German? Really?

It’s been a while that I wanted to publish something about the fact that being a German expat is not very flattering.

I’ve spent several years, trying to avoid being categorized like German and the fact that I’ve never lived in Germany makes it very difficult for me to really feel or even appreciate the fact to be German. – I recently have also obtained the Swiss nationality for the simple reason that I worked in Switzerland for a long time and, first and foremost, that my husband is Swiss (update in May 2015).

Germans are not allowed to show National Pride…

Recently I got involved in a discussion about the fact that in Germany, it seems to be some way forbidden to feel or even show National Pride because of the Nazi Regime and some stereotypes related to this. A former colleague of mine even resented that ancient Rome fell under the invasion of Germanic tribes (and Mongols).

Why I feel even guilty to be German

When I was 6, I happened to be called „Hitler’s daughter“ by a 7 year old Italian boy. We were living in Italy and we just moved to a new place. I remember my mum approaching the mother of this boy and introducing us as new neighbors. I didn’t hear the reaction of the woman, but I remember my mum turning towards me and my sister and telling us that we had to leave.

I remember how the boy looked at me with disdain and called me „Hitler’s daughter“. He also added that he would never ever play with a German girl.

I didn’t understand and asked my mum what he meant. My mum explained us what happened during WWII and why some people were so upset and angry towards Germans. – Since then I’m very aware that being German is not something to tell out loud let alone to be proud of…

I felt responsible for what Germans did during WWII and this guilt did somehow become part of my life. Not only because of this incident, but because of many more that followed when I was much more aware of what it meant to be German.

When I was a teenager I refused to tell people that I’m German for several years, as I had Italian friends who had typical prejudices towards Germans, especially blond blue-eyed German girls, for other reasons of course, but still… I did everything to look more like my Italian friends and the fact that my sister had brown hair, brown eyes and really looked like an Italian helped a lot. We both speak Italian with native fluency, so nobody would have thought that we were German…

The life as a German expat

When someone asks me where I come from, I always tell that I come from Italy (it’s true), Germany (as my parents are German), Switzerland and the Netherlands… I just list up the places I’ve lived in.

The fact that I still have a German passport doesn’t mean that I feel German. I feel German when I speak German. I like German literature and the German culture, I have great German friends and love to teach German. – It’s the language of my family, the language of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Schlegel etc.

What I really dislike are stereotypes and prejudices about Germans, but I dislike stereotypes and prejudices of any kind.

As my children are growing up as Germans abroad too, I would like to give them a positive feeling about being German.

How? By teaching them that the German language is worth to be learned – it doesn’t have to sound “hard” and bossy. I teach them German history, yes, also about the WWII. I teach them that people in a certain political and social condition, tend to follow a strong leader no matter what, as history has shown us several times.

When they will be old enough, I will watch “The Wave” with them, in order to make them understand the social and political mechanisms of that dark period for Germany.

Sometimes, when we watch cartoons like Phinneas and Ferb, I feel very uncomfortable about characters like Doctor Heinz Doofenshmirtz: he talks with a strong german accent and he is „the routinely bumbling, incompetent and forgetful evil scientist“. My son already noticed that evil characters often have German accents in films and comics and he doesn’t like to be called German. But I guess this is something he has to live with…

35 replies »

  1. It’s a sad bit of human nature that you have experienced since you were young. I’m of German and Polish descent, born in the US. I’m fortunate to live in a small city that the US Department of State has deemed a cultural melting pot, and as such this city has always received refugees and the like from nations around the world – Germany, Poland, Italy (mostly Sicilians), Bosnia, and many, many others. While you hear some occasional slander from some ignorant bigot, the city is generally very tolerant to all the cultures and religions.

    All that said, this is the US, not Europe. While many people here experienced World War 2, it was the landscape and people of Europe who had to endure it. It’s unfortunate, though, that people maintain that ‘German’ = ‘Nazi’. That’s as untrue as ‘Italian’ = ‘Fascist’ or ‘Chinese’ = ‘Communist’, or even that ‘Muslim’ = ‘Terrorist’.

    You are proud of your heritage and keep teaching your children that pride. Without our histories, we are nothing more than books with blank pages.

    • Thank you Tim, for stopping by and leaving a comment. I really appreciate what you say. I can imagine that you feel a bit of an internal struggle too, due to the history of Poland and Germany. How did you cope with that? Olga, who just commented to this post, is polish and married with a German. Maybe you can give her some hints about how to teach German-Polish children to be proud or happy to have these nationalities? – You are so right when you say that without our histories, we are nothing more than books with blank pages. I would rather prefer not having “red” pages in mine, but this is our heritage, and we have to live with it.

      • I was raised mostly in a Polish household, with my grandmother and great aunt encouraging my love of reading and of history. When they would talk about WW2, it was never ‘the Germans’, it was always ‘the Nazis’. As I grew older, I began to embrace not only my German heritage more but also became more interested in WW2 as a shaping piece of our world’s history – especially the European theater of that war. I never really had any conflict over my mixed heritage – but I was raised well. My only insight is that one can rarely blame a culture or an entire nation – it’s politicians and others who come to power and steer the fate of those who put their trust in them. We can’t change what others say, but we can slowly work on what they perceive. This will never be 100%, but it’s the best we can do.

  2. You have touched many important aspects of being German. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I am married to a German man and have German in-laws. I have learned never, ever to talk about WWII with them as we always end up having needless discussions, making both sides feel attacked, no matter how hard we try. I think it’s because WWII is still very alive in Europe. My being Polish (and also Jewish) doesn’t make this discussion easier. At school, I spent a whole semester reading books about how poor Polish people were victimized by evil Germans. I almost got depressed. Everybody in Poland has somebody who died in Auschwitz, My own grandfather refused to teach my mom German (he was educated in Vienna, so he spoke it perfectly), because his first wife was shot by Germans. So, paradoxically, I own my existence to WWII- if she had survived, my mom wouldn’t have been born. Polish people are generally very big on history and commemorating- past oriented, rather than future-oriented. WWII is no exception, and many Polish people are afraid that this part of history will be forgotten as the survivors or the people directly connected to WWII will die out. I am not a fan of looking for guilt (who did it!), instead, one of the books I had to read at school said: “Humans did this to humans”, and I think that’s the worst part, rather than making one nation accountable. It seems that we are living under a trauma, and WWII haunts us like a ghost. I am so tired of this. IS there a way out of this so that history will be kept alive without forming judgments…It’s not that easy due to the fact that not all nations see WWII the same way.

    • History can’t be kept alive without forming judgements, as you need humans to do so and they will, alas…, always form judgements. Some may see it in a more rational way – and I try to do so too, especially when I talk about that with my children – but as you said: humans did this to humans and this makes it so terrible. I can imagine that in your case, being German is even more complicated. Your children could feel even more confused. But I’m sure you’ll teach them the good things about Germans, starting with their dad and his family.

  3. Thanks for your quick answer and explanation, Tim. You’re so right that no cultures or entire nation should be blamed, but “politicians and others who come to power and steer the fate of those who put their trust in them”: this is exactly what I teach my children. I also agree that we “can’t change what others say, but we can slowly work on what they perceive”. We’ll need time and lots of energy for this, but for our all sake: it’s so worth it!

  4. This is an amazing post! I just had this conversation with my German expat manager in Canada, (I have a German last name by mother’s marriage when I was young) and I asked him that very question. He said that even within Germany there is this sense of denial of association to their past. He’s from Berlin and one of the most liberal people I’ve met recently. So stereotypes are changing. However I’d find it a bit hipocritical to judge others by a country’s history. Can’t we all say that? Something not-so-favourable within our own history? Alberta alone has a history many don’t even know about around eugenics that’s positively horrifiying.

    So glad you visited so I know you’re out there!

    • Thank you Stacey! I’m glad you liked the post. I don’t really understand why people judge others by the history of their homecountry. I never do and, as I said, I don’t like stereotypes and prejudices. I have to admit that I don’t know much about Alberta – I’ll try to find out more – but anyway: the history of the place we live in or we come from only partly determins us. We might carry with us the “guilt” of a dark past, but it does not determine who we are.

  5. Where I come from we tend not to judge others. We have fought hard to live where we do and have realized that we can only ‘make it’ if we stick together so that’s become very much a part of our cultural identity. That said, You stopped me in my tracks with your post. I can tell you this. Here in NL, when we think of Germans we generally envision cooperatve resourceful and, most of all, modest people. That other comparison you mentioned was, at least in my opinion, a cultural phenomenon that could have happened to any group and, yes, we must try and ensure that it does not happen again but… STOP MAURICE AND COME TO THE POINT OK. It’s in the past and we should learn from it. Before we judge any other society we should take a good long look at ourselves first because, frankly, none of us as a society is innocent.

    • Thank you Maurice for your very precious reply. I so agree with you: it’s the past and everyone should be able to learn from it. But there is still people out there who is not able to look at their own history and society. It’s so much easier to judge and stick to stereotypes. Thank you very much for your comment!

  6. very interesting post. I am Italian living in London, and recently we went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London to listen to a concert and Christmas Carols. Italian family and friends were visiting so they came along and were surprised at the “unity” of all British people singing carols together, and also as I explained the national pride which British people have, at other occasions where they sing very patriotic songs to do with the Empire and when “Britannia ruled the waves” or tell about the Land of Hope and Glory. My family and friends opinion was that in Italy this would never happen, as it would remind people about the big gathering during Mussolini’s time. Similar to what you said above about the Nazi gatherings. In Italy I would guess most people don’t even know the words to the National Anthem. But I think is very beautiful to see such unity in a country and it brings pride and respect, and a sense of shared identity.

    • What you experienced in London with your family and friends sounds very familiar to me. I talked about this british feeling around Christmas with my italian friends too and we came to the same conclusion. I also think that Italians and Germans are longing to feel pride and respect for their country again, and to share this sense of identity. But Italy has this north south problem, Germany still remembers the ‘wall’ separating east and west for a long time… I hope both countries – as so many others! – will find a way to a more united feeling. Some thought the european union could be enough, but they still have a long way to go. – Thank you very much for your very previous comment!

  7. Aw, your experiences sound traumatic… that’s really not a very nice thing to happen to any child 🙁
    I’ve travelled a bit, lived in different countries (not as many as you, lol) and never had any crap from anybody. I look at it this way: Millions of people would kill for a German passport! We are lucky, lucky, lucky indeed! When I contemplate that I could have been born a Saudi woman, forever ‘imprisoned’ and without rights, or a hapless girl in an Indian village, as gay guy being hunted down by my neighbours in Uganda, a farmer in rural China with a family on the brink of starvation – the list is endless – I count my blessings, I really do.
    AND, having been born waaaay after the war, I certainly don’t feel any guilt over it. I’ve never started a war (except against some cockroaches, but actually, THEY started it, and it’s 1:0 for me!)
    I understand why our grandparents’ generation is afflicted by the guilt thing, they were kind of involved, passively and actively, but our generation should be over it by now. We’ve got the museums, the memorials, the mandatory annual school trips to Dachau, the books, etc. nobody’s trying to cover anything up or deny what happened, and it won’t ever vanish from the history books as a horrendous example of what people are capable of. But that’s enough, surely. Who stands to benefit from ensnaring innocent generation after innocent generation in feelings of shame? Not constructive. We should worry about today’s problems.

    • Thank you very much for stopping by and your comment. I really appreciate it. I totally agree: I’m very grateful that I’m born in a country where I didn’t experience war or any kind of daily struggle for life. What I experienced was not really traumatic, but I realized that it changed my way to perceive to be German. I don’t think that the memory of what happened should vanish, people should learn from these mistakes, but as you say, this should be it and the after war generations shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed about this anymore. But I think that every responsible person will still feel uncomfortanle as long as there are these prejudices. And we know that prejudices are difficult to change… You’re so right: today we have to face other problems. Many things happened since then and are still happening.

  8. You hit a sensitive spot there….I was teased in elementary school for one whole year. A few bunch of kids were waiting for me outside our classroom in the morning and as soon as they saw me they raised their hands and screamed ‘Heil Hitler’. I cried every time. A year later, I finally spoke up and told my mom. She turned to me and said: tell them that Hitler was Austrian. Next day I went to school boosted up with confidence, told them what my mother advised me to and they never bothered me again.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Tatu. I can so relate with what you say. I guess there are more Germans out there who grew up in a foreign country and had to face these “attacks”. Isn’t it strange that nobody ever wrote about this yet? I think I will take the opportunity to collect the experience of people like us. – Anyway, I also told some of the children (and some grown ups too!) that Hitler was not German but Austrian and I did feel released from this guilt-feeling but only for a short time. The short time it took those people to look at me and apologize (yes, some of them did apologize…). But then I thought: I’m not any better then them. As Tim said in his comment: it’s wrong to take a whole nation or country accountable for the mistakes a politician or a group of powerful people did in the past. But I guess, for a child such a response is ok. It’s quite difficult for a grown up to explain the meccanisms of what happend during 2WW, especially to those people who just don’t want to listen, not to mention for a child…

  9. It seems you have had the misfortune to have met a lot of strangely un-evolved and uninformed people.

    I came to Europe in 1987. In my student days before then, I worked at a Jewish nursing home in the US. You can imagine what I saw there. I did not like Germans on principle. Then I moved here, 15 minutes from the German border and suddenly had German neighbors (and cousins!). What do you do?

    In the many years I’ve lived here, I’ve come to realize, as have most Europeans of my generation (modeljahr 1964), that not all Germans are Nazis. Must the sins of the (grand) father be laid upon the children? Do we still hate the Spanish for the Inquisition? Are we still angry at the Danes? Do we want to go out and sack Istanbul because of the Ottomans? No we don’t.

    Since living here, I’ve come to know and love a lot of things about the German people. Well, except that thing they do with the beach towels at large hotels ;).

    Check this out:

    The German people in this millennium should not be ashamed for things they had nothing to do with. This is not the same as sweeping history under the carpet, which they don’t do–Berlin was a revelation.

    • Thank you for your statement. Well, I think that still today, lot of people (europeans and not) are not aware that Hitler wasn’t German. However, this doesn’t excuse anything. Thank you for the link. The Weisse Rose with the “Geschwister Scholl” (Hans and Sophie Scholl are well known!) is a very important anti-Nazi group during the 2WW. – Thank you also for encouraging German people not to be ashamed for what happened. Surely this sort of comments help to take a step further. Accusations etc. don’t, as some of us know.

  10. One of my best friends in high school was a German exchange student. I remember how strange it seemed to me that he had a little note over his desk, “Ich bin stoltz, deutscher zu sein.” I asked him about it, and he told me that sometimes it didn’t feel so great to be German, and he wanted to remind himself that it was good.

    Your wonderful post helped me understand what he was likely feeling. Thanks!

  11. Interesting! I studied in Germany and lived there for a couple of years but feel international not German. I agree that people tend not to understand and I also have funny stories to tell about German speaking CH

    • I’m glad I could help with my post. I think your friend had similar experiences as I had. When you’re German in a foreign country you feel that people tend to treat you in a way that somehow is related to the political past of Germany. I think everyone who lived in another country experienced a sort of feeling. People tend to put others in pigeonholes, we all know this. But if your German or of another nationality, skincolour etc that people associate with something negative, it’s difficult not to feel sad, guilty etc. I’m glad you shared your experience and I think it’s very important to talk about this.

    • I guess that while you lived in Germany you didn’t feel ‘strange’ about being German? Or did you realize even more not to be as German as the others? This occurs to me every time I stay there for a few weeks… Now I’m curious about the German speaking CH 😉

      • 😉 I felt strange, yes, as I was different. But I was different in all countries so I had to find my inner balance. If you speak German without any accent you are classified as German in German speaking CH. Feels like speaking German without accent in Austria, if you know what I mean 😉

      • Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean 😉 I think this inner balance you mention is the solution. But it takes time and lots of experience to get there. It took me more than 20 years. And still, when I hear people attacking someone because of his nationality, religion or skincolour, I feel concerned and need to intervene. Especially when the victims are children or very young people who don’t have my experience. I have some standard answers that help me to take an inner distance… otherwise I probably would get too involved emotionally. But you are the expert: do you have any tips for how to cope with this when in presence of children?

      • Hi there, sorry for the delay, was in Germany for business… do you mean your children or children in general? When they are your own and/or you know them, you should take this up with them and explain that everybody is equal on this planet and that there is no difference in skin colour or religion. It is all about the right education and the more you act as a model to your children and the more you ‘teach’ them to be tolerant and accepting, the more they will do it themselves and the more they will remain ‘untouched’ by inappropriate comments. On the contrary, they will in turn respond themselves that it is not right as their education will have become part of their own values. Hope this helps! Ciao ciao, Jenny

  12. No problem, Jenny, I was busy too. No I meant other children. I’m not worried about my own children, as I raise them to be tolerant etc. and I know how they react. But with other children I normally tell them what you suggest, but as I don’t always know how they are used to deal with these situations I’m not very sure if it’s up to me to tell them certain things, or if it wouldn’t be better if their parents did the job. – Sometimes I try to ignore the situation when I see that the children didn’t even notice or understand what it was about, and sometimes I explain the situation, trying not to sound too serious, as I don’t want them to feel traumatized. But these situations in the presence of children did’t happen so often, fortunately. Thanks for your help! And welcome back 😉 ( I added a part that misteriously got lost the first time I posted this reply…)

  13. I’m very late to this discussion but wanted to add a comment anyway.

    My grandad was from the Ukraine and during WWII he was imprisoned in a German labour camp. After the war he was freed and ended up in England (he didn’t want to go back to the Ukraine while Stalin was in charge). Until the day he never said a word against the Germans! He always said they were people just like anyone else who had found themselves in a bad situation. Yes, some of them supported the regime and actually went along with all the atrocities, but there were also plenty of people who were against it. An entire nation of “evil” people simply doesn’t exist!

    • This discussion is ongoing, so it’s never to late to leave comment. I’m very glad you said that, Bevchen. I know that the image Germans have abroad is not always the stereotyped one that you may also encounter in films, commercials etc. I’m really glad that your grandad doesn’t have hard feelings about “the Germans”. The situation was a very bad one and I know many who were against it. You’re so right: there is no entire nation of “evil” people. Very true. – I’m glad you found my blog 😉

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