In the late 1960s, the Army sent me to Germany as one of the thousands who succeeded the “greatest generation” that broke the Nazi stranglehold on the continent.
Twenty-five years after the end of WWII, none of the Germans I met seemed like the monsters we saw in the movies and comic books, and I’ve been trying to understand the Germans since.
I’ve worked over there and studied the language for years, and I try to get there each fall to see how today’s Germans try to solve the problems we both face, to understand better the years I lived through there and just to listen to German spoken by natives.
My trip this year is to Nuremberg and Munich, where I lived and worked as a reporter on and off from the 1960s through the 1980s.
I traveled with Ed Metzler, a friend for four decades since we were colleagues at the European Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Photo: Erma Metzler
I lived in Nuremberg (pop. 500,000) for two years, and no one who’s been here could miss the city’s split personality.
Nuremberg’s Old Town centers on the “first Reich.” Five hundred years ago, thanks partly to its huge moat-and-wall system, Nuremberg was a European powerhouse, where each new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) had to convene his first council meeting.
Then at the southeast corner of town is the mammoth Nazi party rally grounds of the Third Reich. The Nazis called Nuremberg the “City of the Reichsparteitage (Reich Party Congresses).”
As Nuremberg had been a key stronghold during the first Reich, holding huge annual rallies in the city gave Hitler’s Reich a boost in the search for political legitimacy that the Nazis couldn’t achieve at the ballot box.
Ironically, the city’s role as a Nazi stronghold led to the WWII bombing destruction of many of the Medieval first Reich treasures around the city.
Responsibility for the war was defined at the historic Nuremberg Trials in the city’s Palace of Justice. Immediately after the war, a dozen members of the Nazi high command were accused of crimes against humanity and other offenses.
Legally, it was new ground. The symbolic value of holding the trials in Nürnberg, the City of Nazi Party Congresses, wasn’t lost on anyone.
Revisiting cities such as Nuremberg and Munich is challenging because they are “historical” cities, defined for many by their marketplace centers with Medieval walls and towers and narrow stone streets.
But these cities are not quaint relics. In Nuremberg and Munich today, people are struggling with housing, energy and food costs, cars and climate change, a growing gap between rich and poor, new modes of working and shopping, etc. Just as we are.
A central feature of Nuremberg this summer is seemingly inescapable construction that reaches popular sites across the city such as the Weißer Turm (White Tower).
Another key feature is tourists like us. It’s late summer, and school is out in Bavaria. Many resident parents have decamped with their children to one of the Mediterranean or Pacific-island destinations known for attracting their share of the sunblock-soaked.
At home, tourists are a main sight on the streets, although this year, I heard more German than I used to. Some say that’s evidence that costs are driving many Germans to vacation in their own country.
Tourists are somewhat shielded, but inflation, energy shortages and and war-broken supply lines have combined to produce financial misery for low- and medium-income people from the Baltic to the Alps. Food seems to be a key driver of inflation.
In the spring, Germany suffered the sharpest drop in grocery sales in nearly 30 years, especially among the poor. Retail food sales recently were down more than 10% from a year earlier.
Last month, the cost of food was up 11%. In the news and on social media, “regular” people say they’re tired after the pandemic, depressed by the climate crisis and scared by the war in Ukraine.
Wherever we paid, it was most often in cash. During the virus scare, people didn’t want to handle other people’s money, and that weakened a cash habit that goes back centuries and is rooted in German culture.
Cash is used 76% of the time in German retail, especially in small purchases, according to a recent survey. But that seems to be changing slowly.
“Bar oder Kasse” (cash or card)? We were offered the card option continually at checkout in stores and restaurants.
In 2021, the German national bank noted that just under half of Germans wanted to keep using cash. A study found that Germans carried an average of €107 ($116), so I never carried less.
That open window is the air conditioning in our apartment. High in the northern hemisphere, air conditioning is rarely found in homes — and not in schools, hospitals, many hotels and other spaces where it is expected in the U.S.
The lack of air conditioning is no accident. Many Germans prefer an open window and fresh air to the currents from air conditioning, which they fear may carry airborne ailments.
Photo: Ed Metzler