Saturday, August 13, 2016

History Lessons

I just returned form a wonderful tour of Germany that emphasized sites made famous by Martin Luther's contretemps with the Catholic church that evolved into the German Reformation. It was a thrill to stand in front of the church in Wittenberg where 500 years ago next year Luther appended his 95 theses to the church door soliciting debate, on, inter alia, the theological justification for Rome's practice of indulgences.

Indulgences, as you may know, were promises by the Church that one would be absolved of purgatorial punishment in exchange for a financial contribution. They were in fact nothing more than exploitation of the gullible masses in order to finance the Church's various wars and building projects, including St. Peter's basilica in Rome.

Luther's skepticism about the pope's authority to release people from purgatory led to a clash with Rome that resulted in his excommunication and which ultimately changed the world.

Anyway, our tour director was a woman of formidable intellect and knowledge of German history and culture. As we drove around Berlin and other sites in east Germany she frequently commented how grateful she and so many other Germans of her generation (she was born in the early 40s) were to the United States for helping to rebuild the country after the war. They were deeply grateful, she explained, for the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift which kept the citizens of West Berlin from being starved by the Soviet blockade, for John Kennedy's famous 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and for Ronald Reagan's challenge, as he stood at the Brandenberg gate in 1987, to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall which confined east Berliners in a dreary, stultifying prison:
Germans loved America for this, our guide assured us, even though we had bombed their cities into rubble during the war, a tragedy for which they blamed Adolf Hitler, not the U.S.

As she discoursed on this theme, I think most of the Americans on the bus (there were two Australians) probably felt at least a ripple of pride in the humanitarian task our parents' generation had undertaken, but I couldn't help but think, too, that I wished our first lady could have heard our guide's words. Mrs. Obama, of course, once declared that she hadn't been proud of her country until her husband was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for the office of president in 2008.

How could an educated person, a woman with a law degree no less, reflect on what the United States did for post-war Germany (and indeed Europe and Japan) and not take pride in the sacrifices her country had made for people who'd been devastated by the war? What other country in history has ever done anything for a conquered foe comparable to what the United States did after WWII?

To be fair, it could be that Michelle Obama never had a U.S. history class that wasn't taught by some Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky epigone, but whether she did or she didn't her statement was breathtakingly parochial, disappointing, and uninformed. Just ask the German woman who directed our tour and whose family suffered through those bleak days.