Yesterday I was in a design studio in Architecture. I spent some time looking at each student’s exhibits. Some were really funny, like Batman’s grandma decked out walker and a punk doll. Each student had multiple creations in their space. One assignment that semester must have had to do with Word War II, because every student had one picture collage with Nazi stuff on it. Some were funny, some were serious. To me it’s always a little weird being confronted with questions about WW II and paraphernalia from it here in Texas because I never know which way that conversation is gonna go. Growing up in Germany, you talk about it in every subject area in high school: geography, history (duh!), German, religion, etc. And it’s always very serious and has an undertone of “Let’s never let that happen again.” Makes totally sense to me!

Here in Texas, it has a different touch when people talk about it. Some people seem to be oddly fascinated with the fact that such a small country would try to take over the world like that. Other people know nothing about Germany other than its affiliation with WW II. I’ve actually had a number of people tell me all the German phrases they know from war movies and documentaries when they find out I’m German. Gee, that really makes me feel comfortable! Anyways, seeing all this art displayed yesterday I first had this weird slightly uncomfortable feeling I usually get when people here bring up WW II – mainly because I don’t know which direction that conversation is going to take. Then I thought, oh well, it’s art. And then I thought, how dare they make fun of such a dark part of history this way – since there were quite a few “funny” posters. In the end, of course all of that stuff is in my head. Art is art and it should be that way. But I was also reminded that people here have a different relationship with Germany’s past than I do. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but they have a much more distanced view of it. Me instead, I’ve been flooded with pictures, movies, facts throughout high school and since it happened in my country, it feels too close to home to make fun of it.

Years ago, somebody told somebody else a pretty inappropriate Nazi joke about France. I really don’t want to write it down here because this is where I draw the line. I know we all make jokes about other culture and countries from time to time. And sometimes they are really funny, but one always has to be careful not to go too far with it. And for me, Nazi jokes are a step too far. We have plenty of jokes about Turkish people or Polish people because we have a lot of immigrants from these two countries. Even these jokes can be borderline. Jewish jokes don’t exist in Germany – or at least not in the mainstream media and majority of the population.

I remember the first time somebody called somebody a Nazi here in front of me. I must have looked shocked because they proceeded to explain to me that it has the same meaning as being anal. I wonder how that came about? Maybe because of all the rules? Either way I’ve gotten used to it being used that way over the years. However, it did feel kind of inappropriate when somebody at work used it like that a few months ago. Things that I accept in social life, don’t necessarily belong in the workplace I think. I’m schizophrenic that way…

So, for all you non-Germans out there, here’s a little tip. Most Germans don’t mind talking about WW II with you, but be aware that this conversation is almost always going to be a serious one. Just remember that it’s a sensitive issue for many of us since we have a different relationship with our past that you do.

29 Comments

  • Carla says:

    I never thought about this usage of the word “nazi”: it just seems so natural to me to call someone that is authoritative and commanding, perhaps even bitchy or anal, a “nazi”. I’ve even heard my French boyfriend use the word in English, and now I wonder if he got it from me.
    But being in this continent, where most of my European friends have all lost family members during WWI and WWII, has opened my eyes a bit to the “reality” of these wars, which before only seemed like something from the textbooks.
    I’ve also heard Germans complain about Nazi jokes, whether abroad or at home, and how you always find some highly insensitive jerk that pulls off a nazi joke or salute in front of a German. I’ve witnessed these situations, and it makes me honestly ashamed for these individuals, plus I feel so bad for the German person hearing these jokes.
    In any case, now I will rethink the common usage of this word, “nazi”. I guess I never understood the effect it can have on others that hear it too, and the last thing I would want to be seen as, is as an insensitive jerk. :D

    • Sabrina says:

      Oh Carla, don’t worry about it. Honestly, once I understood what it meant I kind of got used to it. And as you said, people use it as authoritative or commanding, not in a foreigner-hating kind of way. It just felt weird in the workplace since it’s a much more serious kind of environment.

  • Ana says:

    When I read the title, I cringed on your behalf. I kind of expected to read the things you wrote.
    There are so many misconceptions about other cultures, not only in the US but everywhere.

    I feel more or less the same way you do when English people bring up the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War. I never know which way the conversation is going to go.

    • Sabrina says:

      I can imagine! And I know that people really don’t mean anything by most of the things they say. It just really goes to show how much culture and growing up in a certain place forms your expectations. It is a different mindset. That’s for sure.

  • Jen says:

    I’ll never forget when we were living in Okiehoma and I was just getting to know The Mann, when one day he came home horrified that one of his colleagues had so unthinkingly executed a Hitler salute as a joke (I guess the guy was a Republican and he meant it as a show of what he thought of Obama). Of course the guy was totally apologetic when The Mann explained to him what that gesture meant. I learned so much that day, as it’s true in American culture the word Nazi and these kinds of things almost have a casual meaning.

    • Sabrina says:

      I’ve gotten the Hitler salute as a joke here too and couldn’t see the joke at all, so I understand your Mann. It’s pretty shocking when it happens for the first time because you just don’t expect it since that’s a huge no-no in Germany. They should warm German expats and travellers and give them a heads up ;) Did you hear about that Canadian who was arrested for doing the Hitler salute in front of a government building in Berlin as a joke? It’s actually illegal in Germany…

  • Andrew says:

    I believe the use of “Nazi” as commanding comes from an episode of Seinfeld with the “Soup Nazi”. The character is very authoritative about the soup and who gets some. Although “grammar nazi” is the most common form I remember.
    How about this for the other way around. I am so used to using it as a term for being anal that I accidentally used it in Germany. Then as I get a shocked look I had to think about what I said and explain it. Wow, I don’t do that anymore; but it took some thought.

    I have nearly no discussions with Germans about the war, but certainly the separation. That is something that is far closer to most people, especially those that can remember it being split. Only the old, who i have very little contact with, remember much about the war itself, but everyone over 30 remembers the split and the reunification.

    Germany is linked in the mind to those wars and unfortunately some people don’t get past that. Though go to the deep south US and start discussing the Civil War, that might be the closest to comparison you will find there.

    • Sabrina says:

      I can imagine that you got some weird looks using Nazi in its American meaning in Germany :) I heard of the “Soup Nazi” reference before, but had no idea that that’s where it all started… thanks for clearing that up!

      It’s true, the seperation/unification of Germany are much more readily talked about than WW II.

  • Laurel says:

    Wonderful post and so nice to hear a German perspective on it. When I first started dating J.P. I had a lot of questions about the Nazis. It was through our conversations that I shifted my perspective and realized that a lot of innocent Germans suffered tremendously as well and that many Germans were forced to do things beyond their wildest dreams or they and their families would be killed. Nothing can take about the tragedy of what happened, but we can all work towards a better understanding to ensure it never happens again. I’m told that’s also why so many Germans are against Scientology, as they view it as a cult and one to be avoided. Is there any truth to that?

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Laurel. Good question about Scientology. It is viewed very much as a sect in Germany and people are very suspicious because of the strict rules and secretive nature about what goes on inside. Could be true that it’s because of WW II.

  • Gerd says:

    Andrew wrote: >>Germany is linked in the mind to those wars and unfortunately some people don’t get past that.<<

    It is what it is, for the obvious reasons. Perhaps it can remind us that however the remembering happens, it's not up to Germans to decide what people in other countries associate with the darkest chapter of German history.

    At the same time, I believe Germany can influence how it happens – just not with claiming ownership of the "right way" to do it. What's wrong with this picture?

    When past German government official Thilo Sarrazin, a best-selling "elite" author in Germany, went on the BBC in 2010 to share his crude thoughts on genetic inferiority of immigrants, it created a wave of (tasteless) jokes in the UK that many Germans did not like. Surprise?

    Frankly, I don't have a problem when some member of the "greatest generation" here in the U.S. who, as a scared kid right out of high school, was shot at in the skies over Frankfurt or Berlin, or made it to the gates of the Dachau camp, makes an off-color joke about Der Fuehrer or Germany.

    Who am I, who are we to judge? Even more so, since it was their generation that saw to modern Germany becoming a healthy democracy that can afford the luxury of "political correctness".

    What makes me shudder sometimes, on the other hand, is the disconnected – even self-righteous – attitude about remembrance in some quarters.

    Showcasing meticulously rebuilt or restored synagogues, staffed with well-meaning teachers and tour guide volunteers, cannot hide the fact that there is no one left to worship there.

    And it certainly does not mean that antisemitism, racism and violence against minorities are bygone problems of a dark past.

    Jokes? Give me a break. Now, there's a reason to feel uncomfortable about.

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion! Of course you’re right. Germany doesn’t get to decide how others view the country and what they associate with it. You also say that

      Showcasing meticulously rebuilt or restored synagogues, staffed with well-meaning teachers and tour guide volunteers, cannot hide the fact that there is no one left to worship there.

      Unfortunately that’s true :( I don’t think I ever met a Jewish person in Germany. Part of that might be because in Germany religion is very private and not discussed that much. But a huge part is probably because there are so few – understandably. I have met way more since I moved to the US. I read an article in the Spiegel once that highlighted a girl from Israel who moved to Berlin and how happy she was there… sad that that’s newsworthy.

      • André says:

        With all due respect, but it’s not that difficult. Most Jews simply look like everybody else in Germany. You probably met lots of them, but simply never knew it. As for the subject of religion, most people simply have other problems most of the time.

        • Sabrina says:

          You’re very right. Of course there are Jewish people in Germany. Just not as many as in the US I think. Also, where I am from in Germany, there is one small Catholic church and one small Protestant church and that’s it. I think you’d have to live in a bigger city to get more of a diversity in terms of religion. And I don’t know if it’s being too busy to talk about religion or just the fact that it’s private. Here in Texas, I know who and who isn’t religious and which church belong to in many cases – because it’s so public. Quite the contrast!

          • André says:

            Well the population of the USA is bigger than Germany so naturally it is to be expected that you have more Jewish people, of course how many of them actually are practicing Judaism is another thing. Until 1989 there were about 30000 in Germany, until 1998 about 45000 more came. There are about 108 jewish communities in 23 National Association, consiting of about 104000 Jews, presenting 95% of all German Jews. The other 5 % are spread over 40 Kulturvereine (cultural clubs so to say) and liberal communities. Then there are about 40000 other Jews who are not religiously bound and between 1991 and 2004 about 220000 Jews immigrated from the former Sovjet Union.
            I think a reason why many US seem to think we have no Jews here is because you cannot tell by their names. On average their names are no different than those of other Germans. A name like Rosenberg might let an American think Jew, but not a German.
            Also in politics Agnosticism and secularism rules and religious extremists are usually frowned upon over here, for good reason (and I am not speaking of WWII but also before that, one 30-years war is enough).
            Of course the accusation of Antisemtism also comes very fast here, even if it is simply criticism or a defending of the law. Like in the current circumcision debate.

            And where exactly “are you from in Germany”?

            And correct me if I am mistaken but to be non-religious is not a very easy thing in Texas isn’t it?

          • Sabrina says:

            Haha! Nope, it isn’t :) But I get away with it, because I’m a foreigner. I have Texan friends who are not religious and people give them a much harder time. I’m from a small town close to Cologne. Thanks for all the numbers. I had no idea about the actual details. You’re so right about the German-sounding names – except for parts here in Texas where many German descendants live (like the hill country – Fredericksburg for example). They have very Germanic names without being Jewish as well.

  • Suzy says:

    I think it is great you wrote this. It is nice to hear the German perspective. I don’t think events from that time should be joked about either, and I’m not German. I guess the same can be said for Americans in a lot of respects. Some people around the world can resent you because of your country’s politics or knack for getting involved in world affairs. Not to say it’s the same as Nazi Germany, but people often lack sensitivity if they didn’t grow up in that nationality.

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks! I think you’re right. It’s weird though how sensitivities change depending on the culture you grow up in. In the US I’ve stepped into a few things because I just didn’t know any better. I remember early on here I asked people right away where they were from if I detected an accent of any kind… That question was so normal in the circle of international friends I had back then, but to some people here, mainly Hispanic I’d say, that question was offensive. The reason? It implied they weren’t American and somehow that implied I thought less of them… which wasn’t true at all. I just asked them the same question I would have asked any Asian, European, etc. For me, being a foreigner, doesn’t imply better or worse, it’s just interesting. Oh well, you live and learn, right :)

  • I totally agree! I’ve heard quite a few times a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute after people heard that I was from Germany. And they think it’s funny! I also find it quite disturbing that Hitler is still seen as a hero & ‘good guy’ in many countries we’ve been traveling in.

    • Sabrina says:

      That’s so crazy… I just don’t get how people think that a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is funny…. Luckily I haven’t ever met anybody who thought he was a hero… no idea how I’d respond. What did you say??

  • Katja Brown says:

    So you have never seen Seinfeld and the “soup Nazi?” Nazi is definitely used in a different connotation here in the United States.

    • Sabrina says:

      You know, I’ve actually never seen that episode, but have heard that that’s where it came from. I’ve been here long enough to not take offense when people use it is the American sense… but I remember when I first moved here… I was so shocked.

  • Laura4nyc says:

    I agree, it can be a sensitive subject. I also think that some Americans are plain stupid when they make fun of this era. Maybe they have a different attitude towards these things.
    I used to work for the Jewish Holocaust organization here in New York for one year. That was partly awkward. Being a German and not Jewish. I never had so many people question my job in this one year. *sigh* the world deals with these things still very sadly nowadays, it’s time to move on!

    • Sabrina says:

      Wow! Hats off to you for working at the Jewish Holocaust organization! I don’t think I could deal with all the questions… and I hear you. Some of the comments are just plain stupid. I blame it on the fact that it doesn’t happen to me a sensitive subject in American culture. On the other hand, I really had to adjust to the whole racial tensionsin this country. The first years I would ask hispanic-looing people with an accent where they were from and got a lot of mean comments that obviously they were American. I honestly just asked out of curiosity – sort of like relating to another foreigner. Oh well, different cultures = different topics to avoid…

      • André says:

        Well there are racial tension in Germany as well and often you don’t notice prejudices and antagonistic feelings because you grew up with them. But I am not sure how much of it is really race and how much of it is cultural tension. Since it often makes no difference whether you are white or not. I don’t know, have you ever red Neger, Neger Schornsteinfeger (Destined to Whitness – Growing up black in Nazi Germany)? It was quite interesting to see these things from H-J. Massaquoi’s perspective.
        I admit I sometimes have negative feelings in that way, but I noticed that I usually have them when I assume someones a foreigner but have no problem when they speak German. Actually in such cases I have problems seeing them as anything different than German. Like in this case: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdDnfNPkPH4&feature=g-all-u
        He says he is Vietnamese but seriously, the only thing differentiating him from the “average” German is his looks. Apart from that he has a mouth that could fit the infamous Berlin Snout. Charlotte Roche would be proud of him I think.
        Of course there is always the fact that some people see even lets say our current vice cancellor as a foreigner (my mother for instance) despite the fact that such a high office in the government would be impossible for someone not of German citizenship and who didn’t grew up in Germany. Although in that case I got ignorant comments as well. The two that got stuck in my brain was two Americans, one asking what his “real” name was, assuming that the name “Phillip Rössler” is somehow false and another one thought he was Japanese and actually asked whether it was another Japan-Nazi alliance. I think both where dead serious about it.
        It’s odd really. We have other examples, like Marcel Nguyen (olympic athlete [got silver for Germany this year) and Jenny-Mai Nuyen [a fantasy author), or Monika Asumang where many don’t seem to see them as anything other than German. Albeit in case of the first two, that is pretty difficult simply due to their looks, so you would have to know their names to actually guess it in many cases.
        I think you will get a different answer depending on who you ask. Some speak as though its horrible and others like there is no problem at all. Perhaps it really is a class problem for the most part and not a race problem.

        • Sabrina says:

          Yes, you are right. There are racial tensions in Germany. They are different from the ones in Texas, so the ones here stick out much more to me, because, as you pointed out, I didn’t grow up with them. A Japan-Nazi alliance? Who in the world would ask something like that?? I think the question regarding his “real” name is something very American as many Asian immigrants here make up an “American” name and lose their original names. I’ve seen this especially with Chinese or Taiwanese people who introduce themselves to Americans as “Jane” or “Mary” and to other foreigners with their Chinese names.

          • André says:

            Well I guess someone who knows a bit about history would come up with Japanese-German alliance. It is not unfounded because Germany, Italy and Japan were considered the axes of evil back then. Interesting that part of Italy’s history seems to be ignored much more than even for Japan, while in Germany’s case its highlighted and Alliance war crimes downplayed.

            Well as far as I know first or second generation immigrants (or third generation in some cases) usually do not make up names over here. If someone has a German sounding name it is usually given by birth for various reasons. But I did see that in E-Mails we get at work from these countries. I always found that odd. I mean you must be pretty stupid not to spell the name right when you have it right in front of you.

          • Sabrina says:

            I agree, I find it very odd that someone would just change their name – in many cases to something that does not even sound close to the original. I had never seen that happen in Germany, but here it seems pretty common practice. I get the reference, I just find it odd that someone would point it out in a political context… Maybe it was just a joke?

          • André says:

            I doubt it was a joke. If yes the writer should have used smiles or the like.

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