Speaking before the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 1985, Richard von Weiszaeker, President of West Germany, urged the following on his audience and his nation: “The young and old generations can and must help each other to understand why it is important to keep memories alive. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.”
This was a potent message for Germans a generation ago. It is equally potent for U.S. America today; it is a message we need to hear and heed.
The context of Weizsaeker’s talk was decades of German “amnesia,” a collective refusal or inability to acknowledge and probe fully the scope of the Nazi past and the role of every class of Germans in it. That amnesia was coupled with a whitewashed version of the past that painted ordinary, “real” Germany as a victim of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, who had hijacked the German nation and its culture. Germany could not heal and become whole, Weizsaeker counseled, until it stopped distancing itself from its history and came face to face with it.
Susan Neiman, a moral philosopher and cultural analyst (Harvard, Yale, Tel Aviv University) who grew up in Atlanta and has lived since 2000 in Germany, has explored Germany’s acceptance and incorporation of its Nazi past into its identity, which has proceeded apace over the last several decades. It is transforming German culture, she writes in her 2019 book “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” promoting healing and generating a confidence in the future.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Germany, where the culture embraces making rules, sticking to them and being the better for it, should have the wisdom and fortitude to face its past squarely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of U.S. America. The nation-wide reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis together with the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of the depth of the unresolved legacy of racial discrimination here. But while some are calling for a national conversation on that legacy, others aggressively oppose that conversation, some going so far as the threaten teachers who would bring it into their classrooms. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Michele Norris, former co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a winner of journalism’s Peabody Award, noted that in Germany, the conversation about the past involved not just initiatives from leadership, but also projects undertaken at the grass roots of society, from neighborhoods and village councils and individuals willing to confront their parents and their generation, their communities, demanding answers. Who cooperated, went along, prospered? Who sat on the fence, failed to inquire, failed to take action?
One effective citizen initiative are the tens of thousands of stolpersteine, four-inch concrete cubes with a brass plaque on top, embedded flush in sidewalks outside houses and buildings from which persecuted people, mostly Jews, were taken during the Nazi regime. The plaques identify the person(s), their life dates, and dates of deportation and death. Begun in 1992 by a German artist, Gunter Denning, as of this year, more than 75,000 have been placed — not only in Germany, but in 25 other countries as well. Many were placed by local people who have done the research and paid for the plaques and inscribing. To come across the plaques while walking along a sidewalk is a moment of moving historical realization.
Neiman and Norris and many other commentators have made the point that we in the U.S. have yet to fully engage the history of slavery and persecution, the brutality, the separation of families, the rapes and abuse of children, the lynchings, the red-lining, the discriminatory policing, the employment discrimination and much more. Who would want to own that history, Norris asks?
But until we do own it, and the theft of Native land and the treatment of Indigenous people, including Alaska Natives, and the story of the eugenics movement which started here and was nurtured by countless leaders, and much more, we cannot know who we have been, and thus who we are. Enslaved people produced great quantities of American wealth and the comfort it bought, for example, an aspect of slavery’s legacy we have barely acknowledged.
The incomplete embrace of our history feeds open expressions and covert convictions of white supremacy, including the current anti-democratic assault on voting rights. History can help us understand what is happening now, and why. We need to know more of it; we need especially to teach it.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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