|GERMAN LIFE// back to articles |
Interview by Andrea Schulte-Peevers
The fighting Spirit of Eric Braeden
MOST AMERICANS KNOW HIM as Victor Newman, the handsome leading man on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless. But many will be surprised to learn that actor Eric Braeden began life as Hans Gudegast. Born in 1941 in war-time Kiel, he still remembers being taken to the basement every night during the Allied bombing raids. After the war, change came slowly to economically depressed northern Germany. “Post-war Germany was a tough place to grow up,” claims the actor, whose most painful experience in life has been losing his father at age 12. In 1959, fresh out of high school, he turned his back on the provincial atmosphere of his hometown, booked a one-way passage on an ocean liner, and sailed for America in search of adventure and opportunity.
After stints as a cowboy, university track star, and lumberjack, Gudegast landed in Hollywood and soon captured his first part as a Nazi rogue in the 1963 film Operation Eichmann. Six years later, after hopping from one villain role to the next (most notably that of Captain Dietrich on the 1960s TV series The Rat Patrol), he was offered the lead in The Forbin Project. The one condition was that he Americanize his name; “no one with a German name would star in an American Picture,” Braeden was told. Reluctantly, Hans Gudegast became Eric Braeden, in memory of Breadenbek, a village near Kiel. Other movie roles followed before he made the part of Victor Newman his own some 14 years ago.
On the day of our interview, Braeden had just finished taping 40 pages of dialogue for an upcoming episode of the soap. Exhausted, he stretched his lanky frame out on the dressing room sofa. He looked like he needed a couple of weeks of R and R. But Braeden, a devoted boxer, knows how to call up deep reserves of strength when he’s on the ropes. When the conversation turned to the image of Germans in America, lethargy quickly gave way to intensity. A man of depth, intelligence, and sensitivity, Braeden’s concerns go well beyond the personal level. As co-founder of the German-American Cultural Society (GACS), he has dedicated himself to promoting an accurate and fair portrayal of Germans and Germany in the American media, as well as to encouraging dialogue between Jews and Germans. For his continuous efforts in this area, he was appointed to the German-American Advisory Board, joining Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and Katherine Graham. In 1991, he was awarded the Federal Medal of Honor by then German President Richard von Weizäcker, whom Braeden greatly admires, for “his courage and moral leadership.”
The 53-year-old actor talked to German Life about his frustrations and hopes, the roots of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, the need to identify with one’s country, and what being German means to him.
GL: You have spent most of your life in America, yet you never stopped identifying as a German. What prompted you to found the German-American Cultural Society? Braeden: I founded it because I’ve been very angry about the way we are misrepresented in this country by the media.
GL: How do you define that misrepresentation? Braeden: The image of Germans, almost exclusively, relates to the Second World War, relates to the Nazis. It’s as if Germans did nothing else but put people into concentration camps and fight these wars. As a German of the post-war generation, I resent being identified with the Nazi period. I resent being presumed to be of the same attitude as that crazy Austrian private with his insane racist attitudes named Adolf Hitler. (This identification) dehumanizes me. It has done to me what the Nazis did to the Jews. Germans are being dehumanized. We may be good mechanics and good brewers of beer, but we’re never represented as full human beings. And it’s that which I resent deeply.
But I want to be very specific about this: my anger does not reach the point where I become revisionist, where I deny what happened. There are some here who do, to my dismay. By denying those things you only make it worse.
GL: How do you counter these misconceptions and misrepresentations through the GACS? Braeden: The way the GACS tries to incrementally do this is by engaging in dialogue. I know when I meet a Jewish person or anyone else who is not from Germany, they will immediately have certain presumptions about me. And I understand that. I say, ‘All right. I know what you think of me, but now let’s sit down and talk.’
I personally believe that if we don’t do that, we run the danger of allowing stereotypes about each other to be perpetuated. Therein lies an enormous danger. We must discover what we have in common as human beings. We must not be separated because of some stupid ethnic perceptions.
That is what I’m fighting. I know it’s a hopeless battle because certain images are being perpetuated all the time. But I’m a defiant bastard. I tell people straight from my heart how I feel about it.
GL: What should Germans do to reach out to the Jewish people?
Braeden: I think it is incumbent on us Germans to always be the ones who proffer the conciliatory act. We can’t expect that to come from others who have suffered because of the Nazi leadership’s decision to start a Second World War.
I know there’s a sentiment among lots of Germans to say, ‘Enough is enough. I don’t want to discuss it.’ I understand that sentiment. However, what I always ask those Germans to do is to put themselves in the shoes of an entire ethnic group that Hitler tried to destroy totally. If I had been part of that ethnic group, I would probably be angry forever. I’m not blaming Germans of that time for having followed Hitler initially. What I’m saying is that everyone was had. I’m absolutely and thoroughly convinced that the vast majority of Germans would never have allowed to happen what happened in concentration camps. However, how do you as a German today convince someone who is not German of that? Because all you see in the media are stories that indicate that the Germans knew all along. Of course they knew about anti-Semitism. They knew that a lot of people disappeared in concentration camps, not only Jews but Germans as well. But the way Schindler’s List – an excellent film – extrapolates one particular issue of World War II and now puts it onto the front pages as if (the extermination of Jews) was the main concern of the German people…It was not! It simply was not.
When the German people found out in 1945 what really happened, I’m absolutely certain, I know that the vast majority was aghast. In other words, it’s not only that Hitler pulled the wool over the eyes of countries who fought us eventually. I think the German people, too, were had, were raped in the worst way.
GL: Anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Germany and finding supporters among all age groups. How big is the problem and what should be done about it? Braeden: It’s a many-sided problem that not only emanates from those who are incorrigibly racist. It also emanates from those who feel that nothing they do is ever good enough. A lot of resentment among Germans comes from the absolute unwillingness – on the part of the Allies and on the part of Jewish groups – to embrace my generation of Germans which has done everything possible to make good.
And don’t give me that shit that you can’t ever make up for it. (Since the end of World War II) Germany has always been conciliatory – to America, to Israel, to everyone. But if you stretch out your hand often enough and you get beaten each and every time, you eventually pull it back in defiance and say, ‘to hell with it.’ And therein lies the danger. And that, I tell Jewish groups, you must become aware of. Don’t just always cry about how bad Germans are. You must at one time or another recognize what my generation has done. Appreciate it, say something good about it, don’t just negate it.
What I have to tell Germans in the leadership is that it’s about time they developed a healthy self-consciousness as to who they are. They’ve done great things in the Bundesrepublik. If people attack us for not participating in the Gulf War, then you have the responsibility as a German chancellor to say, ‘Wait a minute. The reason we’re not participating is because our constitution does not allow us to participate militarily outside of German borders;’ this, too, is a legacy of World War II. What do you think would happen if we sent German soldiers overseas? Then you’d see a reaction.
We have to have leaders who are vociferous about this, who have backbone to say, ‘Don’t constantly identify us with that 12-year period.’ That doesn’t mean that they have to be nationalistic, that they’re Nazis. We have as much of a right to be proud of who we are as anyone else.
When we look at America, we don’t constantly talk about the decimation of Indians or the disgraceful treatment of Blacks. We don’t remind the English of excesses in their colonies. But perhaps we should start to!
GL: You really are angry.
Braeden: Very. Because I hear it over and over and over again. Ad nauseum. (He sighs.) You caught me at a time when I’m vulnerable, I guess. But I’m very passionate and very angry about this.
GL: Other than anger, what’s the emotion that drives your personal commitment to improving the German image? Is it quilt? Responsibility? Pragmatism? Braeden: It’s not pragmatism. If I were pragmatic about it, I’d say, what do I care? I had nothing to do with it. But the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. We are, in a sense, victims of that period as well. What is sad about my generation is that, when we became 4 conscious of who we were, we did not necessarily become conscious of our German-ness unequivocally. We became aware of it with mixed feelings. I think it’s very important for the psychological health of a human being to have identified positively and unequivocally at one time with their country. You may later on become critical as you look at things, as Americans do when they look at their own past. But we (Germans) never grew up with that absolutely free, clear enthusiasm about where we were from. It makes us more self-conscious, and it makes us very wary of expressions of patriotism and unbridled nationalism. GL: If there was one thing you’d like non-Germans to know about Germans, what would it be? Braeden: That we Germans have as many doubts, as many depressions, frailties, as many human feelings as anyone else does. We may have a tendency to have a stiff upper lip sometimes, but we are just as human in every respect as everyone else.
GL: You recently played tennis with George Bush and emceed an evening for Nancy Reagan. Does that mean you’re involved a lot with Republican causes? Braeden: When you ask me, am I mostly with Republicans, that’s not true. I’m respectful and I’m trying to remain objective. I think one of the great malaises of the Western democracies is the fact that people think of policy in polarized terms. That’s what’s happening in Germany between the CDU and SPD. It’s a polarization that is artificial, resulting in the inability to solve problems objectively and rationally. So if you ask me, am I SPD, CDU, Democrat, (or) Republican, I will tell you, it really depends. What we must try to arrive at is the means by which we avoid trying to solve problems from a narrow perspective of partisan politics.