CAT | "The White Ribbon" - Education and Nazism
Fern Schumer Chapman
The moment you raised your arm in self-defense against your mother, you became your own person. In ways, you continue to raise your arm …even by writing this blog.
It is so difficult to emerge from a cruel environment. In some ways, children are prisoners of their childhoods, and — unless they work to change their understanding — when those children become adults, they continue to be prisoners of their childhoods. (I guess that’s what Freud meant by “schiefgeheilt.”)
It can take decades to gain perspective to understand that the place you were raised was terribly damaging. As children, we make the assumption that our early lives were “normal” since that’s all we know. I imagine, it must be especially confusing if you were raised in Germany throughout the 1900s in a community that generally practiced cruelty. I imagine those people were rarely exposed to another model; they had a narrow understanding of parenting, which they practiced on their own children. Thankfully, you had the insight to do something different. But so often, so much of what we do as parents is re-enact what was done to us.
In recent months, I have thought about what I’ve gained as a child of a survivor. It’s important to recognize the positive ways this experience has shaped me. First, I believe my mother’s experience forced me to develop a profound sense of empathy. I tried to imagine her life and feel her emotions, both in relating to her and in writing my books. (Sometimes, that drive has overwhelmed me.) That empathy also has made me mindful of the legacy for you and other Germans of your generation. I hope my empathy has helped enlarge the view of the devastation of the Holocaust.
Though I resented it at times, I felt I was assigned the responsibility of succeeding and carrying on the family values and family name for all those who had died. This made me hard-working and task-oriented. My efforts and my success made a statement that was much larger than myself.
I think our survivor parents modeled resilience. From my mother, I learned that what appears to be unendurable can be survived. We can adapt to the most difficult circumstances; we have no choice. Not easily…but in time. Often, when something terrible happens in my mother’s life, she reminds me, “I’ve survived worse.”
My mother’s experience has made me cherish family relations. I see the devastation of living without family members. I watched my mother struggle, even as an adult, with questions of abandonment. Well into her 70s she still didn’t understand, as she would say, “why my parents sent me away.” Consequently, I have tried to be a loving daughter to compensate for her losses. In my life with my mother, there was always a presence of absence; with my own children, I have tried to simply be present in their lives.
This is how I raise my arm to the blows from the past.
One of the reasons for my hesitation to respond may be that painful memories of my own upbringing have been coming back. Fortunately, my education was much less harmful than that of the children described in “The White Ribbon,” but I clearly see (and even feel?) traces of it. What if I had been born in the early 1920s and received my political education under the Nazis? I know that my father grew up under the extremely authoritarian regime of my grandfather, a very hard-working social climber and a tyrannical patriarch. He regularly beat-up my father, his eldest son, and he never showed how proud he was of him.
Yet there is no determination here. My father’s youngest sister grew up under the same regime, although she was not beaten since she was a girl. She never liked the Nazis; one tyrant was enough for her. And she turned against them in 1938, when she saw the beautiful synagogue in Essen burning. (It was the second biggest in Germany and it still stands today.) She was 11 then. Many of my grandparents’ customers were Jews and she had often accompanied my grandmother on her Friday tour collecting the bills. (That was the way things were done in those days.)
I was beaten very often by my mother, hit in the face or on the back with the carpet-beater; I got my last slap in the face when I was 18. And when I (or my brother) would start crying, she would say: stop crying or you get another one. (Believe me, this was not my mother alone; by no means. This was widespread everyday practice in Germany, and I’m sure elsewhere. Late in her life, my mother apologized. She knows it wasn’t right.) I remember a crucial scene of my youth: my mother raising her arm once again to hit me, and I, for once, raising mine to protect myself. She looked so surprised and disturbed that I later went back to her and apologized – for trying to protect myself; I did not raise my arm against her, of course.
I have had problems for years to react adequately to criticism. Often I did not recognize when I felt hurt or only long after the event. Or I overreacted to mild or irrelevant offenses (I still do that at times) or ignored compliments or even misread them as veiled criticism.
My mother was very proud of me and my achievements on the other hand, and she supported me strongly in many, although not all critical situations. She let me have music lessons, e.g., although we had hardly any money to spare in the 1950s. So achievements became a very important source of my self-esteem. The problem is that you cannot be a self-assured person based on your achievements, if you don’t feel an unconditional acceptance deep inside. There are always other people who are better achievers than you are.
For years I felt inferior because I didn’t write as many books and articles as some of my peers, and I wrote quite a lot. One of my dearest friends and colleagues, an extremely intelligent man and a very prolific writer, happens to be Jewish. (His German parents were murdered by the Nazis, and he survived as a baby by pure chance. He doesn’t even know when and where exactly he was born. He was adopted by a Jewish-American family.) There were times when I was very envious of his productivity. All the other peers I envied were non-Jewish, but for a few seconds in my life I connected my envy of him with his being Jewish. I was very dis¬turbed and told my therapist. I expected she would reprimand me. Since she was a good therapist, she didn’t. She only said: now you know, Gert, how prejudice works. (She knew; she was married to an Afro-American.)
It makes me shiver when I project my limited and comparatively mild experience to the larger field of history and politics, as you have done. Yet from my own personal development I know that (some) wounds from growing-up can be healed, and not just “schiefgeheilt”, as Freud would have said – which means something like destructively compensated. And I know that traditions can be broken. I once tried to hit my elder daughter when she was about eight or ten. Fortunately she became so furious that I never tried again.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Given all I’ve told you about my own legacy, I absolutely subscribe to the idea that this childrearing tradition is fertile ground for a totalitarian and racist ideology. A child raised in that kind of fearful, traumatic environment never develops empathy for another individual.
Consider the effects of abuse upon children:
First, they feel guilty, violated, out of control. They live in fear that they did something wrong, that it could happen again, that all relationships are abusive. This… at a time when a child should be exploring the world, nurturing his or her creativity and developing a sense of self. If the abuse continues, there are many serious physiological consequences to abuse. What’s often overlooked is the stress violence and trauma places on the victim and how that victim’s autonomic and endocrine system becomes permanently hyper-aroused as a result of the abuse. These changes cause the individual to overreact to stimuli and become emotionally numb (PTSD).
Now, imagine if an entire country overreacts to stimuli and is emotionally numb. It can become a Petri dish for bullies and, in a way, I see Nazism as institutionalized bullying.
I don’t have an answer for you as to why it happened in Germany and didn’t occur in other countries that practiced the same child-rearing methods, although it could be argued that there were pockets of this kind of behavior in other countries, including America. I suspect the childrearing tradition was more concentrated in Germany.
Interestingly, the survivors and refugees also were raised and formed by this kind of parenting and by the abuse of Nazism. In 1996, the movie Shine was released. Based upon the life story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, the movie portrays the relationship between the musical prodigy and his volatile father, who never realized his own musical dreams. The father nurtures and eventually destroys his son’s talent by brutalizing him physically and emotionally. Ultimately, the son becomes profoundly mentally ill. The film raises the question of whether the father’s sick love for the son is rooted in a history of family violence and abuse or the losses the family suffered in the Holocaust.
It’s impossible to know. But what emerges from the ambiguity is that the German culture branded children through both brutal childrearing and the Holocaust.
I often wonder about how my mother was parented before she came to America at the age of 12. I imagine that the stresses on the family between 1933 and 1938 were enormous. I would think that her mother and father didn’t have much time or inclination to reflect upon their parenting techniques; they were simply trying to figure out how to save themselves or survive the frightening and confusing circumstances in Stockstadt am Rhein. I can’t imagine how devastating the persecution was for them, one of two Jewish families in a town of 2000. The Westerfelds had helped settle the town in 1721 and they had lived in the town for over 200 years; they saw themselves as Germans, not Jews; yet, in the 1930s, neighbor after neighbor turned against them. Here again is another reason the survivors and escapees struggle with issues of trust.
Hollywood has nominated “The White Ribbon” for an Oscar as the best foreign film. “Das Weiße Band,” a movie by the Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke, is “A German Children’s Story,” as the sub-title says. It shows life in a small north German village in 1913 up to the beginning of World War I: farmers, the doctor and the vicar, with their wives and children, the teacher who is young and single. The farmers are poor, and to make ends meet they also work for the landowner in the village.
The film’s chronology is driven by a series of mysterious violent events: first the doctor falls off his horse on his way home, badly hurts his shoulder and needs to be hospitalized. It turns out that a wire had been stretched between two trees right in front of his house. Later the landowner’s son disappears. The whole village searches for him and finds him badly beaten and tied up in the woods. Then a huge barn burns down. Finally, the village’s midwife’s handicapped son (she has lived with the doctor since his wife’s death and looked after his two children) vanishes, and is later found with his eyes badly wounded. In the end, the police are being called, but they cannot make sense of the disturbances and do not find the perpetrators.
In between, the film focuses on the relations between adults and children, particularly the extremely harsh educational regime. The children are ritually and brutally beaten up, even for mild offenses. Another important part of the regime is shaming. The vicar, who it the iciest person in the village, binds a white ribbon into his eldest daughter’s hair and around his eldest son’s arm, so that they will always be reminded of their sins and remain pure and chaste. He also has his son tied up in his bed over night, so that he is not tempted to masturbate. (He has given him the usual lecture about utter sinfulness and serious dangers to his emotional and physical health.)
Relations between husbands and wives or men and women are not much better: authoritarian at best, dehumanizing at worst. These people are not monsters; there are a number of little scenes to the contrary, and the teacher, who is also the narrator, and his relationship with a young girl from a neighboring village are an important exception. But there is a serious lack of trust and love almost everywhere, and life is so rigid that it always borders on violence. In the end, the film offers an interpretation without insisting on it: It must be the children who commit the mysterious crimes; it is their revenge for the physical and emotional violence in which they grow up.
Several reviewers have suggested that the “White Ribbon” is a film about the origins of Nazism, which certainly is a possible interpretation. I have always thought that “Schwarze Pädagogik” (a technical term for an educational tradition legitimizing a very rigid and harsh way of bringing up children, quite usual in Prussia or other parts of Germany) was a major cause of the dehumanizing ideology and the violent aggression of Nazi theory and practice. (The Swiss psychologist Alice Miller once wrote an interesting analysis of Hitler’s “education,” where she draws such a connection.)
But when I read biographies by or about people in England, France, or the United States in the 19th or 20th centuries, I don’t find so much difference in their ways of growing up: beatings, shaming, dehumanization and authoritarianism seem to have been quite common everywhere. Maybe it was particularly bad in Germany, or this tradition was a fertile ground on which a totalitarian and racist ideology could grow which was also fed by other events, currents, or structures.
What do you think?