For Germans the past is present, relevant, of great importance. The past explains who we are, where we come from, how the present has become the way it is. For them the past is not history in the sense of gone, over, goodbye, irrelevant. History is present and future, a part of their identity.
Old buildings, with their stairwells and staircases, ceilings and facades, and many other kinds of cultural monuments are protected in Germany by Denkmalschutz – laws requiring their protection and preservation – even if they are in dire need of reburbishment or reconstruction.
Entire sections of German towns can be placed under Denkmalschutz. History is heritage. Heritage is identity. The battle for and against Stuttgart 21 – a modernization of Stuttgart‘s main train station – went on for several years and became the prominent issue in recent state-wide elections in Baden-Württemberg.
Outdoor museums in Germany show how people of past epochs lived and worked. Castles from the Middle Ages with their fascinating guided tours are popular daytrip destinations. In every German village, town and city one finds remnants of the past. Town gates, walls, even moats, and chapels are integrated seamlessly into the modern.
In elementary schools children learn Heimatkunde – history of their local region. The Heimatfilm – movies set in a specific region such as Bavaria or the Black Forest – remain a constant in the German media landscape, keeping alive regional customs and traditions. Many detective tv series are regionally based, one week in Hamburg in the north, the next in Leipzig in the East, the one thereafter in Cologne in the Rhineland.
Searing: Very hot; marked by extreme intensity, harshness, or emotional power.
The United States is an immigrant country. More accurately stated: a younger, more recent immigrant country. For the history of mankind is the history of man moving, settling, then picking up and moving again.
There were and are reasons for why people moved and continue to move to the United States. Many seek greater freedom of thought, of religion, of way of life. Economic opportunity was/is certainly a motivation for many, if not most. And there are those who wanted to break out of the inflexible structures of their native country.
The immigrant experience is searing. It is of great emotional intensity, forming who we are as individuals, families, ethnic communities, and as a nation. The stories, the emotions, the choices made are passed down from generation to generation.
Oddly, but understandably, an American of German descent will say: “I’m German,” meaning, “My ethnic heritage is German,” in a deeper sense, “My national cultural hard-wiring is American and German,” just as it is for others: American and Italian, American and Irish, and Vietnamese, and Mexican, and Polish, and so on.
A searing experience. People left behind all that they knew. Language, culture, traditions, friends and relatives. The risks were both high and not entirely known. The immigrant experience leads to a complex relationship with what was once home. For people take their culture with them. National culture changes only slowly and painfully.
Immigrants admire, respect, long for their home. But they also leave it behind, in some ways they reject it. Americans have always seen America as the New World. Not just a new settlement, a new country. But a new world, as if mankind were starting afresh, anew. It is a part of the American self-understanding to believe that you can strike out on a new path, question old ways, methods, traditions.
Realistic for Americans means that the present is a starting point to the future, a new starting point towards a new future, possibly different and better than the past. Yes, the present is the result of the past, but not locked into a pre-determined, unalterable trajectory. The past, therefore, has less relevance. There is less need to explain how the present was arrived at.
Whereas for Germans realistic means “keeping your feet on the ground,” maintaining a sober view of the situation, not deviating too much from known ways; “knowing where you come from.” For Americans realistic means developing a vision, imagining new possibilities, stretching beyond, reaching for more and greater things.