‘How was Germany?’ Although the question may seem natural and obvious, I stopped and spent some time thinking about the question before trying to reach an answer. Who will ask me this question? Everyone. Well, the ‘everyone’ can be divided into two categories: those who only ask out of social politeness, and those who really care about my experiences. For the first group a ‘Germany is good’ is seriously enough; anything more than these three words will be an annoyance instead. For the second group an elevator speech is never enough, and they will prefer receiving my answer in person or from a personal letter. For anyone who happens to read this far and wants to join the second group, be prepared to receive a long and potentially offensive answer.
Now to the question ‘How was Germany’. Referring to my observations of the country, I am disappointed. I departed from Grand Rapids with several goals (apart from passing the program) in my mind, namely making a sketch of a famous German scene, keeping a journal, getting to know a few people more (up to a ‘general friend’ level), visiting some museums, and most importantly, finding ‘what makes Germany German’. All but the last one I have accomplished. As far as what I have experienced, I have failed to discover the core essence of German identity.
I will approach this grand subject in the following aspects. First, Germany seems to be a people without a meaningful association with its land. Well, by definition, the land which is settled by Germans is called Deutschland. But how does this land affect German identity? Would the German people be the same if they are settled somewhere else? I tried to look but I only saw Deutschland as physical dirt without meaning special to its people. Israel would cease to be without its memories of its land. America would never come to be without the brave souls gambling with their lives for the New World. When I visited Monument Valley I could feel the spirituality of this land, I could see the people having prayed here for thousands of years and still doing so today. In these cases I can see the connection between the people and its land. In Germany I saw nothing, as if Deutschland is what it is because a people just happens to be there.
You may argue that, Deutschland being in the heart of Europe has obviously made a great difference – it was the last nation to unite, had to fight on two fronts when conflict arises, had to be split between the two super powers and so on. All these are documented history, one strange thing that Americans often think that Germany has in abundance. But I looked around myself. I walked in the cities and traveled between them. Apart from a few destroyed buildings, where is the war? Apart from the remains of the camps, where is the holocaust? Apart from a few museums, where are the kings, queens, republicans and communists? If I have not learned history, I would not know that the wall ever existed, even if I may be looking at some graffiti on some boring concrete structure. Who are those visiting the destroyed buildings, the camps, the museums and the wall? Tourists. The German society, however, behaves as if all its history, except the most recent chapter about commercialism, has never happened. Germany is a nation with documented history, but it is without memory.
As I failed to see German identity in its land and its history, I turned to its culture. Americans come to Germany to experience German culture. So I made a list of German cultural icons – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schiller, Kant, Heine, Goethe, Wagner, Mahler, Hegel, Luther and so on. As you see, the list is not complicated. Then I looked. Except in a few museums and on some statues dedicated to them, their names were not even present anywhere, not to mention their works and legacy. Not once I heard the works of the great German musicians, writers and poets. In Luther’s hometown, people eat and drink under the gaze of his statue as if things have always been so and the reformation has never happened. Apart from the archives, these German heroes never lived in their beloved Deutschland.
At last I turned my attention to a national cause. Here I mean a common purpose that unites the nation, or at least part of the nation. The United States has a national cause. It is severely crippled, I must say, but the personal (NOT political) message with which Lady Liberty greeted those desperate to see her has not totally died in their descendants. China is a nation without land, history or culture, but it does have a cause. For those in power, the cause is to stay in power, for the democratic activists, the cause is to found a new China, and for the insignificant like myself, the cause is to see and understand her in new perspectives (apart from party propaganda). Nonetheless, there is a purpose for various people to strive for. What then, is the cause of the German people? For a while, it was delivering the western brothers from capitalism or uniting the eastern brothers to freedom, but that was thirty years ago. What now? I looked and I saw nothing, as if the German people exists simply because it does. Such people is without meaning. Such people is without identity.
Then it came to me the last time that the German people had a sense of land, history, culture and a national cause of their own (instead of merely surviving between the two super powers). He knew what his people wanted. Therefore he gave them a fatherland to praise, a history to glorify, a culture to evangelize, and a cause to make Germany great again. He gave them ‘one nation, one people, one leader’. He failed. As the German people moved on from the shadows of the past, it seems to me that they abandoned everything altogether. They put their expectations in new shoots but they cut off all the roots. (The Chinese did the same regarding Cultural Revolution.) This, in particular, is something that still causes me to contemplate. Could a newness without the old really stand? Is the current prosperous commercialism lasting and solid? If not, could the tragedies actually be prevented from happening again?
Above is my impression of the German nation. But I must emphasize again that I am reporting what I have experienced, which is most likely inadequate to really know the country. It took me years to form some opinions regarding the United States. I do not expect, even though I very much hope so, to find some solid answers. Therefore I conclude the above as ‘disappointing’.
If ‘how was Germany’ refers to what I have gained from this trip, then I must say that the program is very worthy one. It provoked me to think and provided for good conversations with my peers. My failure to discover a German identity itself is to me an important discovery. Through my contemplation on Germany, I was also able to see China, US and certain historical events (such as the holocaust) with new insights – for example, I thought about Chinese and American identity in manners similar to listed above. In addition, being distanced from my families and old friends allowed me to examine my own life and my relationship with them. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to travel to Germany and I would recommend this program to future students.