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[personal profile] fpb
I was listening to the Pope's last Angelus, and I found myself smiling when he greeted the Poles in their own language (as he did with the other main languages). I found myself thinking that there would be a special pleasure for citizens of Poland to hear a German addressing them in their own language. The recent history of the two countries has been a crescendo of mutual hatred, ending in the massacre of one-fourth of the Polish population, followed by the expulsion of millions of Germans under circumstances of terrible brutality.

But then I realized that really I could say the same for myself. When I grew in Milan, vicious prejudice against Germans was a living reality. And it's not just a matter of Nazi and torture jokes; it was a matter of real racial prejudice, with Germans being not only oppressive and homicidal, the designated enemy, but idiotic and foul-smelling too. Their Italian was uniformly terrible and expressed a basic stupidity. A German officer reaching an area flooded by its defenders is bewildered - his maps don't show any lakes there. (Germans, you see, are too stupid to understand the concept of wartime flooding.) One gag had a goat (the smelly animal par excellence) escape the company of a German: it couldn't stand the smell.

This is more than the inheritance of one, even two, world wars, and as a matter of fact it is rather better explained by much older events; it is, in fact, likely enough to be typically Milanese, and I might never have encountered it in such a virulent form if I had grown up, like my parents, in Rome. For Milan and Venice, along with surrounding areas, were the only parts of Italy to be under the direct government of the hated, German-speaking Empire of Austria from 1815 to 1859. Now, to call the hygienic twentieth-century German, even in his most murderous guise, evil-smelling, is clearly nonsense: even their mass murders were carried out with great attention to cleanliness - that was the meaning of the immediate mass destruction of murdered bodies in ovens, before they had the time to spread disease. But an evil smell was in fact a feature of the Austrian occupation troops, mostly not even German themselves, in the eighteen hundreds. In spite of their resplendent white uniforms, they had a bad habit of stiffening their martial moustaches with tallow, and apparently the result could be really stifling at close quarters. Milanese jokers seem to have needed no more than a mention of tallow or of smell to get a laugh.

This ethnic cliche' might have died out if the break with Austria after 1859 had been clean and swift; alas, it was neither, ended up trapping considerable Italian minorities behind a permanent frontier, and made sure that the hatred between the two countries lasted until the final Italian vengeance of 1918 and the annihilation of the Austrian Empire. Obviously, under such circumstances, the Milanese were not going to forget the evil smell of "German" troops for the mere reason that they were no longer around to be oppressive. Then there was the poisoned alliance of 1940-1943, the nightmarish occupation that followed, the savage partisan revolt of the last two years of war, the German massacres, all centred on Milan; and if ethnic hatred had ever had a chance to go out of style, that must have settled it. In a Milanese folk-song from the immediate post-war period, German soldiers are called "black rats":
...poeu su in muntagna a ciapĂ  i ratt:
negher Todesch de la Wermacht,
mi fan morire domaa a pensagh!

"...then we took to the mountains, to do some rat-catching -
Black German rats from the Wehrmacht,
Makes me feel ill just thinking of them!"

These were the memories I grew up with. To people like me, and I would say to a huge amount of Europeans from all kinds of parts of the Continent, to welcome the German nation back to the world of civilized people must have been at least as much a dislocation as for Americans of the southern States to accept equal rights for their darker skinned fellow citizens; harder, if anything, because American blacks and whites at least spoke the same language, and, when the worst came to the worst, could sing the same songs. I know that, for a long time - even after a German hospital effectively saved my brother's life - I could not relate to Germans or to Germany without a certain sense of doubt and alienness. I speak German, I have been to Germany and Austria, I have German and Austrian friends, I warmly admire at least one German woman as a genius...

...but I think I can say honestly that I have never completely lost that sense of doubt and alienness until I first saw and heard Pope Benedict with my own eyes. One of the things this wonderful man immediately does is disarm ethnic hatred. He is so obviously kindly, so obviously open, so obviously everyone's beloved old uncle or father figure, that you can't help but take him as he is and love him for what he is. I like to think I am speaking for many others when I say that, to me, this gentle, tired old university professor is a living human token of peace and respect between nations.

Date: 2013-02-28 02:50 pm (UTC)
filialucis: (Default)
From: [personal profile] filialucis
I'm going to miss him sorely.


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