It occurs to me that I never exploited the opportunity to talk about my trip to Germany this past summer. Like Tacitus before me, Germany and its inhabitants made quite an impression on me.
To recount the trip chronologically would be to discount the really amazing experiences; as humans we have no choice but to experience life chronologically, but our minds recollect the highs and lows of an experience, and tend to cut out the tedious passage of time.Â In that spirit, I’ll try to cut out the tedious parts.
The lasting impression I have of that trip is the sense of belonging.Â Totally contrary to the fact that my family left Germany over a hundred years ago, and little mention is made of it among my family, I felt as if I had grown up there, and I was as much a part of Germany as it was of me.
Of course, there are the more ephemeral day to day experiences that I can only now recall through photos.Â Even if it’s only a snapshot of Charlemagne’s chapel, all of my senses remember the moment I took this picture. The glittering mosaic inside, the musty air, my fingers tracing the 1300 year old stones, worn smooth by 13 centuries of curious visitors just like me.Â It’s not just the place that looms large; it’s the feeling of closeness to an ancient European monarch whose accomplishments shaped the modern world in ways I never thought possible.
Maybe that’s why I feel a closeness with Germany- 5 years of studying German language and literature grants me a more profound understanding of Germany than my own country.Â My studies began with Germania, a text by the Roman historian Tacitus (mentioned above).Â His goal was to understand the Germanic tribes, while his contemporary Romans wanted to conquer them.Â Both Tacitus and Roman generals found the Germans to be worthy enemies, and to this day the score still stands Germanic Tribes 1, Roman Empire 0.
Next, the Oaths of Strasbourg, a document from 842 whose historical importance can’t be overstated.Â The oaths taken were between the grandsons of Charlemagne, specifically two jerkwads who happened to rule what is modern day France and Germany respectively.Â They agreed that they should kick the crap out of Lothair, who ruled the territory between France and Germany, now called Alsace-Lorraine.Â Brotherly feuds aside, the Oaths are the earliest written example of three distinct European languages: Early French, Early German, and Latin.Â The two conspiratorial brothers vowed in each other’s language to protect one another and gang up on Lothair using exactly the same vow, which had the result of three different languages presented alongside one another for future linguists to drool over.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, a period of great literary development, despite the undeserved moniker of the ‘Dark Ages’ (their age being no less dark than our own).Â German folk tales and cautionary stories are at once witty and gruesome, my favorite example being Till Eulenspiegel, noted for farting, stealing shoes, and skinning dogs alive to trade their fur to the blind owner of an inn.Â Of course, he always got his just desserts, usually in the form of some public humiliation.
A couple hundred years later, the Reformation happened.Â Reformationist literature is extremely interesting, not only for its strong arguments against the Catholic church, but particularly for being wildly anti-semitic (looking at you, Martin Luther).
Then, the nationalist period began to pervade the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.Â A little known fact about Germany is that it didn’t officially become a country until 1871, almost 100 years after the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.Â Up until that time, it was a loose coalition of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and other sorts of doms.Â Thus, there was a pervasive feeling of inferiority; neighbouring lands like France, England, Spain, and even Russia had been unified for hundreds of years; Germany was a day late and a dollar short.Â Unfortunately, this led to a super-charged nationalism that would start two World Wars and drastically alter the course of human civilisation.
The literature of 20th century Germany is immensely depressing.Â It reanimates the suffering and grief of those who lived and died during both World Wars, and the uncertainty between them, with chilling clarity.Â I think anyone who reads and comprehends the stories of this time would be a lifelong pacifist.Â In many ways, reading from this time period is like a hallucinogenic drug- a little is safe, and can conjure up thoughts and emotions beyond your own experience.Â Too much, however, can be poison and alter your reality permanently.Â A favorite of mine is Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, by Bertolt Brecht.
Covering 13 centuries of German literature is only a beginning to understanding Germany- it took me five years, and I’ve only dipped my toe in.Â If you’d like to learn more about German Lit, consult your local librarian!