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Germany’s N word

Various German commenters in my prior post about my talk in Berlin are taking me to task because I dared hark back to World War II in a discussion of government-required identity cards and how that enables the state to monitor the people — and a discussion of the value of publicness and how that enables the people to monitor the state.

“I really don’t think it it necessary to pull the ‘Nazi-card,'” said one. “Please don’t even in an article about Google make strange references to the Nazi history…” said another. “Can we please let the nazis peacefully burn in hell? K thx,” asks one more. “It’s always the krauts, blitzkrieg and all that,” complains the last.

So apparently Germans are allowed to say Nazi. I’m not.

Let’s examine that. In Friday’s discussion in Berlin, it was the German politicians who alluded to World War II and East German oppression. Thilo Weichert, the privacy commissioner, raised the allusion in his opening remarks: “Of course, we have a Nazi history in Germany and we have the DDR history, which makes clear to us how information can bring oppression.” A reporter in the crowd asked whether in decades we’d believe that “pixelated buildings were taken away from historians and the public, so Germany would look worse than after the war.” Renate Künast, the Green leader in the Budestag, huffed in reply that “the reconstruction of the pixelated buildings is much easier than what the Trümmerfrau [women who cleaned up rubble] did after the war.”

As I said in my post, every time I talk about privacy in Germany, I am reminded by Germans that I must consider the context of the Nazi and Stasi past. It is in this very context that I raise the spectre of police stopping citizens on the street to demand identification for reasons that cannot always be predicted and protected against. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the idea that what’s public is a public good that can nonetheless be destroyed by government’s actions. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the warning that the people should not give anyone, especially government, the right to hide in public by forbidding us to picture what happens there. It has happened before. And it is in this context that I pointed to what I confessed was the too-obvious — but very, ahem, concrete — metaphor of a bunker just at the corner as a warning of a society that closes inward in defensiveness. It has happened before. But apparently, I’m not allowed to say that. Only Germans are.

(And note well that in my book, I will also spend considerable time talking about another part of German history, Gutenberg’s, and the transition from one way of cognating and expressing the world. Because it has happened before.)

More context: I’m a friend of Germany. I love the place. I married into a German family. I am fascinated by the people. I go there as often as I can find an excuse. I am grateful that my career and the internet have enabled me to make friends and have colleagues there. I hold the nation and its accomplishments in high esteem while I learn lessons from its past. I have studied the nation’s history with shelves of book at home on the subject. I have studied the language but to little avail and I apologize for that every time I am in Germany.

I do not apologize for my affection for Germany. But I must tell you, my German friends, that many Americans expect me to. I get funny looks when it comes out that I took German in school and I am asked why I would do that. People ask about my politics as a result. I know Americans, still, who won’t buy products made in Germany. I defend Germany to them. And part of that defense is to tell them how much the Germans talk about their past and consider it. Tucked all over Berlin are memorials to the victims of that past. At the Topography of Terror exhibit in the remains of the basement of the Gestapo headquarters, the list of those memorials — a plaque of plaques — is amazingly and tragically long.

But in the discussion here, it is as if my critics are saying, “We talk about our past and that is enough. So you shouldn’t.” Or worse, they are saying we should not talk about the past. It is as if they are saying that for me, Nazi is the N word.

But as someone from a nation of oppressors myself, I think we need to examine the etymology and ownership of words of oppression. Here, the American N word was a tool of oppression whose ownership was taken over by its oppressed. As a white American, I may not use it and that is as it should be.

But in Germany, I am hearing that Nazi is a word Germans may use but not others. Sorry, but the word no longer belongs to Germany; in Germany’s hands, it was a tool of oppression. So now it belongs to its victims, to the rest of the world.

If that word is used only as an insult — see: Godwin’s Law — then it is being misused. But that was not the case in the present discussion. Here, all of us — the German government officials and I — were trying to find context in history for changes in our world brought on by digital identity and its impact on privacy and the tools of publicness and their impact on our power in society. That is a perfectly legitimate discussion. It should not be shut down, my German friends, because you don’t like hearing someone else use what you think is your N word.

My points about the past are serious indeed. Beware government using your identity as its tool against you. Beware the precedent of telling Google it may not picture what’s public as that enables those in power to stop the rest of us — the public — from picturing what is public. And beware bewaring too much, talking just about what could go wrong and missing the opportunities change brings because we keep looking back instead of forward.