Angela Lambert: A Germany still to break free of the past

This part of Germany, brutally 'cleansed' in the 1930s, remains to this day the Aryan homeland Hitler dreamed of
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The Independent Online

Bavaria, in the south-east corner of Germany, looks like paradise. I've never seen so many hard-working, helpful, cheerful people living in such an idyllic landscape. They're up early in the mornings, watering and dead-heading the geraniums that adorn every house or sweeping their personal stretch of street; one and all without exception clean, healthy, sober, industrious and - it follows - prosperous.

Bavaria, in the south-east corner of Germany, looks like paradise. I've never seen so many hard-working, helpful, cheerful people living in such an idyllic landscape. They're up early in the mornings, watering and dead-heading the geraniums that adorn every house or sweeping their personal stretch of street; one and all without exception clean, healthy, sober, industrious and - it follows - prosperous.

The town near to which I stayed - Berchtesgaden - had no graffiti, no rubbish, no dirt of any kind. Everyone was polite and helpful, teenagers didn't challenge adults with aggressive sexual displays, wear eccentric or over-revealing clothes, sport tattoos, shaved heads, spiky or green hair, or pierce their flesh with steel rings. Obesity was rare. Few women wore make-up. Their clear, tanned faces shone with energy and goodwill.

Men, despite the universal beer-drinking, appear steady, confident and law-abiding. Drivers show care and consideration. There are no beggars, I saw nobody handicapped, no drunks, no drug addicts, no violence, no sign of poverty or misfortune anywhere.

Surrounded by soaring, craggy mountains, their lower slopes softened by sparkling green meadows manicured by sheep and goats to inch-long uniformity, Bavaria is outstandingly beautiful. Its denizens have done nothing to spoil that beauty. Logs for the coming winter are stacked in impeccable piles, every one the same length, arranged according to thickness.The ubiquitous wooden chalets all look the same and are all freshly painted. Nothing is shabby, nothing is broken, rubbish is ecologically sorted into five different kinds. Efficiency rules.

So why should I have felt so uncomfortable? Why did Bavaria and its decent, contented people remind me of the Stepford Wives, when surely this utopian landscape represents the best of everything we have gained in the last 200 years? Here is the epitome of 21st century achievement - people better fed, better housed, better paid and healthier than ever before in history. Compare their lives with those of the miserable peasantry depicted in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, a world in which children were driven from home by parents too poor to feed them. Today, in that same pine-clad corner, miracles have happened.

Yet the unease remained, and as we drove around, covering a leisurely 500 miles in six days, my partner and I discussed why this should be so. Why couldn't we just admire and enjoy?

Part of the reason is rooted in myth and tradition. German artists from Dürer to Altdorfer to Caspar David Friedrich, above all Richard Wagner, have taken inspiration from these crags and pines, these flamboyant sunsets and brooding storm-laden skies. Bavaria speaks to something very deep in the Teutonic soul. It offers heroic visions of conflict, light against dark, good vanquishing evil; iron warriors and blonde queens and ice-maidens.

By chance, the day after I returned to London, I passed a gallery in whose window stood a homoerotic painting of two Aryan youths, their faces set like steel, behind them a mountain panorama. The ideas of implacable military might and the propaganda of the Nazi era evoked by such imagery are still closely linked in the European unconscious.

These strong but simplistic images leave no room for doubt, for imperfection, for mediocrity, let alone failure. You cannot be different in Bavaria. Its guiding rule is: conform. It is the most hierarchical society I have ever encountered and this alone is enough to disconcert.

Another obvious reason is its recent history. This smiling land was the cradle of Nazism. Hitler grew up here. He was born in Austria, barely half a mile across the border marked by the river Inn, but at the age of 17 he left (pursued by the Austrian police for having failed to register for compulsory army service) and fled to Munich.

This was the city in which the Nazi party had its roots, gained its first members, and which in the early 1920s provided a platform for Hitler's inflammatory racist speeches. Munich remained the Nazis' base and even after 1933, when Hitler was ensconced in the Reichskanzlei in Berlin, he came back to Bavaria as often as possible to relax from affairs of state in his chalet above Berchtesgaden. With hindsight, this is a powerful reason for feeling ill at ease, above all in Hitler's personal enclave.

How could this utopia have spawned some of the nastiest people and ugliest events in the history of the world? Of all places, why Berchtesgaden?

The little town is aware of its shameful past and has, as far as possible, expunged all traces of Nazism. Only at the recently-opened Dokumentation Obersalzberg - an information centre on the mountainside below where Hitler's Berghof once stood - is there any mention of the fearful events a few decades ago. The Nazi murals that once adorned the walls of many buildings have been painted over, whitewashed out.

Nobody tells you - indeed, very few local people even know - that Berchtesgaden's vast station was built by Albert Speer to impress Hitler's visitors when he greeted guests like Mussolini or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Nobody cares that the little pizza hut beside the sparkling river Ach was formerly a guard-house, built to protect Hitler from the crowds who thronged to the Berghof to see their Führer at home.

Yet there was more. Something else was disturbing me, and it took a couple of days before I could identify it. Everyone in Berchtesgaden - everyone in the whole of Bavaria - is white. In six days I saw fewer than half a dozen black people (my partner counted four) and nobody - nobody - of mixed race. The Turkish Gastarbeiter who provided slave labour for Germany's modern industrial miracle were invisible, if they were there at all. Not only that, I saw almost no one from the Indian subcontinent and, apart from a handful of Japanese tourists photographing each other in front of mountain vistas, no Asians either.

This part of Germany, brutally "cleansed" in the 1930s and 40s of its mentally or physically handicapped citizens; of Jews, Romanies, Bolsheviks and homosexuals, remains to this day the Aryan homeland Hitler dreamed of creating. In six decades, nothing has changed. Elsewhere, the whole of western Europe is multicultural, with foreign faces and voices mingling on the underground, in shops, galleries and wine bars. Not in Bavaria. This was at the root of my deep unease.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two. This week's news magazine Der Spiegel has Hitler on its cover (guaranteed to increase sales) and devotes 20 detailed pages to reconstructing his last weeks in the bunker. A two-hour documentary film on the subject is nearing completion. (The face on the cover turns out to be that of the actor who plays Hitler.) In the aftermath of the war, the German people have moved through humiliation, denial and guilt to a guarded acceptance of the bitter truth of what happened in their civilised country when it was under the sway of a psychopathic Hitler and his brutal henchmen.

But now Germany - and especially Bavaria - must accept the changes of the last half-century and join the present-day multicultural, multiracial, inter-marrying reality of 21st century planet Earth.

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