A is for Ancestors

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The second post for the letter A is about Ancestors. This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project.

So who are my ancestors anyway?

The first thing that springs to mind is looking at my blood family tree: my parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. So let’s take a little glimpse in that direction.

My maternal grandmother (1936)

My mother (who is still alive) was born in Freiburg in southern Germany (Black Forest area) and both of her parents come from roughly the same area (Baden). Her mother (I’m told) was a cheerful, curious person who spent two years in Algeria as sort of a combined nanny-teacher in a French family in the mid-1930s when she was in her early twenties. I have transcriptions of her letters to her family about that time but haven’t read all of them, yet. Her father was a building inspector (I’m not quite sure what work that entailed back then, probably something architecture-related) and many of her other relatives were farmers.

My maternal grandfather with his father, sister and mother (1917)

My mother’s father came from a background of craftspeople, went on to become a teacher and eventually became a school principal. He also was an idealistic Nazi before and during the Second World War. I have a lot of letters he exchanged with his wife during the war but, again, I haven’t read all of them yet (because I can only digest so much of his naive glorification of Nazi Germany at a time). I believe he eventually ended up both wounded and a prisoner of war somewhere in the East. His wife (my maternal grandmother) died of cancer when my mother was 18, so I never met her. We didn’t see this grandfather very often (at most once a year), and I never really liked him. He eventually suffered from dementia and died at 90+ years when I was 16/17.

My paternal grandparents (late 1930s)

My father, who died almost exactly three years ago of cancer at the age of 69, was born in Lüchow in north-eastern Lower Saxony (Germany). His mother comes from the same area, and I assume his father did as well. His father used to be a forester/hunter. I don’t know much about him and never met him. His mother came from a family that owned a linen shop in Lüchow. She spent part of her youth in Spain, which she considered one of the best times of her life. She raised three sons basically by herself after her husband was killed in the Second World War and remained single for the rest of her life. She was very present during my childhood, which was easy since she always lived in the same city as we did or at least close by. I loved her a lot. At the end, she also suffered from dementia and eventually died at the age of 90+ years when I was 28.

As I was looking for a picture or two to go with this post, I realized that I have way more photos, letters, and transcribed diaries of my mother’s side of the family than I was aware of. Among these is a genealogy chart of my grandfather that goes back to the 1700s to what amounts to my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Ironically I have the Nazis and their demands for “racial purity” to thank for this, since he apparently had to fill it out to to be allowed to enter the Nazi teachers’ professional organization in the late 1930s.
The vast majority of these ancestors died in the same village near Heidelberg they were born in. Most of the men were (linen) weavers or some farmers (tobacco and asparagus were popular crops in that area), with a few other craftsmen and day-laborers sprinkled inbetween. It looks as if my grandfather actually was the first one to get any kind of higher education, and my mother was the first woman of her direct paternal line to ever attend any kind of university (not considering any siblings because I don’t have any data about them). It’s a bit strange to not see any professions listed for the women, because I suppose there was no shortage of work for them, and they probably did much of the same things as their husbands. Most of these ancestors were some kind of Protestant (Reformed or Lutheran), and one or two women were Catholic. That makes me the first child of that direct line never to be baptized in any kind of faith (my parents wanted to leave the decision what religion – if any – I wanted to belong to to me). I also saw that I share my birthday with a (great-)great-great-great-grandmother (she is both since two of her children married in two different generations), who was born in 1799.

Now that I know so much about that one branch of my family tree, I want to find out more about the other three of them. I believe a talk with my mother and a cousin of my father (who did some genealogy research of his own) is in order sometime soon.

My maternal grandfather with my mother (1940)

But let’s look at other kinds of ancestry. Most related to my blood ancestors is the national heritage of being a post-WW2 German, which I believe has a huge influence on my political thinking (which was already the case before I knew that my grandfather had been a convinced NSDAP party member and Nazi officer and several of my other relatives were at least casual Nazi supporters). To this day I often choose to speak up about injustices, even if it is to my disadvantage, because I don’t want to be accused of “not having said anything.” I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous Germans. I’m also very suspicious of any kind of national pride that some of my fellow Germans claim (and which has apparently become shockingly acceptable to display in relation to World Cup soccer matches again). I just can’t see how I can be proud of something I didn’t contribute to, especially a country I was more or less accidentally born into (depending on what you believe about previous lives, karma, and such things). I constantly question concepts of national or “racial” identity, point out the historical mutability of national borders, and try to show how the search for something “pure” and “original” in terms of ancestry and heritage is pretty pointless in a world where humans have always been migrating between areas, have been trading goods and customs with other cultural groups, and formed relationships with members of a different cultural background. So my German-ness is a kind of ancestry I claim somewhat hesitantly, although I also see that I am able to choose what to do with that heritage in terms of educating myself and others towards a non-Nazi-esque worldview.

So now that I’ve touched on the idea that my blood ancestry and national ancestry probably have an influence on me, even though I don’t believe they determine my fate, I would like to take my questioning the concept of ancestry a step futher.

I believe that there are influences that may have been at least equally important than these biological or geographical ancestors were to me. I mean, it’s not like my relatives played a major role in my upbringing (with the exception of my paternal grandmother). I saw them all maybe once a year, sometimes even less often. In my actual daily life, neighbors, friends, and some teachers were much more present and influential for me.

Lesbian bar (USA, 1940s)

And then there are the ancestors I also never met and with whom I share no blood relation or even geographical ties. You see, as a queer femme, I claim parts of the North American butch-femme and LGBT history as mine (I also claim small parts of German LGBT history as part of my heritage but not to the extent that I identify with much of North American LGBT history). And can I even call them ancestors when many of the more vocal members of certain generations and movements are still alive? Sure, some of this “ancestry” may be rather selective and romanticizing, but that doesn’t mean it feels any less real to me. I certainly can relate a lot more to their lives than I can relate to even my own grandfather.

It’s probably apparent by now that it’s a matter of perspective and (inner) debate who even belongs to my ancestors. Not to mention making any decisions about honoring any or all of them. Do I really want to honor a convinced Nazi? Do I ignore the political views of my grandfather and honor our shared love for nature instead? How do I handle the fact that he didn’t bring much happiness to his own wife and children (especially his daughter, my mother), even if he didn’t outright abuse any of them? Is it possible to view him as a human being and still condemn the opinions he held and his active support of the Nazi regime? What if I find out in reading more of his letters that he knew of the concentration camps and/or participated in killing people during his time in the military (at the least the latter of which seems pretty likely)? And what about my two grandmothers who were at least casual Nazi supporters for at least some of the time? I see that their main concerns wasn’t what happened in the political arena or even on the war fronts – the letters I have read clearly show that their everyday lives consisted of trying to feed their children in a war economy and getting by without their husbands instead. But still. What – if anything – did they know about Nazi cruelties? Did they denounce any neighbors? Or did they find their own small forms of resistance that didn’t endanger their husbands’ lives? Is ignorance an excuse for not doing anything against the Nazi regime?

Despite the length of this post, it’s all still a very superficial look at these issues, raising more questions than answering any. I’m definitely not done thinking about them, I’m not done researching, and I’m not done trying to put my thoughts into words. But for today, this post shall suffice, as imperfect as it is.

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4 responses »

  1. I think being German, we all have a difficult heritage to deal with. I suppose it’s easier for those who never knew anyone who lived during the Nazi era. None of my grandparents were active supporters of the regime but like most of the Germans they just didn’t do anything. How much they actually knew – I’m not sure. I never got to meet my paternal grandmother as she died before I was born but with the rest of them I had regular contact. The one I loved most was my Nana, my maternal grandmother who (among other things) actually first interested me in reading cards. My parents were both too young. Had my father been a year older, he would have had to join the Hitlerjugend but he was lucky.
    I asked myself the same questions about my ancestors as you did and just decided to love them for who I knew them to be – the people I personally knew and loved, not their former selves. I think a lot of people of that generation harboured regrets about that time and were ashamed of not having done anything. But after the war they were also glad to have survived and picked up the pieces and started an entirely knew life. I believe for some their “old life” before the war just didn’t exist anymore.

    I like what you say about “non-related” ancestry. I feel the same way about women’s lib. It’s not fashionable these days calling yourself a feminist but I have always proudly done so as I am eternally grateful for the options and opportunities I have today. Opportunities I would not have if I wasn’t standing on their shoulders. University? A working mom? Are you kidding? And who would feed that poor husband of yours and clean your house?

    Perhaps you need to look at the good qualities in your related and non-related ancestry and make that your own and when it comes to their mistakes – we just have to try hard not to repeat them. Seeing all the black red and gold flags during the Football Worldcup made me uneasy, too at first. But then I thought, I don’t have to be ashamed of my heritage and it’s okay to be “proud” of being a German – as long as that doesn’t entail actually feeling superior to anybody. I think I have made my peace with my German heritage. Thank you for this post!

  2. Your example of feminism is another good one for ancestors we aren’t related to by blood – thank you!

    I don’t believe that ignoring the bad things my ancestors did is the solution here, at least not for me. My maternal grandfather joined the NSDAP in 1931 already so he was certainly more than just a half-hearted follower who just didn’t want any trouble and therefore went along with things to keep up appearances. He was crushed when the high hopes and ideals he expected to realize with and through the Nazis didn’t come true. Therefore, the fact that he used to be a Nazi had a tangible effect on his life after the war, on my mother’s life, and on my own life as well. I can’t separate that aspect from the rest of him. That said, I also don’t believe that outright condemning him for that aspect of his life is the solution. That’s the thing with many German family histories (and with our national history as a whole): it’s messy, it’s complicated, and there aren’t any easy solutions. Even those people who tried to leave it all behind were still affected by their past and the guilt, shame, and shock they experienced. That period of German/European history – like any war, genocide or dictatorship – isn’t an individual issue, even if we (and our parents and grandparents) are mostly dealing with it as individuals.

    About the soccer World Cup that took place in Germany: I’ve never felt so unsafe in the streets in broad daylight in my entire life. I’ve also never heard so many racist comments, including Nazi salutes (for the non-German readers: those are illegal here), in such a short time by so many people who didn’t seem as if they thought of themselves as neo-Nazis. I also don’t know a single person of color (and I’m including Southern/South-Eastern Europeans here since I don’t know a better umbrella term) who didn’t report the exact same thing. And that’s not even counting any physical attacks. I know the mainstream media and many flag-touting soccer-crazy Germans were all claiming it was all innocent “pride” of a “new generation” of Germans who “finally” felt “proud” of their country of origin. But innocence is not what I personally experienced, and I’m living in a big liberal city, not some tiny backwards village. Therefore I’m unable to share the enthusiasm about being German, even if it’s “only” in relation to a sports event. Again: this is messy stuff that doesn’t have an easy solution.

  3. Maybe I was lucky to live in a smaller town. Over here I didn’t hear anything – which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen over here. I live near Dortmund and Dortmund in particular has a massive neo-Nazi szene. However, racism and nationalism isn’t a German invention and you can see it the world over. I am grateful that so far no nationalist party ever cut it in the “Bundestag”. It’s bad enough to see them in federal parliaments and I hope they won’t ever be able to enter the “big” political stage here.
    So in that sense I hope that our difficult heritage works to an advantage so that history won’t repeat itself over here. Perhaps it could be misconstrued what I said earlier. With being “proud” of being a German I mean that I’m no longer trying to hide it. In the past when asked I often said I was Dutch or Danish or Swedish when asked by foreigners because I was ashamed to admit I was German.
    I was really shocked that in the US a lot of people said things like, “Your Hitler had it right back then” when I mentioned where I came from. I was too young to react appropriately though. Today I think I’d get myself into trouble. ;)

  4. I believe I understand what you mean about not trying to hide being German anymore. I remember doing that, too. When I was in the Netherlands many years ago. I exclusively spoke English and hoped no one would ask me outright where I came from (I wouldn’t have lied, but I also didn’t volunteer the information). In hindsight I would say I probably was ashamed of being German.

    Today I still would prefer speaking English (because I love the language so much) but I don’t feel ashamed of being German anymore. I believe a lot of this came from interacting with people from all over the world online, some of which had German ancestors and were able to claim these just like they claimed their Irish, Polish, or Italian ancestors. Indirectly, that enabled me to see Germanness as a much more “cutural” aspect of my heritage, a part that was mostly tied to certain landscapes, food, or customs I grew up with, and not only with the Nazi past of this country/nationality. That still doesn’t make me feel proud (because pride for me is tied to my own achievements), but it also doesn’t make me feel ashamed to say that I’m culturally German – because I simply am. And that implies no judgment of value, it just means I’m more familiar with some landscapes, foods, or customs than I am with others.

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