Germany: Saluting the nameless non-Jewish wives who successfully & publicly resisted the Third Reich Print E-mail

… what’s tragic are not these heroes, but the fact that there were not more. Others were deterred less by the Nazi terror than by a much older message: heroic action is futile, and mostly ends in death, besides.”

 Sunday February 3 2008

To Resist Hitler and Survive

Andrea Dezsö

WALKING to work on Tuesday I was startled to see three large wreaths of flowers tossed on the rainy sidewalk like the dead Christmas trees the garbage trucks just reclaimed. Recalling that the building on that sidewalk housed the tiny office of Potsdam’s Jewish community, and that this week was the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power, I turned to look closer. The carnations and zinnias were mismatched and garish, the cheapest arrangements on the market in a budget-cutting age.

That said, Germany has spent millions of dollars commemorating the Holocaust with monuments, museums and educational initiatives that show no sign of letting up. The effort and expense is impressive and is a model for other countries dealing with their darkest pasts. Indeed, artists and intellectuals at the Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade turn to their German colleagues for advice about coming to terms with the Milosevic era. Historians in Moscow debate whether to take lessons from their once-mortal enemy when examining their country’s Stalinist terror.

What attracts international attention are Germany’s largest initiatives. It was no small signal to set a Holocaust monument that’s larger than a football field next to Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s equivalent of London’s Big Ben. It takes more time to discover the smaller memorials: the wreaths commemorating one of the many annual dates marking the steps to the Holocaust or the small brass plaques a German artist placed in front of apartment buildings listing the name of a Jew who had once lived there, along with the camp to which he or she was deported. There are no plaques outside my apartment, but the architect who renovated the building three years ago chiseled a long quotation from the playwright Heiner Müller reminding ordinary Germans of their responsibility for the Nazi regime and left a large swathe of facade unrenovated to remind tenants daily of the mortar holes left by the war.

The effort to find new ways to remember is prodigious, and it can still produce emotion among people who think they’ve seen it all. The German newsweekly Der Spiegel published a special issue commemorating the 75th anniversary filled with photos that turn your stomach today. But is nausea ­ or grief or guilt ­ what we want to induce to prevent racism and genocide?

To be sure, German foreign policy has learned its lessons, but in domestic matters the situation can be mixed. Last week, the Christian Democratic premier of Hesse, Germany’s central province, played the race card in his re-election campaign, which focused on fears of immigration. Although many voters defected and the premier lost his absolute majority, his party was still the top vote-getter, suggesting that many here have no qualms with anti-foreigner rhetoric. His party’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, did nothing to condemn his tactics and made a waffling statement many viewed as support for the premier.

Germany is not alone in its quest for the right sort of memory, and it has done a better job than most. But the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power should be an occasion to reflect on how historical crimes are remembered. I propose we restrain our attention to the suffering of the victims of those crimes and turn to the courage of those who worked to stop the criminals. This would return us to an older model, where claims to legitimacy are focused on what you’ve done to the world, not what the world did to you. It wouldn’t ignore the victims, but it would return the heroes to center stage.

Which heroes we choose would be crucial. Here too Germany serves as a model from which we all could learn. It has chosen its resistance heroes, and it has chosen them wrong. Every child here knows the names of Hans and Sophie Scholl, college students who were guillotined for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Most German cities have streets or schools named after them. Tom Cruise has added his fame to a new film about Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the oft-sung leader of a group of officers hanged for their failed attempt on Hitler’s life.

The courage of such people should not be forgotten, but the message their stories convey is grim: their deeds cost them their lives, and accomplished nothing. It’s a message that comforts the millions of Germans who didn’t try to oppose the regime.

By contrast, one of the most successful acts of resistance in the Third Reich is not well known. In 1943, when the Nazis were undecided about whether to deport and murder Jewish spouses of non-Jews, they tested the waters by rounding up nearly 2,000 Jewish men whose non-Jewish wives had already withstood considerable government pressure to divorce them. These wives spontaneously gathered in front of the building in the Rosenstrasse where their husbands were being held. For one long week they refused to leave the little square in central Berlin, despite the Gestapo machine guns trained upon them.

It’s often said that nonviolent resistance worked for Gandhi and Martin Luther King because their oppressors were civilized; the governments of Britain and the United States could be bested by the moral courage of their opponents, while totalitarian regimes simply shoot them. This not only underestimates the evils of racism, but also our possibilities of combating them.

For in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse, the police backed down. The men were released. They and their families survived. And in a country that devotes so much time and energy to commemorating the victims, these brave women remain anonymous; all that really marks their story is a small clay-colored memorial in a park that few Berliners know. Seeing it moves many to tears. But what’s tragic are not these heroes, but the fact that there were not more. Others were deterred less by the Nazi terror than by a much older message: heroic action is futile, and mostly ends in death, besides.

After all these years, isn’t it time to send a message to Germany’s children ­ and everyone else’s ­ that will help them to stand up against present evils as well as mourning past ones?
Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum, is the author of the forthcoming “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists.