Notes From Berlin (Part II)

On one of the rare occasions I wandered away from the group, I struck up a conversation with a local who had immigrated from the Former Soviet Union. He told me about the Turks, the Africans, the Arabs and all the other people from around the world who found themselves settling in Berlin. “But no mattter how long we are here, no matter how well we speak German, no matter what we do, we will never really be German. Not in the eyes of the Germans.”

And the same could be said of England, France, The Netherlands and most of Western Europe. With national identities predicated on the need for a visible and disenfranchised Other, they are paralyzed when attempting to negotiate difference and engage meaningfully with the unassimilable.

In a meeting with Theatertreffen Festival Director Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Theatertreffen Stückemarkt director Christina Zintl, Ms. Zintl off-handedly remarked that much of the work she was reading, and much of the discourse of the moment, was engaged with the idea of the End of History, with the idea that we are at the twilight of a great era. I have heard this trope frequently from colleagues in Europe.

Later, in conversation with Prakash Belawadi, we both remarked how narrow, shortsighted and self-centered this notion seems. “My country,” he said, “has over a billion people and thousands of years of history and we feel as if we are just beginning.”

While The United States and Europe share a similar colonial outlook towards the rest of the world, America differs in that it is a nation of people from other places and even now, in these dark times, anyone who comes here (legally, admittedly, though sometimes even illegally) and sticks it out long enough, is an American. We fight about it, sometimes horribly and in ugly tones, but it is all out in the open. Americans – regardless of origin – are nothing if not plain spoken and distrustful of pretense. This can be problematic insofar as it has often led to anti-intellectualism, but it can be helpful when negotiating cultural difference. America is more nuanced and complicated than Europe wants to believe and Americans – regardless of cultural origin – are not stupid; we are not naive, we are not unsophisticated, we are different.

I imagine that part of why assimilation has historically been so successful in the United States is the bargain of material comfort and safety. If you come to America you can keep most of your culture, customs and religion and mostly folks will just leave you alone. As long as you opt in to “The American Dream”, you’re one of us. You may have to adapt just a bit or let go of some of your identity, more likely you’ll commodify your identity into an act, using show business as a vehicle for assimilation. But you’re one of us. And to this day, despite all the complications, this mostly holds true.

But a similar bargain doesn’t exist in Europe, there’s no incentive to give up your identity. If you come from some other country or culture to seek a better life, it doesn’t matter how much you adapt, they’ll never let you in. Ever.

After a week in Berlin that included seeing epic productions of Medea, Oedipus, War and Peace and a Castellucci staging of an epistolary novel by the German Romantic poet Holderlin, I think I began to understand, at least a little bit, the scope of the German imagination and sense of self.

Through engagement with German culture, one can imagine Germany’s self-conception as Tragic Hero, as Oedipus, a country whose greatest strengths, in excess, became its tragic flaw. Its sense of order, honor, justice and respect, the German passion for rigorous intellectual inquiry, science and philosophy, the precision of its language and the formal protocols of everyday life are what have allowed it to at once achieve greatness and commit its greatest atrocity.

One can imagine how much German culture must have appealed to the Jewish imagination, the legalistic Talmudic mind, with its endless obsession with categorization and minutiae, with codifying and describing in excruciating detail the protocols of everyday life, the exact parameters of right action. One can imagine the joy and ambition of Germany’s Jews upon Emancipation in 1871 – yes, that’s right, Germany emancipated its Jews after America emancipated its slaves – as they entered an era of freedom and assimilation.

Finally free to live outside their ghettos, finally allowed, legally anyway, to pursue any profession they chose, to be free, at least theoretically, from the constant threat of violence. They flocked to this bright and shining promise of a Germany built on order, philosophy, industry and grand ideas; a Germany at the height of its powers and colonial ambitions and they contributed to its success.

So one can equally imagine how, in the disorder and chaos after WWI, the German public became alarmed.Amidst the disorienting acceleration and velocity of this new mechanical age, facing an influx of new ideas, values and loose social mores imported from America and Russia, a large swath of Germany’s populace felt threatened.

One can imagine how unsettled many German citizens must have felt during the messy, tumultuous democracy of the Weimar Republic and amidst the financial woes that beset the country in the wake of the market crash leading to the Great Depression. One can imagine how the titans of German industry felt threatened as well and how, collectively, they looked at these arriviste Jews, newly freed from their filthy ghettos and fouling the streets of the Fatherland, and saw in them an existential threat to the essential German character.

Disoriented, alienated and poverty stricken, the citizens of the German polis no doubt sought a hero to restore their rightful place in a new world order, and a nation in ecstasy unleashed an orgy of violence, an intoxicated bacchanal of destruction that rent Europe asunder. And when the fugue subsided and sense returned, Germany looked at what it had done, it gazed down at its bloodied hands and clothing rent asunder, ash-covered, beaten and depleted, and no longer recognized itself.

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