The Road to Donauthal

In 1955 when I was 10 years old, my parents decided to take a trip to Germany and Holland to visit their families. Like all white folks in this country, they were immigrants. Even the “founders” of our country were immigrants. My folks came through Ellis Island in th 1920’s and met each other in Cleveland, Ohio. My Dad, from Amsterdam, had an older brother named Bernard there. And my mother had 2 brothers named Carl and Richard there also. My mother was from a small village in Baden called Heudorf.

I still have the passport pictures of us together.

We got on a KLM super G “constellation” at Idylwild airport outside NYC. I think they call it JFK or something now. The plane had 4 Pratt and Whitney radial piston engines. Jets weren’t around yet except in the military. After visiting my Aunts Alida and Bets in Bovenkerk, Holland and picking up Bella Flaasman, my Dutch cousin, we continued on to Germany.

We arrived at Stuttgart airport and my Aunt Louise and my Grandmother Fischer were there to greet us as well as couisins Aneraise and Artur. I’m not sure I got their names correctly spelled. My Mom immediately burst into tears at seeing my Grandma. My Mom had not seen her mother for over 30 years. Here stood a tiny, shriveled up little peasant woman in her traditional black “widow’s weeds”. Over 30 years and a war.

I asked my Ma while I patted her hand, ” what’s wrong Mama, what’s wrong?”……..

Okay, it’s Stuttgart, 1955, ten years after WWII, And my Ma is crying her heart out at the airport.

We got on a train to Tutlingen, and then another one even more antiquated to Meskirch. Then it was a short drive to Heudorf. The farmhouses in the village are arranged fairly close to the road with their respective lands spread out behind them. The first floors of the houses were made of stone and the second floors were stucco. God knows how long they had been standing, but they were built to last.

We all had to go up to the second floor balcony through a French? door. The local farmers in lederhosen and Alpencaps were serenading us with a small brass band. I was so darned embarrassed. I mean my pa was a mechanic and my ma scrubbed floors back in America. I wasn’t used to serenades. I guess I muddled through it ok.

I guess I got some lederhosen and an alpencap somewhere along there. And an alpenhorn with which I made a lot of noise. but of course I couldn’t speak a word of German. My folks spoke English at home.

One bright and sunny day we all went over to “Uncle Meier’s” place for a dinner party. I’m not sure if he was a blood uncle or if he was a kind of local “godfather”. He had a huge manse with a rough hewn dining hall and a table in it that could seat maybe 3 or 4 families at a time. Uncle Meier was a huge gross man with flopping beet red jowls. My Dad was extremely pleased because the local white wine was flowing like water.

Now about “Uncle Meier”. He made a lot of money during the war with a trucking firm he owned. When the Nazis were running the show, he trucked for the Nazis. when the allies came on the scene, he trucked for the allies. There must have been a delicate period somewhere in there when “Uncle Meier” was very discrete. Nevertheless, “Uncle Meier” made lots of money all kinds of ways during the war. An entrepreneur, if you will. So I learned at a very young age that warfare can be extremely profitable for some people. First of all,though, you have to make sure you don’t die in it.

Baden-Wurtemburg is a section of Germany that was given to the French for protection after the war ended. French “soldats” were still there in 1955.

My Ma, Pa, cousin Bella, and I made various excursions from Heudorf. Some to visit other relatives In Freiburg. Once to Weingarten. Another trip to the Bodensee and Isle Minau, Even a trip to the mountains. And of course Schwartswald, the Black Forest and the source of the Donau ( the Danube to those who speak English). I think we had what is called an “English Ford” which we rented. It was somewhat cramped with 5 of us.

On one of these trips, we saw a French soldier lying along side his BMW RS 69 S (or something very similar to it) off in the ditch. We stopped the car and Bella ran over to him. He was semi conscious and coming around. Evidently someone had run him off the road. He was just dazed and I think he got back on the bike after a while and roared off.

On another one of these trips, my Dad was not driving. We were in a DKW, a Deutcher Kline Wagen, another relic of the post war years, driven by an “uncle” with one arm shot off during the war. We were negotiating a mountain curve and the road was cut from the side of the mountain with a sheer drop off. Suddenly, a speeding car was right behind us, a convertible, I think.They started to pass and looked very angry and were shouting at us. My uncle who was driving with one arm almost lost control of the car. My Dad was in the front seat and he swore and grabbed the wheel to get us back on the road. It was a pretty close thing.

Then we all looked at each other and my Dad and Uncle were nodding there heads saying “Nazis”

Yes, they were still there in Germany in 1955. Not with the uniforms. But with their hearts and minds.

So at an early age I was learning about warfare and the mind. But I never had to live it. But yes, I had a taste of terror.

You see, when they do it to us, it’s called terror.

When we do it to them , it’s called warfare.

And anything can be a weapon……….

My Argument with the Gestapo

That’s the title of a book written by Thomas Merton before he entered the Cistercian order of Trappists. It was published only after his death in Bangkok, 1968. The following is from the author’s preface.

“One Sunday morning in the spring of 1932 I was hiking through the Rhine Valley. With a pack on my back I was wandering down a quiet country road among flowering apple orchards, near Koblenz. suddenly a car appeared and came down the road very fast. It was jammed with people. Almost before I had taken full notice of it, I realized it was coming straight at me and instinctively jumped into the ditch. The car passed in a cloud of leaflets and from the ditch I glimpsed its occupants, six or seven youths screaming and shaking their fists. They were Nazis, and it was election day. I was being invited to vote for Hitler, who was not yet in power. These were future officers in the SS. They vanished quickly. The road was once again perfectly silent and peaceful. But it was not he same road as before. It was now a road on which seven men had expressed their readiness to destroy me.”

Let’s look at Monasticism. The early Christian fathers, desiring to remove themselves from the temptations of the world, settled as hermits in caves in North Africa and Asia Minor in the desert lands off the southeastern Mediterranean coast.

During the Middle Ages, noble families who had extra sons and daughters that would compromise the direct hereditary line of power were often “given to God” and were placed in monasteries or cloisters that were themselves feudal entities with walls and battlements and surrounding lands in which serfs were bound to labor. The “rule” or way of life adopted by these various cenobitic orders degenerated over time and the monasteries themselves were pits of corruption. Hence new orders bent on reform were instituted.

My Argument with the Gestapo is a stream of consciousness narrative detailing Merton’s life crisis after graduating from Columbia. He was looking for direction in 1941. The US had not entered the war yet and the death camps were as yet unknown.

Nazis and road rage, such a deal. Note that there were Young men in the car.

OK, let’s look at the Weimar Republic.

When I was in high school, there was an elective course that used the text “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” Written by a reporter that spent a lot of time in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, it detailed the political ascension of Hitler and the Nazi party to power. After the armistice was signed with Germany after the First World War, the people of Germany were saddled with war reparations that reduced their economy to the level of poverty. My mother told me that workers would take home their wages in wheelbarrows due to the inflation of the Reichsmark. Farmers would barter amongst themselves what little they had because it was easier than using money. My mother also said that the reason she came to America was that she didn’t want her babies to die in a war. Well, Ma, fewer babies died in the US than in Germany during the ensuing years. So you were right.

The big point to be made here is that when people are desperate, they have ripe ears for the voice of a madman. And of course a madman was provided them. with all the ensuing disaster in spades.

If you can avoid eyestrain, lets look at youth Young people may see themselves as inheritors of the earth (the world is their oyster) which in a sense they certainly are. As you grow older-realization sets in that you are a little cog in a great machine and your focus may narrow. But it’s the job of the older folks to make sure that the younger ones inherit more than the wind. So the wars on foreign soils are very remote and uninteresting to older folks, but gang warfare down the street is more immediate and engaging–you may even write your congressman or join a blockwatch group. We’re talking real estate here, folks…until something cataclysmic happens to draw our attention.

So young, strong, confident, idealistic, Germans of the 20’s and 30’s were ripe for the voice of a madman. Similarly, young, strong, tough, confident, idealistic, Islamists of the 21st century are ripe for the voice of a madman. And sure enough, God will provide them with madmen- he always does.

So is there anything that the powers that be could have done to prevent the present scenario? Well, many suggestions have been made, but I like to look at past occurrences again.

You remember after the second World War, the Marshall plan? Yes, we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the aftermath of WWI, so we just gave a whole pile of capital to Germany, France, Japan, England, Etc. In a sense it was like loaning money to ourselves because without the European economy in some semblance of shape, our export market would have dwindled to nothing. But in a higher sense, those nations would not be fertile ground for mad voices. A win-win situation using a current metaphor.

So how come the sudden amnesia in the case of Yugoslavia, Palestine, Afghanistan, et al? What if we had spent say 200 billions in actual infrastructure and humanitarian aid, instead of organizing clandestine operations with plenty of weapons to madmen for a precarious hegemony. Of course the billions for infrastructure would have to be spent before the madmen came on the scene. I guess that would take us back to sometime shortly after WWII say late 50’s or early 60’s tops. And of course the arms industry itself would have to be placated. Maybe we could just give Lockheed, Boeing, et al a big pile to not produce weapons. sort of like giving farmers money to let their lands lie fallow.

Yes, that would make us poorer. We wouldn’t have as many SUV’s or Pickups. And grand houses made of waferboard would be rarer still. We wouldn’t have filled up cubic miles of the earth with landfill. Maybe Nintendo, Sega, and Microsoft wouldn’t be as far along in game development. And breast cancer research, aids research, etc. would be further down the road.

But those things are little concern to those that die of starvation every day, I’m sure. My folks would always exhort me to remember the starving in China while I grappled with the nausea of a mouthful of carrots. Little did I know. I thought,and rightly too, “what does my swallowing carrots have to do with Chinese relief”

Youth is marvelous in fellowship and solidarity. Back in the 60’s when I was young, youth from all classes were thrown together in a kind of Diaspora. Class lines were muted, indistinct, and young folks everywhere were moving, on the road. There were issues of civil rights and the Viet-Nam war to bind us all together. We had certain popular sayings. “what goes around, comes around” translation: “you reap what you sow”

Later on in the ensuing 70’s and 80’s class lines congealed again. There emerged the differential of rich and poor again, at least on relative terms. And that’s all it takes for distaste, contempt, yes, and even hate, to set in. Just a differential. And of course the more radical the differential, the more intense the hate.

For all you Christians out there, I’m sure you’re familiar with the old saw- “love of money is the root of all evil”. How many times have you heard that one? Yes, it’s always in the back of my mind while I balance my checkbook and adjust my portfolio as encouraged to do by my broker who gets his cut always.

OK- one more time- lets look at Evil.

The ancient concept of evil was quite different from ours. To those folks it meant anything that could hurt or harm. Droughts, Plagues, Pestilence, Earthquakes, Invasions, Volcanoes, Storms, Raining Frogs and Fishes, You name it. If it hurt and you didn’t understand it, it was Evil. And more likely than not it was sent by God to punish.

“Deliver Us From Evil” as it goes in the Our Father. At least that’s the presentation that we have from our current bible, which evolved through early church politics from something else again. But that’s the concepts we are saddled with, stout workhorses that we are.

Today in our enlightened times, we have a much narrower view of evil. We understand scientific explanations of natural phenomena, so those are stricken from the list of course, but they still exact their cachet of terror for those unfortunates caught up in them. Evil is now constrained to human endeavor. “Evil Empire” “Evil Monster” etc. “guns don’t kill, people do”

You bet.

Here’s the word we use when they kill us:


Here’s some of the many words that we use when we kill them:

Note the richness of diversity in description in the second case. A kind of verbal money laundering, so to speak. An attempt of the psyche to dilute the horrible to insignificance. A precision of terminology to the point of vapidity. Shakespeare would marvel at the self delusion.

Self delusion is something Merton, Camus, and Twain all had something to say about. Merton grappled with his conscience in a world of absurdities. Camus gave a monologue from a former lawyer turned “judge penitent” in The Fall. And Twain I’ll save for the next installment.