It is impossible to not get caught up in it. Dressing up in your best dirndl. Standing on a bench singing ridiculous songs with a thousand people at the top of your lungs. Clinking steins and getting a kiss on the cheek from passersby. The roasted chicken and pomme frites are the best in the world. The beer stein is as big as your head. You become one with the mass (or Maß) with each song, chant, or prost. For that moment you are German, you are celebrating what it is to be alive, you are doing what generations have done before you to celebrate the fruits of their harvest or beginning of a new growing season.
The first year I taught here I was sitting in the back of the Aula (our gym) for the 12th grade “goodbye” assembly. Twelve girls ran out onto stage in their dirndls, the music started, everyone got to their feet cheering, and then they began to sing to a song I had never heard of. They all knew the hand motions. The entire student body belonged to a secret club and I didn’t know the hand shake. I started to laugh. This was insane. Look at all of them go! I guess I would liken it to experiencing 50,000 people doing “The Wave” at a collegiate football game for the first time. I wanted to join in their fun; their euphoria was catching. Then one of my colleagues who was also experiencing this for the first time, leaned in and whispered in my ear “I bet this is exactly what the Nuremberg Rally was like.”
I went from being thrilled to be a part of this moment to being sick to my stomach. My Jewish colleague always had a way of putting things in perspective by giving a swift kick to my intellectual gut. Seconds, later he laughed too. “Isn’t it great to see them cutting loose like this after they have been so serious all year?” But I was still back at Nuremberg.
Alfons Heck spoke about Nuremberg in his book “A Child of Hitler”. He documents what it was like to be in the Hitler Youth during 1938. He was thrilled to be selected to go to Nuremberg and represent his community. They trained, they marched, they were excited to be a part of this monumental moment. Thousands of boys from all over Germany camped out together on the parade grounds. For a young boy this must have been the greatest moment of his life. On the day of the rally, he stated that the boys were instructed to do the salute to Hitler three times when he reached the podium during the ceremony. The energy was so great that he said it was all he could do to stop himself from raising his arm a fourth time.
But you are thinking….that was then, or that’s Germany, nothing like that happens in the US. Well think about the last American football game you attended. You dressed up in the colors of you team. You might even have painted your face. When the band played “da da ta da ta Daaaaaaaa” I know you yelled “CHARGE”. The fight song, the frenzy of the tight game, its 3rd and goal with seconds to go, and this last play could be the moment that gets your team into the playoffs for the first time in years. The snap, the pass, it’s in! You lose control along with the thousands of other fans.
The crowd is what gets you. The feeling of being of part of something…even if it is just for a moment. And what you are doing isn’t bad. It’s exciting. It’s empowering. But it is important to stop and consider the power of the crowd. The crowd can do great things, or the crowd can turn its back on reality, ignoring those who have gone missing, ignoring the negative changes happening around them.
So this week I once again participated in the fest, raised “meine hande noch oben” singing songs with the crowd and once again I remembered my friend Saul’s words. They keep me in check. I am thankful to live in a place where I can experience the fest, the traditions, the dressed up crowd, and love it for all the positive things it brings. I am thankful I live in a time of freedom where I don’t have to fear the negative pull of the masses. But at the same time, I am reminded to be watchful. As I stepped up onto the bench I thought…”Don’t be too easily led, keep your head, and when needed step back down to the ground and stand on your own.”