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What Is Contrition Without Reparation?

Clint Smith discusses how Germany remembers the Holocaust—and why the process of atonement in America must look different.

A photo of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site on an overcast day.
The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site (Athanasios Gioumpasis / Getty)

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For our December cover story, our staff writer Clint Smith—who has written a book about historical sites and memorials of slavery in America—spent time in Germany, visiting sites of Holocaust memory and studying the debates around them. I called him to discuss how acts of atonement differ in the two countries.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Filled With Stones

Isabel Fattal: What surprised you as you spent time with Germany’s Holocaust memorials and commemorative spots?

Clint Smith: Like many people, I read books about the Holocaust in grade school. I read Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night; I spent time with a lot of these narratives that gave me a small insight into what happened. But I’m a big believer in the power of putting your body in the place where history happened. It gives you a different sense of your own proximity to that history. I think I felt that most at the Dachau concentration camp.

I’ve been to plantations. I’ve been inside of execution chambers. I’ve walked the halls of death row. I’ve been to a lot of places where death and violence are, and have been, enacted on people. But I’ve never experienced the chill in my body and in my spirit that I did when I was walking through the gas chamber at Dachau. I was startled by how deeply I felt it in my body, how deeply unsettled I felt in my spirit. And then you realize how recent it was. This was less than 80 years ago.

Isabel: What are the lessons America can take from Germany about acknowledging and atoning for the harms of the past?

Clint: One of the most moving memorials that I encountered were the “stumbling stones,” an English translation of Stolpersteine. There are more than 90,000 brass stones spread across 30 different countries in Europe, and they’re typically placed in front of the homes, residences, synagogues, and schools where Jews and other groups were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, or where they last lived before they were sent to their deaths. I was talking with a Jewish woman I spent time with who lived in a home that had two stumbling stones in front of it, and she said to me, “Can you imagine what it would be like if you had this for slavery in your hometown, in New Orleans?” And I had a moment where I looked down at the stones and imagined what it would be like.

She said, “It would be packed.” And it’s true, right? Entire streets would be filled with stones. I think about what it would be like if we did something commensurate with that here. What would it be like if we had stumbling stones or markers in every place where enslaved people were sold or held or rendered captive? What might it do to our collective understanding of our history? Would we have such a distorted sense of what America has been and what it is if we were regularly reminded of what it has done?

Markers and stumbling stones are not a panacea by any means. But the thing about Germany is that these sites of memory are ubiquitous. There are so many reminders, everywhere you turn, of what Germany did, that it becomes an indelible part of the national psyche.

Isabel: One of the points that stuck out to me in your story was that in Germany today, Jews are more of a historical abstraction than a real group of people. That makes the act of memorializing the Holocaust in Germany very different from that of memorializing slavery in America.

Clint: In Germany, Jewish people are less than a quarter of a percent of the population. There are more Jewish people in Boston than there are in all of Germany. As one Jewish woman put it, Jewishness is an empty canvas upon which Germans can paint their repentance. It’s more of an idea upon which contrition is projected than it is an actual group of people who have to be engaged with. Many Germans don’t know, spend time with, or engage with Jewish people.

In the United States, there are 41 million Black people in this country. And so you can’t simply build a memorial to slavery or put a wreath down once a year on Juneteenth and say, We did this terrible thing. We won’t do it again, without accounting for the material implications of what happened for the people who are right in front of you. Contrition without reparation would feel empty or incomplete. Across the country, we see the manifestations of a lack of reparations in the pervasive inequality between Black and white people.

In Germany, many Jewish people believe that it’s easier when you don’t actually have to account for or engage with the people you did this thing to, because there are so few of them left. I think it creates a fundamentally different set of social and political realities from the United States, where if you say you’re sorry but then don’t do anything for the people who are the descendants of that harm or who experience that harm now, then what are you actually doing?

Isabel: To end on a somewhat hopeful note, you argue that citizens don’t have to rely on government support to acknowledge the past. “Ordinary people are the conscience,” you write. What advice would you give people who hope to become a part of their community’s attempts to remember?

Clint: There are examples of communities in the U.S. that are not waiting for the government to tell them that they should build a memorial or they should create sites of public memory. I think one of the most compelling is a group in Connecticut that’s doing a Witness Stones Project, based on the stumbling-stones project in Germany. Middle- and high-school students are placing stones to mark the spaces where enslaved people lived, worked, and worshipped.

What I found in Germany is that the stumbling stones weren’t started by the government. It started with one man, Gunter Demnig, an artist who decided to start putting these stones into the ground. So he did. At first, government officials tried to stop him, but after seeing how much support there was for the project, they relented, and even ultimately began supporting his efforts. Sometimes it’s about being proactive and trying to tell the stories in your community that nobody else is telling.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. The Associated Press, citing an anonymous U.S. official, reported that Russian missiles had crossed into Poland (a NATO member), killing two people. The U.S. government and NATO allies have yet to confirm the statement, and Russia has denied involvement.
  2. Donald Trump is expected to announce his 2024 presidential run at his Mar-a-Lago resort this evening.
  3. Grammy nominations were announced, and Beyoncé received the most nominations this year, followed by Kendrick Lamar.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Silhouette of face on doctor's notepad
(Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic)

Do You Really Want to Read What Your Doctor Writes About You?

By Zoya Qureshi

You may not be aware of this, but you can read everything that your doctor writes about you. Go to your patient portal online, click around until you land on notes from your past visits, and read away. This is a recent development, and a big one. Previously, you always had the right to request your medical record from your care providers—an often expensive and sometimes fruitless process—but in April 2021, a new federal rule went into effect, mandating that patients have the legal right to freely and electronically access most kinds of notes written about them by their doctors.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
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(Photograph by Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Read. Five (very) short stories that display the virtue of lightness.

Watch. Catch up on Netflix’s dark comedy Dead to Me before the final season starts on Thursday.

Or try something else from our list of 20 perfect TV shows for a short attention span.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I asked Clint what he might recommend for further reading on the subjects of history and public memory. “In terms of thinking through the memory of slavery in the United States, there is no one better than historian David Blight; his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, is a must-read,” Clint said. “I’d also encourage people to read W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1952 essay on his visit to Warsaw, which in many ways served as a source of inspiration for my trip to Berlin and Dachau.”

— Isabel

To hear more about our December cover story, join Clint in conversation with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, on Friday, November 18, at 1 p.m. ET. Register here.