Hunting the Truth

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Reading a review in the NYRB of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld’s memoir, I see a photo of Beate Klarsfeld with her arm raised in the Bundestag where she is shouting at the Chancellor before being removed from the chamber: “Kiesinger, Nazi, resign!” The date is April 1968.

On November 7, 1968, the review says, “Beate . . . slapped West German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi Party member, during a public meeting.”

Where was I that November? I open my book Immortal for Quite Some Time and find the answer on page 10:

November 1968, Language Training Mission, Provo

     Missionaries have been assembled in a large lecture hall to learn advanced techniques of “Motivational Psychology.” A young, bald, and energetic man named Stephen Covey shows us a double-sided drawing and asks us if we see the face of an ugly old woman or of a beautiful young woman. Your conditioning determines what you see, he explains. The keys of influence depend on the point of view, he tells us. When we criticize, judge, and reject we freeze a person’s point of view and they become defensive and hostile. If we understand and accept, they will be open, teachable, and fluid.

     Then we’re back to German verb forms: er glaubt, er glaubte, er hat geglaubt, er hatte geglaubt. He believes, he believed, he has believed, he had believed.

We weren’t going to be hunting the truth when we arrived in Germany, we would be delivering it. There was no need to learn about the current politics of the country or about its history. Verb conjugations and memorized lessons about the restored gospel would suffice.

Over the next two years, I delivered the truth as well as I could, and found myself hunting it as well.

7 April 1969, Cologne, Germany

     The young couple invites us into their booklined apartment near the University, curious about our American religion. She asks about the war. I explain we aren’t political, that as missionaries we are trying to make the world better one person at a time by teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He argues that persons can’t flourish unless political and social institutions make that possible. He sings protest songs, bangs on his battered guitar. We read together from the Book of Mormon. Their little boy succumbs to the sandman. Nephi cuts off Laban’s head to get the brass plates inscribed with family history: “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”

     What?

     That’s Nephi, my companion responds. The Lord commanded him. It was an exceptional case, I argue. God ordered Nephi to break the law because his people needed to know their family history and God’s law.

     I’ve seen violence in the service of God, our host explains, and in the service of dialectical history for that matter. “Exceptional case” means “the end justifies the means.”

     What are those books on your shelves? I ask, pointing at a rainbow-colored row of paperbacks.

     It’s a series published by Suhrkamp: Brecht, Marcuse, Frisch, Benjamin, Weiss, Adorno, Hesse, Bloch. Do you know them?

     Not yet.

     Before the week is out I am carrying a slim purple edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder. I bend over the dialect-strewn text on the streetcar, reading my way into a radical new world. I savor the vinegary words on my tongue: “Eia popeia / Was raschelt im Stroh? / Nachbars Bälg greinen / Und meine sind froh.”

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About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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