That German Thing
By Abbott Ikeler
“We’re Dutch,” my father used to say, “Holland Dutch.” Which was his way of emphasizing we weren’t Pennsylvania Dutch, or German. He went the length of nicknaming my older brother “Dutch,” just to be sure the world got the message. But, oddly, all through my childhood there was no talk of relatives in the Netherlands, no photographs of windmills or tulips, no fairytales of blonde girls in wooden shoes or blue-clad boys putting their fingers in a dike. Apparently, the only thing that mattered about our “Dutchness” in those years immediately following World War II, was its non-Germanness.
By the time I was off to boarding school in the late fifties, U.S. anti-German sentiment had largely morphed into hatred of the Soviet Union and “Red China.” It was okay to like Germans again — Werner von Braun was in charge of our space program and a man named Eisenhower sat in the White House. But my father was still adamant about our ancestors: yes, they’d been in Eastern Pennsylvania for generations but, no, they weren’t from Lancaster County and they’d been among the first in their town to turn in their buggies for automobiles.
My mother, a Canadian from Toronto, had no reason to doubt his claims. By January of 1958, no one had. He died, quite suddenly, at the age of 50.
Perhaps it was the absence of his voice that emboldened me to drop French in my sophomore year and take up German. After all, I had no beef with Germans. I was too young when the war ended to remember it. Besides, I really liked the German composers our music teachers played, especially Beethoven and Wagner. Their Weltanschauung — oh, how proud I was when I learned that word and what it meant! — seemed more serious, more profound than the rest. I could hum the theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th on command. Or Walther’s song from Die Meistersinger. It didn’t matter that no one else seemed to care. These Germans, writers and composers, were saying something to me that I wanted to hear.
Yes, they weren’t as witty as the British or as cutting as the French, but they did know how to be both earnest and fun-loving. Our German teacher offered us a smorgasbord of the culture: short stories from the 30s and 40s, folk songs and drinking songs, Beatles’ hits from their Hamburg days (Komm’ gib mir deine Hand, etc.), comic films such as The Confessions of Felix Krull, and, most memorably, a half-semester deep-dive into Brecht’s racy, irreverent lyrics to Die Dreigroschenoper.
By the time I got to college, I was a confirmed Germanophile, though I could barely speak the language and only read it with difficulty. Enthusiasm and sympathy for things German, once stirred, carried right through my college and graduate school years. What I couldn’t read in the original, I read in translation: Magic Mountain, Tin Drum, Faust, William Tell. If I was asked to write on the English Romantics or the American Transcendentalists I invariably began with the influence of Kant or Fichte or Schiller or Goethe.
As soon as I was out of school and teaching, I grabbed the first chance that offered to live and work in Germany — a Fulbright, followed by an additional year as a visiting professor. That expat experience gave me the language fluency I lacked, and a more complex understanding of the culture. Since then, I’ve crisscrossed the country, almost every year, from Luebeck and Hamburg to Munich and Passau, from Weimar to Aachen. I come home with a suitcase full of books, all in the original, discuss them with German friends and my German daughter-in-law, and, though I’m retired, gatecrash German coffee hours at the nearest university that will let me past the door.
In a word, “that German thing” has become a life-long addiction, a divine affliction from which I hope never to be cured. It informs my fiction and poetry now. Most recently, in The Long Wake: Seven Tales of Post-War Germany, it has at last taken center stage.
When, in 2006, I learned that my father’s ancestors were not Dutch, but 18th-century German immigrants from Hamburg, it seemed in perfect keeping with my sentiments. I took the news to my son, expecting he’d be as delighted as I was. After all, he’d taken my German predilection several steps farther than I had — he’d lived in Berlin and Essen for years, married a Westphalian woman, and was busy raising twin German-American children.
“Ha. Interesting, Dad,” he replied, “but a little disappointing. All these years thinking we came from Holland made me feel somehow special. Now, when I say we really came from Hamburg, I won’t raise an eyebrow or turn a single head. Germans are everywhere, Pop.”