In an interview, Ingmar Bergman talked of being a child beaten by his father, with the vividness with which he experienced it. His father, the Lutheran chaplain to the King of Sweden, was stern and impassive as he beat him savagely with a rod. He insisted that the boy apologize, and hit him again until he did. Equally sternly, he then said that he loved him. The sin he was beaten for was lying. Ingmar Bergman concluded that as a result he became an excellent liar and learned the ability to dissimulate. To illustrate this discussion, the interview included a scene from his film Fanny and Alexander, in which this beating scene is enacted.
I watched this with horrible fascination, because my father did almost exactly the same—I was severely beaten with a rod for lying. The only difference was that instead of being forced to apologize, I was forced not to cry, because, if I did, I would be hit again. It ended with the paternal kiss on the forehead. Ingmar Bergman concluded, as did I, that the best option was to lie successfully. His older brother and my younger sister rebelled openly, only to be punished all the more.
Subsequently, Ingmar Bergman added in the interview that despite this his childhood was not all that bad; his father could be cheerful and fun; the family was playful and tender with one another. And that is exactly how I would have described my childhood. What struck me in particular was that our fathers, having no connection between Sweden and Hungary, should have behaved in so similar a manner. It suggested that a similar method of childrearing may have been found in many other places in Europe between Sweden and Hungary. Although not every child was necessarily beaten with a rod, ferocious verbal discipline could also have been widespread. But the awe in my and Ingmar’s beating was that our fathers were not visibly angry, but dispassionate. The beatings were not the result of rage but of cool deliberation.
Such physical punishment for children is no longer accepted as proper. Nevertheless, European children are still brought up with great discipline. Many visiting foreigners have noted how American children seem less disciplined. They don’t sit still nor walk quietly and orderly until they are told that they can run and tumble. They can’t sit through dinners and holiday meals and are not expected to eat neatly at table. In fact, it is now widely held in America that excessively controlled behavior dries up a child’s spontaneity and creativity. However it is done, European children are still trained to behave at an early age. Even their body language is different; they hold their arms close to their torsos and don’t flail about. They take up less space.
I heard many comments about the successes of European immigrants in America that were attributed to their greater “discipline.” Statements such as, “Any halfway together European can succeed in America,” while so many Americans seem to shoot themselves in the foot. The unstated idea is that this is so because Americans are so undisciplined. They are allowed to fail and are not punished. Europeans dare not fail.
I ask myself, why was European childrearing so harsh? Europeans are as much loving parents as any other parents, as Ingmar Bergman and I can also testify to. And the answer that emerges in my mind is that over the centuries, European parents have tried to raise their children for the European world, which was not as open, free and optimistic as the American world. For many centuries, even millennia, the European world has been crowded, competitive, dangerous, and bloody. It required self-controlled, tough, people, who could tolerate pain without crying. Perhaps not intentionally, but it encouraged people who could not only mask their feelings but also hide their thoughts in lying. Religious, political and ethnic persecutions developed personality types like Ingmar Bergman’s and my father’s, spread across the continent. Whatever neuroses Ingmar and I have had from these beatings, they also provided strengths we used in our work.
The next time you meet an inscrutable, very capable European with a mask-like face, think of the harsh childhood discipline and the many disastrous wars that are behind it. And when you admire a lot of European art, think that it was created by people like Ingmar Bergman, pouring the contradictions of their psyche into their work.
As an immigrant, I often have a nostalgia for the Europe I came from, with its castles and treasures. As wonderful as America is, in its way, it lacks the charm of Europe. Americans are nostalgic for Europe, too. Europe is the Old County, the seat of all great culture against which the US does not quite measure up. When graduating from college, many Americans I know made a beeline for Europe to experience its greatness for themselves.
My American husband likes to watch World War II movies and documentaries. His favorite is the German movie, Das Boot, which he has seen a number of times. He considers it to be the greatest World War II film of all time. Whatever snippets I saw of it were so violent that I never wanted to see more. The other day, by chance it caught my eye halfway through, and I watched it with some curiosity. It is the story of the men on a Nazi submarine fighting the Allies. One horrific event is the blowing up of an Allied destroyer. Believing that its men had left the ship, the Germans bomb it to smithereens, watching in horror as the surviving sailors jump in the water and swim towards them to be saved. However, the German captain gives the order to retreat without saving anyone and the men aboard ship watch as all those in the water drown. They are now dispassionate.
After other horrific events, the German sub makes it to a safe port in the Mediterranean, and the sailors, who have been cooped up for so long, can finally emerge into the light. At that point there is an air raid, a bomb falls, and almost everyone dies. It is total devastation. That’s European.
As I was watching the film, I was focusing on the complex submarine itself and seeing it as the great technical and scientific advancement of Europe, all put at the service of the most sadistic warfare. I thought of the individual sailors, some more, some less, caught up in the war machine and ideology. I thought of the endless wars in European history, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War. And then I could not but think of my own life, born in the middle of World War II in Hungary, then listening to Russian shells putting down the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, menaced by Russian tanks as we were escaping to Austria. However lovely Europe and European culture can be, it has always been extremely violent as well.