Alas, history must have its bogeymen, those sinister figures without whom any given age would have been a mere yawn. There is Genghis Khan for example, the barbaric warrior who couldn’t be stopped by even the Great Wall of China. And we have the Assyrians, that scholarly kingdom that created the library of Nineveh while destroying every neighboring kingdom. It was the Assyrians who lined their roads of conquest with tall spears, each one topped by a severed human head.
But somehow, no figure or nation quite matches Germany in the area of negative press. The story of America’s Revolutionary War is much spicier thanks to the Germans. Although the “redcoats” were the main enemy, they couldn’t shake off the aura of a certain civility. It’s hard to make the barbarian label stick when the target pauses at a certain time every day to sip tea. The spiffy uniforms and the powdered wigs just didn’t fit a savage image.
The Hessians though, were something different. In many accounts, these hired German soldiers, fighting for the Brits, come off as wild animals. It was allegedly they who injected an almost satanic evil into the conflict. The Hessians are depicted as the equivalent of an army of killer robots, horrifically annihilating anything in their path.
As bad as the Germans came off during that war though, the Twentieth Century presented the worst press a people could possibly ever have. World War I produced propaganda posters showing German soldiers as King Kong in a spiked helmet, savagely carrying away a defenseless woman. We need not even mention the unspeakable details of World War II. And then to finish off the century, there was communist East Germany and its Berlin Wall imprisoning half a nation.
Now the Egyptian government is suing two German archaeologists and Dresden University over the alleged defacing of the last surviving wonder of the ancient world. The Ministry of State for Antiquities is accusing the archeologists of having stolen samples of a cartouche of Khufu from the king’s burial chamber in the Great Pyramid. The Ministry has also imposed a number of penalties against the Germans and their university. This news comes on the heels of the recent story about priceless, Nazi-looted paintings having been discovered in a German apartment, a story that dovetails with a new film on the subject.
Yes, history has a way of casting people and countries in a particular light, simply by emphasizing certain elements while downplaying others. Historical figures and even populations are alternately deified or deflated. On some occasions the shoe fits, and on other occasions it’s forced on. The purpose of this piece is not to advance any point of view whatsoever regarding a particular nation, but rather to encourage a little skepticism regarding the stereotyping bent of human nature. Let us ignore no facts, but rather take in enough facts to provide our minds with a complete picture. Like the work of painters, the images drawn by historians and journalists, in the memorable words of Ira Gershwin, “ain’t necessarily so.”