fox News Channel may have, it does not even begin to compare to the anti-American bias of nearly the entire German news media. But does it even matter? Does the existence of a media bias at Fox News negate a media bias at Der Spiegel, Stern, Die Welt, FAZ, and SDZ? If Fox News is biased, does that mean that the others are not? Suddenly I realized that the real reason this tactic was being deployed was because they honestly couldn’t defend their own media system. The anti-American bias on the German side is so blatant that it’s rather difficult to deny. Lacking a defense, they decided to go on the attack against Fox News. They shifted the topic of debate and suddenly put Ray on the defensive. While the title of the lecture may have been “anti-American bias in the German media”, we somehow managed to spend almost as much time talking about Fox News, with a heated sidebar about how evil the Vietnam War was.
Over time, I began to realize that this is the very same tactic that Germans use to help themselves deal with their historical legacy. It could be considered a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). Or perhaps it isn’t that at all, but rather a way of avoiding coming to terms with the past. Let me explain.
I believe that the vast majority of Germans honestly believe that what their country did during the National Socialist period was wrong. I also don’t intend to beat them over the head with it, or ask them to be “grateful” to the United States because we saved them from themselves. I don’t think that Germany should have supported the war in Iraq because we won World War II or because we defended Germany during the Cold War. I think that Germany should have supported the Iraq War because they are our allies (or claim to be) and because it was the right thing to do. They obviously didn’t agree.
Still, a certain type of guilt hangs over Germany. They know about the death camps, the blitzkrieg, the occupation, the rape, the theft, and the medical experiments. It’s something they cannot defend because it’s indefensible. So rather than defending it, they try to prove that others have done the same or even worse. It’s the same defense—“We’re not biased, Fox News is biased.”
To be truthful, Germany’s crimes against humanity were not entirely unique. Anti-Semitism, racism, mass murder, genocide, and wars of conquest existed before Hitler was born and have existed since he took his own life in 1945. Belgium’s King Leopold II’s forays into the African Congo killed millions of Africans (perhaps as many as 15 million, though estimates vary greatly). Certainly the treatment of American Indians at the hands of white settlers was shameful, and whites made a concerted effort to erase their cultures. Turks murdered millions of Armenians in 1915, in what has been called the Armenian Genocide. History is full of evil leaders carrying out their nightmarish plans at the expense of others—Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, Vlad the Impaler. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether these incidents compare to the crimes of the Nazis in terms of scale, intent and brutality, but the Germans are certainly not the only people with black marks on their history.
Nonetheless, there exists a compulsion on the part of Germans to find parallels to the Holocaust in American history. If they could only prove that die Amis were just as bad, it would have a therapeutic effect on the German national soul. In a way, finding an American sin as great as their own might even negate the Holocaust.
Bruce Bawer writes on this subject in his book, While Europe Slept. He describes sitting at a café in Tübingen, Germany in 1982, having a chat with German friends Günter, Magda, and Eva.
“Günter acknowledged that, yes, there’d been a time when Germany terrorized the world. The Nazi era was horrible: no doubt about it! But that had been long ago. The past was the past. Now Germany was a country to be proud of. Today, it was America that was the planet’s number one force for evil. Eva Readily agreed. While Magda listened quietly, her friends piled on the evidence. I no longer recall the details. I know they brought up Vietnam. And one of them mentioned President Reagan, who, they explained was to our age what Hitler was to theirs.” (pp 86-87)
I remember being a little surprised that Bawer’s experiences in Germany had mirrored my own so exactly. I had heard that particular argument over and over again, more times than I could count, while drinking beer at German Kneipen. It was almost as if every German had been issued the same script, and they all recited it aloud whenever they met an American. I was not surprised to know that Bawer had heard the same script, but rather to know just how old that script was. Since 1982, the only alterations to the script have been that they have substituted the word “Iraq” for “Vietnam”, and President Bush now represents the new Hitler, rather than President Reagan. The comparisons were ludicrous in 1982, and they’re ludicrous now.
The script actually existed even before 1982. When columnist Ralph Peters came to Germany for the first time with the military—much as the same way that I did—he heard much the same script. Peters writes:
“But what about the charge that Americans are the new Nazis? I think I understand the sickness that afflicts you. I received my first insight as a young Army sergeant in a not-yet-reunified Germany a quarter-century ago. Although the event was ten years past, young Germans unfailingly brought up the My Lai massacre in Vietnam during our conversations. My Lai was one of two documented American atrocities in that war. Almost two hundred villagers were murdered. It was inexcusable, and we did not try to excuse it. But those young Germans grasped at the My Lai massacre with an alacrity that astonished me. To them, the two hundred dead at My Lai canceled Auschwitz and Treblinka, six million murdered Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and dissenters. The message was, ‘See! You Americans are just as bad as we Germans were--maybe worse.’”
My Lai is in no way comparable to what the Nazis did. Let’s start with the fact that the killing was put to a halt when the American helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson stopped a reconnaissance mission to restore order at gunpoint. He even ordered his troops to shoot upon their fellow Americans if they did not cease and desist. That didn’t happen in World War II. Massacres were the policy of the Nazi regime.
Furthermore, the guilty platoon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was tried and convicted on 22 counts of premeditated murder and appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine with the headline—“Lieutenant Calley: Who Shares the Guilt?” My Lai was inexcusable, but it was not the Holocaust by any stretch of the imagination.
Ralph Peters also recognizes that the parallels drawn between My Lai and the Holocaust were self-serving and disingenuous, just as parallels between Iraq and the Blitzkrieg. They weren’t about any type of sympathy for the victims. They were about impugning the United States, and once and for all proving that Amis have replaced Germans as the new Nazis. He writes of the demonstrations that preceded the Iraq War:
“Then there were all the demonstrators waving signs equating the United States to the Nazi regime, as tasteless a display as Germany has managed since the last crematorium went cold. Once our tempers cooled, we realized that all these Nazi comparisons weren't really about us. It was all about you, your guilt and your evasions.”
I used to believe that these types of coping mechanisms probably surfaced about the time that Germany finally capitulated and the allies opened up the death camps for all to see. Prior to that moment, Germans had a degree of plausible deniability; they “didn’t know” what their government had been doing, so they weren’t responsible. I was wrong.
There is evidence that the same old spiel—the same coping mechanism—existed during the war, and even before the war. For at least seventy years, the message has always been the same—Don’t point the finger at us, you Americans are worse!
Just type “anti-Americanism” into any search engine, and you will turn up this image:
At first I didn’t notice the “SS” inscription in the lower right. It looks a lot like leftist propaganda from the 21st century, but it’s actually Nazi propoganda from the 20th centuy. It was actually intended to persuade occupied Holland that Americans were not liberators, and should be resisted. All of the familiar anti-American symbolism is there. The head is of a Klansman, and he dangles a noose over one of his many arms. America is a racist nation. One arm carries is gun, and one leg is a blood-soaked bomb. America is a violent, gun-obsessed nation that bombs its critics to smitherines. Another arm holds a bag of money. America is a nation of greed and materialism. On top of one shoulder is an American Indian. America is a nation built by raping and pillaging the native peoples. From the belt-line dangles a Star of David. America is a nation dominated by Jewish (Zionist?) interests. In the background stands Lady Liberty—a sick joke. The American behemoth is stomping all over a picturesque Dutch village. The message is clear—do you want this “liberator” from the crass New World to come to trample your Dutch heritage?
The script even existed before the Second World War. Gordon A. Craig, author of The Germans, has written of his first visit to Germany in 1935. The nation was firmly under the grip of Hitler, but hadn’t yet embarked on the war that would destroy the great nation. Most people in the country were still enthusiastically pro-Hitler, and those who weren’t didn’t say much. Craig writes:
“Now and then, in a restaurant or Kneipe, one might fall into conversation with a sympathetic person who suggested indirectly that he disapproved of the anti-Jewish policy. But even those persons who were apt to slide away into exculpation of one kind or another, commenting irrelevantly that, after all, Hitler had solved the problem of unemployment, or that his foreign policy had restored Germany’s self-esteem, or that he didn’t know about the anti-Jewish excesses, which were the work of his subordinates. It was unwise to argue back, for that was likely to lead to references to lynching in the United States, or to the lack of real civilization on the other side of the Atlantic.” (p. 9)
In the midst of the Second World War, Nazi propagandists were trying to accentuate the sins of America in order to erase the sins of Germany. Whatever Germany might do, America has done worse. Gordan A. Craig encountered the message in Germany as far back as 1935. Ralph Peters encountered this message in Germany in the 1970’s. Bruce Bawer encountered it in the 1980’s, and I encountered it in the post-September 11th era.
In all cases, the person making the argument expects to be taken seriously, as if the argument is fresh, as if he is the first to have ever said such a thing. In reality, it is stale and as stupid today as it was 1935. Lynching in the American South does not erase, alleviate, excuse, justify, or mitigate the Holocaust. Neither does My Lai.
America is not the new Nazi Germany. President Reagan was not the new Hitler, and neither is President Bush. I know that they disagree with the policies of both presidents, but I never understood why they couldn’t just disagree, rather than accuse both of being the new Hitler of their ages. Or perhaps, I understood all too well—they made the accusation because the parallel made them feel better about themselves.
I don’t ask forgiveness from such Germans, because I never asked for their judgement in the first place. Nonetheless, they seem intent to give it to me…ad naseum. Honestly, I respect the Germans for their culture, and for the way that they rose like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat. I’ve dedicated an enormous part of my brain to Germany, in an attempt to understand who they are and why they came to be the way that they are. Unfortunately, they rarely do the same for me.