Dragoon Ride 2: Mama don’t want no saber rattling ‘round Eastern Europe
It’s easy to forget about the Cold War today — its legacy.
By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense bureau chief for Warsaw Pact affairs
It’s easy to forget about the Cold War today — its legacy. It’s easy to take things like “Germany” and “Poland” for granted, and treat events as though they occur without context. The 2nd Cavalry Regiment (formerly the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, as I learned recently) is moving from Germany to Estonia, through all the NATO countries in between, and most recently, stopped over for a night in Oberlausitz, near the Polish border. In East Germany, in other words.
The first thing about East Germany is that you can’t talk about Germany without it. When you read an article about a place, or a social movement, and the article discusses “Germany,” a minor deception takes place (a deception to which I am frequently a party). To write of a united German nation is to think in terms of board games like Risk — to assume that an area on the map implies something absolute about the people who live there. There many things that are common about the territorial area — people tend to speak the same language (in this case, German). People tend to share values (but don’t always).
Although one cannot make absolute statements about East Germany any more than one can do so about Germany itself, one can make enough observations about the East to justify setting it out as an idea distinct from West Germany. It should be distinct — its experience with totalitarianism lasted four and a half decades longer than did the West’s, and under vastly different circumstances. And over those decades, some vital component of what it once meant to be human in Germany seems to have been deeply affected by occupation under the Soviet Union. The brief exposure to totalitarianism under Hitler repressed many Germans’ idea of themselves as individuals, as humans worthy of dignity and respect — while West Germans were quickly granted an opportunity to confront and redeem their participation in the Third Reich, in East Germany, they had a different experience under Stalin and the other tin-pot tyrants that followed him.
This is why East Germany is such fertile ground for hatred today. Why one will see ultra-nationalist movements that preach variously (1) white supremacy (2) hatred for immigrants (3) hatred for Muslims (4) hatred for the EU (5) hatred for NATO (6) admiration for Putin, and, of course (7) nostalgia for a time when the Soviet Union was ascendant.
I try to put myself in their shoes, in the same way that I try to understand what it must have been like to stand in line at a death camp. Understanding pain and suffering is what allows us to grow as humans, or growth isn’t worth the effort — perhaps, impossible. Imagine, being raised a German in the Third Reich — a young man or woman who grew up knowing that the Fuhrer was correct. Enjoying brief political and then military success, having that knowledge confirmed — then seeing one’s lands and ideals ruined, robbed, and raped at gunpoint. Learning that, rather than being the master race, Germans were the hated race, the reviled race, slaves to everyone.
In West Germany, this became the baseline for a new understanding of German-ness — an older understanding, wherein to be German was to aspire to philosophical, scientific, musical, or artistic greatness because those were fields worth pursuing. A defeated West Germany was held to account for the crimes and complacency of its population, then, learned over time to hold themselves to account. In failure and defeat, the West Germans ended up becoming what they’d sought through violence and oppression. As an apologizing people, and a vulnerable, thoughtful, and guilty one, they have achieved greatness. Their human successes since that time confirm this understanding of West Germany — their acceptance of Syrian refugees, their resistance to surveillance and reluctance to engage in foolhardy military adventures, their eagerness to take blame for any catastrophe that occurs in Germany before someone else can criticize them for being wrong. In general, Germans in West Germany have become far better global citizens than most Americans, or than their fellow Europeans. That is spreading, slowly, to the East, but had a lot more ground to cover. The wall came down in 1989, and Germany reunified in 1990 — 26 years ago. There are still more people who remember life under the Soviet Union than not, and many crumbling buildings provide testimony to that era.
Thursday, June 2nd, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and local officials from the German town of Zittau met representatives from Poland and the Czech Republic to hold a ceremony at the meeting point of those three countries, a gracefully understated memorial to the hostility that once defined the ground. Down by a bike path, a small, easily-forded river barely separated the countries. Flags from three countries surrounded an EU flag, while a solitary wooden cross stood on German soil. At a brief ceremony, no patriotic music played, no nationalistic speeches echoed over the field. The sun was shining, and birds sang among the trees. Flies and bees buzzed lazily about as a light breeze blew down from the hills. A small contingent of Czech, Polish, and U.S. soldiers marched down from the memorial, bringing an end to the ceremony, and paying homage to the potential of NATO — militaries better off working in cooperation, than fracturing and descending into pointless conflict.
Photo credit: Adrian Bonenberger
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