Unlike Barack Obama, I have no heartwarming story to tell about a grandfather or great-uncle who liberated the concentration camps of the Third Reich. My mother's father didn't fight in World War II: he was a machinist, needed on the homefront. My father's father did fight in World War II. An infantryman, he was stationed in Bulgaria, where he fought the Soviets . . . for the German army.
My father's father (I called him "Grandpa" when I was young, but today the name doesn't feel right) died when I was 10, so what I know of him, I know through my father.
He was not a warm man; it's incredible that my father became the sensitive, empathetic man he did. His sense of humor was boorish and overbearing, like that of a stereotypical washed-up jock. Before and after the war, he worked as a salesman.
He was not a Nazi -- that is to say, he didn't belong to the party. But he supported the party's goals, along with those of its methods the German public knew about at the time. He was casually anti-Semitic, asserting (though not forcefully) that our Swiss-descended surname had Arabic roots, so that our family was the "opposite" of Jewish. (I'm not sure that the party line would have held Arabs in any higher esteem than Jews, but we aren't dealing with high-level logic here.)
Although the Nazis took power through a variety of political shenanigans, rather than through proper democratic channels, for a time they enjoyed majority support. My grandfather might have been considered a mainstream supporter of the party. His brother, my great-uncle Artur, was a broader thinker and had serious doubts. I don't know whether Artur did anything to resist or just kept his head down during the Nazi years. But my grandfather was drafted into the army and went readily. In the only photo I've seen of him in his younger years, he poses in his army uniform.
Even in a repressive, violent totalitarian regime, citizens have choices. They can seek to flee the country. They can stay and resist, openly or clandestinely, actively or through small acts of defiance. They can keep their heads down and remain neutral. Or they can collaborate. Helmuth Hübener, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudolf Wobbe were mere teenagers, yet they circumvented the Nazis' control of information by listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio and disseminating the news they heard around Hamburg, a brave decision for which Schnibbe and Wobbe were imprisoned and Hübener was hanged. My grandfather, an adult with an infant son, went willingly to war.
This is my family legacy.
What does it mean for me? I didn't support the regime by fighting for it. I never supported the mass arrest of socialists, "deviants" (including homosexuals and women who advocated for birth control), the handicapped, Catholics, Roma and Jews. I never enabled a regime that repressed its people and deprived even its first-class citizens of fundamental human rights. But these choices are all part of my family history. Even if I bear no blame, I bear a responsibility.
The responsibility I bear is this: that when faced with the same choices, I will choose differently.
That I will never consider any other human being, or group of human beings, to be less than fully human.
That I will act toward my fellow humans in a spirit of brotherhood, with full respect for their dignity and rights.
That I will oppose scapegoating, disrupt attempts to classify people, counter the polarizing hate speech designed to undermine the reasonable center.
That I will use my freedom of expression to dissent whenever the mechanisms of our democracy and the safeguards of our civil liberties are circumvented or undermined.
That I will not let the big lie go unanswered.
That I will stick up for the rights of the minority, the rights of the unpopular, even the rights of the enemy -- because even the enemy is still human.
That I will pledge allegiance by the flag of the United States of America to liberty, equality and justice for all, and that if the United States turns its back on these things -- or, heaven forbid, ever stomps them into the ground -- then I am an American second and a citizen of the world first.
This is what it means to me to be a German-American in the 21st century. This is what it should mean to be an American in the 21st century. If it isn't, then what, after all, did your grandfathers and great-uncles liberate?