By Ivy Wappler
As the inauguration of the 2016 FemGeniuses in Berlin looms closer and closer, we FemGeniuses are finishing up our packing and preliminary assignments before we board our flights this weekend. I was grateful for the assignments, not only to keep me reasonably busy here at home, but also in the name of getting informed about Berlin before traveling there. I find that before traveling anywhere for the first time it is important to familiarize oneself with their history and culture.
There are countless arguments for being an informed traveler. Not only will ample background research help you contextualize and understand what you experience in a new part of the world, but it is also imperative to be aware of the rich history of Berlin, for example, because that history informs the nature of Berlin today. Understanding the momentous legacy of The Third Reich is a necessary precursor for exploring the city of Berlin. Our class is going to discuss various intersectional identities in this city. But how can we ever begin to understand the nuanced lives of migrant Turks or Black Germans without at least knowing about the Nazi influence that once so blatantly orchestrated white power and racialized oppression? For that reason, we FemGeniuses were assigned to watch The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall. This History Channel documentary, combined with an assortment of readings, was the beginning of my process of familiarization with Berlin, a prequel to what I expect to be a very illuminating block abroad.
The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall examines the experiences of everyday Germans in the time of the Third Reich. The focus was on how the Germans gave Hitler his power, and what their lives looked like in wartime. All mentions of Jews in the documentary were starkly less personal in nature. The film, constructed from clips of Nazi rallies, strapping German soldiers, and Germans working and recreating together, regarded the Jews were only in cold statistics, such as death tolls in concentration camps. While the documentary certainly made clear the violent and inhuman ways the Jews were treated, there was no mention of what Marion Kaplan explores in “The School Lives of Jewish Children in the Third Reich,” namely the day to day experiences of Jewish people under Hitler’s regime. Kaplan goes through lengths to describe how Jewish children were treated in contrast to their German peers. She paints a clear picture of Jews and Germans living side by side, one group drastically more oppressed by the regime than the other. I thought it interesting and wonder why The Third Reich, however, did not depict Germans and Jews interacting, or acknowledge that racial discrimination was blatant in public spaces like schools.
The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall approached race interestingly. The only races and/or ethnicities it mentions as targeted and persecuted by the Nazis were Jewish people, Poles, and Russians. There was no mention of Black people or their experiences in WWII. In “Afro-Germans after 1945: The So-Called Occupation Babies,” May (Opitz) Ayim observes that the rhetoric surrounding the Third Reich does not give space to the non-Jews who also suffered on account of their race. She notes that although Afro-Germans and Asian-Germans existed in Germany before and during the second world war, they were not considered in discussions of compensation. I wonder: Is The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall contributing to the erasure of Afro-Germans and other groups? Or is it just zooming in on particular aspects of the war?
Something I hope to discuss further that was brought up in both the documentary and some of our readings is the concept of rape in war. After WWI, Germany had ceased to be a colonial power, and some of the soldiers who occupied German territory after the war were black. There was national outrage over the fact that white German women were exposed to the black soldiers, or “wild people” (“African and Afro-German Women” 45). It had been customary, however, in previous German military endeavors to rape foreign women. This “unwritten male right to enslave women” was never challenged until black soldiers exercised it on white German women (“African and Afro-German Women” 45). Rape in war is important to examine because it is an area where racism and sexism intersect. The Third Reich describes how the Russian Red Army raped countless German women when they invaded Berlin, probably in direct retaliation of how the Germans treated their people earlier in WWII. How did Germans justify their right to rape and pillage foreign peoples? How did Germans view their own women? What does it mean that Germans celebrated their raping of foreign women, and cried out about black men raping their own? I look forward to unpacking layered considerations of race and gender in discussions of the rape, war, and nationalism when we convene as a class in Berlin.
After reading from Showing our Colors: Afro-German Women Speaking Out and watching The Third Reich, it is clear that white guilt is a force to be reckoned with, especially in contemporary feminist circles. The fall of The Third Reich ends with Germans being forced to go inside neighboring concentration camps and stand face to face with the inhumanity they imposed upon the Jews. At least a million Germans were then left in concentration camps to die. This was only the beginning of the reparations that Germans would be forced to make for the disaster that was WWII. White guilt has by no means been eradicated from the German consciousness, however. Audre Lorde laments German white guilt in the foreword to Showing Our Colors. Lorde has “met an immobilizing national guilt in white German women which serves to keep them from acting upon what they profess to believe” (viii). Lorde laments how white German feminists seem paralyzed, unable to accept fully who they are, their history, and their privilege. She views this as a waste of power and potential for “battles against racism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, [and] xenophobia” (viii). Contemporary white guilt is born largely from the deep footprint that both world wars have pressed into German history and culture. In the preface to Showing Our Colors, Dagmar Schultz notes that “only gradually are white women beginning to realize that accepting responsibility is a viable and necessary alternative to being paralyzed by guilt feelings” (xix). En route to Berlin, I am curious to investigate how the legacy of the Third Reich manifests itself in the modern city, and how palpable white guilt may be. In conversation with activists and academics in Berlin, I hope to examine the reconciliation of white guilt, and how German feminists are addressing it as a problematic, stagnating force that has the potential to be a source of power.
Looking more closely at our readings and watching The Third Reich has made me even more excited to take off for Germany. I feel lucky to be writing this first blog post, because I had even more reason to dwell on these assignments. The film and readings have got me thinking about the power of narratives, rape in war, and white guilt, among many other things. I look forward to gathering as a class and discussing these topics in more detail, with Berlin and its people as our classroom. Our assignments so far have given me an idea of how the ghost of the Third Reich continues to haunt the country, but I am sure there is so much more to see and learn. Given its rich history, I predict Berlin will be an especially interesting place to study the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more.
I guess it is time to finally start packing. I certainly left that to the last minute. The art of packing light is a lesson I have yet to learn… going to challenge myself this time! Monday morning we will gather as a class for the first time and embark on our academic adventure. Safe travels to all my classmates, and see you soon!
Ivy Wappler hails from Long Island Sound and is grateful to spend her summers in New England, and her winters in sunny Colorado. She is a Feminist and Gender Studies major, and an Environmental Issues minor. After school, she hopes to explore environmentally and socially responsible tourism. She may also end up reforming sex education. An avid foodie, Ivy is ready to experience Berlin through its food and drink when she’s not in class. You may find her taking walks through sunny streets, seeking out farmer’s markets and green, open spaces.