A few months ago, not for a million dollars could I have told you what the Ukrainian flag looked like. Now they’re everywhere: on car windows, flying from apartment buildings — and a particularly large number of them was plastered inside the windows of a Berlin hotel where I recently stayed. This was to compensate for the theme and name of the establishment: Zarenhof, the Czar’s Court.
The walls of this boutique hotel feature old photographs of the czar and his family. Chandeliers and furnishings evoke a sense of Old World grandeur. This was all fine and unproblematic, right up until February 24th, when Russia attacked Ukraine.
The invasion brought Western governments to their senses on defenses and even awakened German politicians from a very special kind of fairytale slumber regarding Russia’s friendly intentions. It also inspired people to lash out at Russians living abroad. Including, it seems, the lovely Zarenhof Hotel, which, incidentally, I highly recommend.
At a Munich stand-up comedy club recently, the moderator pulled his usual stunt to warm up the audience by asking everyone where they were from. Considering that around one-third of Munich’s population is non-German and since the evening featured English-speaking comedians, the audience consisted primarily of English speakers. Thus the provenance of spectators came as no surprise: France, Mexico, the U.S., Ireland, etc.
Then in response to the standard “Where are you from?” question, one woman responded in a small voice: “Russia.” She said it in an apologetic tone and her shoulders slumped as if to say “Sorry!”
Suddenly, the room got very quiet. There was a brief lull as the audience considered what to do with this seemingly inflammatory information, but the moderator, Gagan (also a non-German, from India) quickly brought the audience to its senses.
“Come on, guys!” he said. Immediately the tension dissipated and people laughed. I think they had surprised themselves with their own reactions. He then moved on to poke fun at the next person and the cheerful mood was restored.
I can relate to this Russian woman’s feeling. Decades ago when studying in Spain, I found myself face to face with Central and South Americans who were not very happy with the U.S. for the way it routinely meddled in their countries, to put it mildly. I, too, would have been vehemently against interference in the affairs of foreign countries, but that presupposes that 18-year-old me actually knew what my country was doing, which I definitely did not.
It was just as senseless to blame me for U.S. politics then as it is to blame Russians abroad for Putin’s politics now.
This blame game has a rich history. It seems people are often angry about distant wars and feel compelled to take out their feelings on an object or person nearby. Whether this object or person is in any way responsible is beside the point. It appears that the goal is just to let off steam or perhaps make some kind of statement. The Southern German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported on April 21st that over 400 acts of violence had been committed, primarily against Russians, since the war’s outbreak.
Where my parents grew up in the Midwest, there were many descendants of German immigrant farmers. Some spoke German, and even more used the German word for yes, ja, when speaking English. Returning home for a visit after moving to Germany, ja had also creeped into my language when I spoke English.
My mother was visibly rattled when she heard me say this word. Her reaction baffled me until she explained that she had been strictly forbidden from using any German words in her childhood. Because in those days, in the 1940s, the Germans were the bad guys.
But Japanese Americans had it far worse. Many were interned in camps for the duration of WWII and their land and other property were confiscated by the U.S. government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is in many ways revered as an American hero, but this is a big blot on his legacy, according to the well-known historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her excellent biography No Ordinary Time. At least the U.S. government apologized and has erected some minor memorials to this shameful chapter of its history. It’s a start, at least.
In the meantime, we can only hope that people stay level-headed before lashing out at someone who bears no responsibility for a war in their home country. They should use this energy to do something useful such as helping refugees or becoming politically active at home rather than just complaining about the sorry state of affairs.