Recently, a visitor to a southern plantation wrote a viral tweet complaining about a guide who forced her to spend her vacation hearing about slavery. Some tourists at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Mount Vernon, The Washington Post reported last week, are posting negative reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere because of the barest mention of the African Americans who were forced to work at the third president’s home, creating much of the wealth that made the glories of Monticello possible.
As an American Jew from the South who has lived in Berlin for decades, I’ve been asked whether Americans, in contemplating a plantation home, Confederate statue, or some other monument to our nation’s slave past, should emulate the way Germans treat Nazi memorials. To which I respond: There aren’t any. Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces, however many grandfathers fought or fell for them. Instead, it has a dizzying number and variety of monuments to the victims of its murderous racism.
There are no Nazi sites in Germany in the sense that there are plantation sites in the United States. The only equivalent sites that now exist in Germany are concentration camps.* On the site of Buchenwald, where as many as a quarter of a million inmates were held, a museum dispels any notion that the citizens of the nearby cultural capital Weimar were unaware of what was happening in their midst during World War II. The idea that tourists would visit such a place seeking smiling women in dirndls—much as some visit American plantations looking for ladies in hoop skirts—is obscene. Not even members of Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party would suggest glorifying that part of the past.
The deliberate national penance that most Germans now take for granted offers a striking contrast with the ways Americans have confronted our own national crimes.
My great-uncle wasn’t a racist, he just fought to defend his home. My grandfather died for the homeland he loved; what’s wrong with that? Sentiments along these lines will sound familiar if you’ve followed the long-simmering debates over the removal of Confederate flags and monuments across the United States—debates that intensified after nine black churchgoers were massacred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Some of those remarks were made by white supremacists who, plainly enraged by the presence of a black man in the White House, knew exactly why they wanted to keep Confederate flags flying. Others who are less malicious, if perhaps less honest, make such claims with vague references to family tradition.
But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that descendants of the Nazi armed forces—the Wehrmacht—once made exactly the same claims as the descendants of the Confederate army, and not just in the dark, shell-shocked days that followed the unconditional surrender outside Berlin in 1945. Remarks exculpating German soldiers continued to be made in public through the end of the 20th century. With 18 million members, the Wehrmacht had included a broader scope of German society than any other organization. Even Germans who did not serve in it had fathers, sons, cousins, or brothers who did. Until the now-famous Wehrmacht Exhibit traveled through Germany from 1995 to 1999, showing photographic evidence of war crimes committed by average troops, many still believed the myth that the Wehrmacht was clean, even gallant. Those brave men who defended their homeland against the Bolshevik menace were no better or worse than millions of soldiers before or after them.
In American life, the symbolic importance of the Nazis stands in inverse relation to what we know about them. Nazi just means: the black hole at the heart of history, the apex of evil, the sin for which no condemnation is sufficient, no expiation possible. There is, of course, a wealth of scholarship about the Nazi period produced by English-language historians. More problematic is public memory: what every half-educated member of a culture knows in her sinews, for it seeped into them before she can remember. Things like your country’s geography: few Americans must pause to consider whether Michigan is north of Arizona, or Connecticut east of California. If you’ve forgotten everything else from your school days, you’re likely to remember that. For most Americans, Nazi is condensed into one genocidal moment that marked the outer limit of Third Reich crimes: the transport of civilians, in cattle cars, to death camps where they were murdered by poison gas. By focusing on that moment, without a glance at what happened before or after it, we lose the opportunity to learn anything useful from the Holocaust whose lessons we are told to remember. We still know too little about how Germany reached the point of committing those crimes. We are also ignorant of how German society slowly and fitfully came to terms with its violent, racist history—a process from which other nations, including the United States, can learn.
I arrived in Berlin in 1982 as a Fulbright fellow finishing a dissertation on Immanuel Kant. Still the Holocaust was inescapable. The 50th anniversary of the Nazi takeover was the following year, and, in preparation, thousands of Berliners were seeking ways to come to terms with what had happened. There were historical exhibits, theater and art productions, and no end of books and discussion. The projects were occasionally funded, but never organized, by the government. All were created by citizens revolted by the actions of their parents and teachers, and determined to expose the truth about them. Their unofficial slogan, printed on many a banner, was: “Collective Guilt? No! Collective Responsibility? Yes!”
Having begun my life as a white girl in a South racked by the civil-rights movement, I am likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin. I have spent much of the intervening years watching Germany come to terms with its history. If the 2017 white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville established anything beyond doubt, it’s that Nazis are not only a German problem. Not everyone seeking to preserve symbols of the Confederacy is a Nazi. But the Nazis’ embrace of the Confederate cause makes plain: Anyone who fights for those symbols is fighting for Nazi values. For monuments are neither just about heritage or just about hate. They are values made visible. That’s why we build memorials to some parts of history and ignore others. They embody the ideas we choose to lift up, in the hopes of reminding ourselves and our children that those ideas have been embodied by brave men and women.
Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Wehrmacht. By choosing to remember what its soldiers once did, it has made a choice about the values it wants to reject. Other choices, like glass walls in government buildings, from the Reichstag dome on down, reflect the values it wants to maintain: Democracy should be transparent. When the Berlin Wall came down, it left behind prime real estate in the heart of the city. Instead of selling it to one of the many bidders, Parliament decided to dedicate 4.5 acres to what became the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, along with many smaller monuments scattered throughout the city. The rebuilding of Berlin—a long, sometimes maddeningly discursive process, in which historians, politicians, and citizens debated for more than a decade—was aspirational. No one, least of all a German, would claim that the renaming and rebuilding of public spaces eradicated the roots of racism. The city was not rebuilt to reflect what is, but what ought to be. Berlin’s public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic should commit itself to holding—decisions with which Americans are now struggling.
The struggle itself is good news. We have learned that unexamined pasts fester, and become open wounds. Like most white Americans, I was taught a history that was both comforting and triumphant. I wasn’t, of course, entirely ignorant of the ways in which the country failed to live up to the ideals on which it was founded, but those failures remained peripheral, and part of a narrative that sloped upward toward progress. Slavery was a crime, but we’d fought a war to outlaw it; segregation was unjust, but the civil-rights movement had overcome it. Barack Obama’s presidency seemed the natural coda to this hopeful story. Few people believed that the election of an African American president could end racism entirely, but no one expected the backlash we are witnessing now. If there’s a silver lining to a White House that—in its public statements, policy choices, and political strategy—regularly signals its support for white nationalism, it’s that white Americans have been forced to publicly examine their country’s history as never before.
Just a few years ago, major national media had to patiently explain that the monuments valorizing Confederate soldiers were not innocent tributes to recently fallen ancestors, but the deliberate attempt of organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy to promote a false account of the Civil War that buttressed white-supremacist ideology. For those of us who are not professional historians, the years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Montgomery bus boycott were largely blank. The information has always been available—primarily in books and documents, far less in film or other media—but it took work to seek it out. Even the name “Jim Crow era” was deceptive. Without much knowledge of the ways in which slavery mutated into Black Codes, convict leasing, and racist terror, white Americans could continue to avoid acknowledging how central racism has been to our national story. Now this information is harder to avoid. It turns up in PBS specials and in plantation tours that no longer describe the mahogany furniture, but the lives of those who made such wealth possible.
Inevitably, this public history will affect the way future generations come to understand their history.
From Newt Gingrich to Fox News, conservative voices have attacked this new focus as radical-left propaganda. Such reaction was inevitable. In Germany, too, the right has always attacked its country’s exercises in self-examination as exercises in self-hatred—in dirtying one’s own nest. In fact, Germany’s willingness to own its criminal past has been an act of cleaning out the nest after years of sweeping all the dirt under the carpet. Without it, it’s doubtful that Germany would have been readmitted to the family of civilized nations, much less become the leading power in Europe.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding racism in Germany and America, past and present, are not the same. History is just as particular as the individuals who make and are made by it; what worked in one place can’t be straightforwardly transferred to another. Seen in some light, the differences between German and American racist histories are glaring. Seen in another, what’s important is what the commonalities can teach us about guilt and atonement, memory and oblivion, and the presence of past in preparing for the future.
While researching these commonalities I spent half a year in Mississippi, not because American racism is confined to the South, but because the region’s deep—if often false—awareness of its history makes it a magnifying glass for the rest of the country. It’s impossible to drive more than a few miles without seeing a road sign marking the site of one Confederate memory or another; but the signs recently erected to commemorate the lynching of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta are regularly riddled with bullet holes. Interestingly enough, what gave the most hope to social-justice activists there working toward racial reconciliation was the knowledge that the Germans did not repent in horror the minute the war was over, but reacted much like defenders of the Confederate Lost Cause. Those activists working to convince their neighbors of the ways their racist past informs their racist present are, above all, aware of how hard it all is. The acknowledgments are too defensive, the racism too tenacious, the impulse to insist on one’s own victimization too strong. The knowledge that it took decades of hard work before those who committed what are generally regarded as the greatest crimes in history could acknowledge those crimes and begin to atone for them brings enormous relief to those still working toward similar acknowledgment in the U.S. If even Germans raised in the heart of darkness needed time and trouble to see the light, why shouldn’t it take time and trouble to bring Americans nurtured for years on messages of their own exceptional goodness to come to terms with homegrown crimes? The postwar German experience has been a slow and faulty process. Its successes and failures foreshadow the tentative steps America is taking toward justice and reconciliation. It is too soon to tell how successful those steps will be, but the recent struggles over American history give us some reason to hope.
*This article has been updated to clarify a description of Nazi-era historic sites that survive in the present day.