A New World look at the Old

July 24, 2002

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comThere is something humbling for a guy from Wisconsin about a parade celebrating the 1000-year history of a city. On July 7, the city

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

There is something humbling for a guy from Wisconsin about a parade celebrating the 1000-year history of a city. On July 7, the city of Erlangen, Germany, held such a millenarian march.

In the U.S., our biggest such event, the bicentennial in 1976, celebrated an event just 200 years old. To get in touch with our deep past, most of us must reach across the oceans. Not surprisingly, when we focus on our own world, we become myopic. Time telescopes, exaggerating the importance of the near term, propelling us, it seems, into a perpetual state of crisis management with little to show for the process.

What I found most impressive in my visits to Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany over the last four months is the way the people in these countries have integrated past struggles and achievements into the fabric of their lives. Streets in Vienna are dotted with monuments to music. The Netherlands countryside is crossed by canals that channel water that would otherwise flood the country. Erlangen bears testament to emperors who ruled hundreds of years ago.

There, on that continent, people have befriended time.

That was made obvious by the show window of an Erlangen toy store, where the models of two World War II tanks stood side by side, one a Tiger, the most fearsome German tank in that conflict, the other a U.S. Pershing. The passage of time in the hands of German society had rendered the differences surrounding these weapons irrelevant, a fact underscored by the drawings of soldiers posed with them: a German and a GI who bore a remarkable resemblance to each other.

I glanced at those toys initially, walked past, then was drawn back to them. Peering into that window it was obvious that Europe is not so much a different world as it is a different way of looking at one world.

We in the U.S., most of us transplants from other cultures and other times, do not have the history necessary to morph past and current events into a stream of cultural consciousness. But the strings are there.

My trip to Germany reminded me of my grandmother, who in her final days spoke only German, of Bratwurst Days in my hometown, of our family cemetery plot with headstones going back to the mid-1850s.

It made me wonder if we are cultural orphans, who would perhaps be better off if we got in touch with our pasts and wove them into our present. If we did, maybe, time would become our friend instead of our enemy.