I once met a man who was a dead-ringer for Joseph Goebbels. He had the same dour sort of face plastered to a gaunt skull that could only have been squeezed in a vice; the same thin hairline that had retreated in step with the Reich’s exhausted armies; the same curt manner that summed itself up in a curled finger–“come here.” Our introduction to each other began with a beep from an airport scanner in Frankfurt. With no words, he directed me to an isolation space behind the security station. I’d be a liar if I said that standing with my arms outstretched as he patted me all over with gloved hands and chemical swabs didn’t send my heart racing. I didn’t know what to expect.
But more than that, I was on my guard. This was my first time in Germany–a connecting flight to elsewhere. All I knew of Germany and its people was what my grandfather’s stories and the History Channel had accidentally made instinctual to me: they were the enemy. There was something of a reckoning in that moment. It seemed that history had left me with only one response to an nationality: suspicion.
My grandfather rode with the 2nd Armored Division from Normandy to the Rhine. At the age of thirteen, his future wife led her siblings to shelter under the stairs as the Luftwaffe bombed targets across Somerset, night after night. Her aunt lost a thirteen-month old daughter in the London Blitz. Her uncle served with the BEF in France, and, after his capture in Greece, he spent five years as a slave laborer in a Bavarian salt mine. A generation earlier, my family sent almost a dozen men to fight above and below the trenches of the First World War. While–miraculously–not one died in combat, my great-great-grandfather, a sapper at Ypres, wheezed with the effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life.