Remembering American Slavery: Learning From Germany’s Eradication of Antisemitism
By Quinn Deahl ’23
PHIL 275: Memory and the Holocaust
The Germans have gradually come to terms with their Nazi past, building a culture of remembrance. For the final assignment, the students were asked to construct an argument in response to the question: what can we learn from the Germans about coming to terms with one of the dark chapters in American history? Quinn has constructed a compelling argument for applying the German culture of memory to the American context, showing how we can come to terms with the legacy of slavery. Each part of the paper is well-structured and convincingly argued. The account is also nuanced, acknowledging the differences between the Holocaust and slavery, while demonstrating their alignment in well-defined ways. Moreover, Quinn’s argument is especially timely, in light of recent debates about the public memory of racism.
The Holocaust is widely considered the worst moral crime in the history of humanity given its sheer brutality and the millions of victims who suffered at the hands of the Nazi Regime. Unfortunately, instances of radical, state-sponsored immorality are not unique to Nazi Germany and have occurred numerously worldwide and throughout history. In the United States of America, the enslavement of human beings was legal for over two centuries. Although the period of slavery is deemed the darkest period in American history, black people in America continue to face systemic oppression over one hundred years after emancipation. In this way, America is unlike Germany in its response to this great atrocity given that Germany has made significant efforts to acknowledge its responsibilities for the Holocaust and build a culture of remembrance, subsequently becoming a welcoming and inclusive place for the Jewish people that were once victimized. In this paper, I will argue that America has much to learn from these German practices regarding its treatment of slavery as an element of its past. I will begin by providing an overview of Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its Nazi past. I will then argue that these efforts should be applied to America’s remembrance of the institution of slavery, before going on to explain how Germany’s Stolpersteine could be a particularly well-fitting memorial in America.
1. Germany’s Coming to Terms with its Nazi Past
1.1 Initial Response
Following the end of World War II and the subsequent end of the Holocaust, Germany didn’t immediately begin to make amends for the atrocities it had perpetrated. Susan Neiman explains in her book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory 26 of Evil, that much of Germany refused to take responsibility for the Holocaust. She writes that, instead, “Germans were obsessed with the suffering they’d endured, not the suffering they’d caused” (40). It seems to be a natural response for Germans to be defensive of their culpability in what is considered the worst crime in all of humanity. Many Germans didn’t directly support the Nazi regime, didn’t perpetrate these acts themselves, and may not have even had knowledge of the scale and severity of the genocide – so why should they be blamed for the Holocaust? Furthermore, they had faced their own suffering during the war and were now additionally being “beaten over the head with what would later be called a moral club” (Neiman 40). The Germans felt that they were being unjustly blamed for the Holocaust and World War II.
These attitudes greatly influenced the tendency of ordinary Germans to neglect responsibility in the decades following the war, but as time progressed, their perspectives began to change. In 1970, German chancellor, Willy Brandt, decided to publicly kneel on the steps of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto as a symbol of atonement for the crimes that were committed during the Holocaust (Neiman 43). A survey that was conducted at the time showed that the German public was divided over the gesture. 48% of participants called it excessive, while 41% thought it was appropriate (Thomas). Those who thought it was excessive were frustrated that their political representative was acknowledging the victims of the Holocaust which they were being blamed for while neglecting the suffering that the Germans faced as well (Neiman 43). However, nearly just as many people accepted the gesture, which goes to show that Germans were beginning to acknowledge responsibility for the Holocaust just twenty years after the end of the war. This progression continued into the next few decades while Germany began to come to terms with its Nazi past.
1.2 Building a Culture of Remembrance
This concept is what Germany considers Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which translates to the English “managing or overcoming the past”. Daniel Reynolds gives a detailed account of these efforts in his work, Postcards from Auschwitz: Holocaust Tourism and the Remembrance of Evil. In 1980, a decade after Willie Brandt’s kneeling, Berlin began dedicating and creating Holocaust memorials all over the city. Reynolds explains that “[as] the Federal Republic’s willingness to acknowledge the historical responsibilities it inherited grew in the post-war era, the government invested in the restoration of Holocaust memory in the city” (158). While it would have been easy to destroy important sites of Nazi perpetration as bad reminders of the past, sites of Nazi perpetration such as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the Topography of Terror, the Levetzowstrausse, and the House of the Wannsee Conference were instead transformed into museums and education centers (Reynolds). More than just restoring past sites, Berlin created new memorials for the victims of the Holocaust, a notable one being the Stolpersteine. These are small brass stumbling stones that have since been implemented all over Europe and each commemorates an individual victim of Nazi perpetration (Reynolds 161). The Stolpersteine are just one example of many memorials that Berlin has newly created to memorialize the Holocaust in addition to its efforts to restore previous sites of Nazi perpetration.
Furthermore, Reynolds explains that not only has Germany acknowledged the atrocities of the genocide by creating sites of Holocaust remembrance, but “it also emphasizes Jewish Berlin as a living culture – which it undoubtedly is” (156). Just as important as the efforts that Germany has made to remember the Holocaust itself has been the revival of Jewish culture in the city. Berlin is now home to various Jewish restaurants, museums, and memorials, all of which do well to emphasize the importance of Jewish culture to the city. A notable example of this is the Jewish Museum. The structure is a lightning-bolt shape that employs its unique architecture and empty space to memorialize and celebrate Jewish culture. Reynolds says that “while the exhibition focuses on the history of Jews in Berlin, daily life in the Jewish community, Jewish religious practice, and the achievements of famous Jewish individuals from Germany, its voids make continual reference to the Holocaust” (167). In this way, the memorial has the dual purpose of remembering the Holocaust and the loss of Jewish life in Berlin while also celebrating and promoting Jewish culture, similarly to the culmination of Germany’s remembrance efforts.
1.3 The Effects of Remembrance
Since the late twentieth century when these efforts began to come to fruition, Germany has become what is considered “one of the safest countries for Jews in the world” (Neiman 59). As Berlin became the center of Holocaust remembrance, the attitudes of the German public become much more welcoming and accepting of Jewish culture. Neiman illustrates this attitude shift by explaining that there was a great amount of excitement from Germans leading up to the museum’s opening, and that “the fact that the Jewish Museum’s grand opening was the most sought-after invitation in the new republic was heralded as a sign that Germany had turned a corner” (58). The deliberate efforts by the German people to remember the Holocaust reflect their acceptance of responsibility for their Nazi past and the subsequent regaining of moral credibility. Furthermore, the remembrance of Jewish culture promoted its celebration and acceptance by the German people. As a result of Holocaust remembrance, Germany has made incredible strides to eradicate antisemitism in the country and make post-Nazi Germany a welcoming place for Jewish people and others.
2. Applying Germany’s Example to American Slavery
2.1 Comparing the Nazi Holocaust to Slavery in the United States
The example that Germany has set for coming to terms with its Nazi past through building a culture of remembrance is one that the United States can learn from regarding its history of slavery. Before I explain how the German example can be applied to America, it is first important to compare the Nazi Holocaust and American slavery to demonstrate why Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an appropriate example to apply. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the fact that these two institutions were radically and fundamentally different from one another. To attempt to compare the two is an impossible task that risks trivialization, becoming a competition of evils, and undervaluing the unique suffering of the respective victims of both instances – all of which I do not wish to do. The comparisons I will be drawing are only meant to illustrate how The United States can learn lessons from Germany about coming to terms with a dark period in its history, building a culture of remembrance, and accepting responsibility for its moral crimes.
Firstly, and most importantly, both the Holocaust in Germany and slavery in America were state-sanctioned institutions of moral injustice, which has several implications for how each nation must come to terms with their pasts. Since the governments of both nations encouraged and permitted these evils to occur, the nation itself, and therefore its citizens, have a degree of responsibility for its perpetration. The injustices were not individual but systemic, and the fact that their institutions were so deeply ingrained in society through state sponsorship means that the society itself was complicit in and contributed to the evil that occurred. As a result, when state sponsorship of each institution ended, the attitudes and injustices remained in society in different forms as seen through the Germans’ tendency to neglect responsibility for the Holocaust immediately after the war and in the development of Jim Crow laws and further racism after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in America. This exemplifies the idea that state sanctioning of the Holocaust and American slavery makes each entire nation responsible for the perpetration of evil that existed in each institution.
Secondly, both the Holocaust and American slavery perpetuated their respective moral injustices due to prejudice and beliefs of superiority over the victimized groups of people. The Nazis believed that the Aryan race was superior to people who were Jewish, Roma and Sinti, homosexual, disabled, Black, asocial, etc. In America, slavery was sanctioned because of the belief that black people were biologically inferior to white people. The evils that were perpetrated against these victims in both cases were justified by these beliefs and prejudices which were unfair and untrue. Because these beliefs were sponsored by the government and systemic in society, they were difficult to eradicate even after they were proven untrue or could no longer justify immoral treatment. Failing to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the existence of these prejudices or their role in the Holocaust and American slavery can allow these beliefs to remain and further injustices to be committed, which exemplifies the importance of eradicating these beliefs in addition to ending the institutions of evil.
Finally, the brutality of the human rights violations and the extent of the injustice in both cases were extreme. Although it is difficult to estimate how many people were victimized by the Holocaust and American slavery respectively, experts have been able to make informed estimates about the extent that which each institution impacted its victim populations. As for the Holocaust, 6 million Jewish people and 5 million others were killed, and much more were victimized (United States). In America, it is estimated that approximately 10 million people were enslaved in the United States between 1619 and 1865 (Hacker 148). Furthermore, both the Holocaust and American slavery treated their victims as sub-human, submitting them to torture, starvation, terrible work environments, separation from their families, and much more. In both cases, people were deprived of basic human rights and were victims of unimaginable suffering. Although it is impossible to attempt to compare or weigh the evils of either institution as they are far more complex and respectively unique than their statistics would show, it is clear that both the Holocaust and American slavery were extremely brutal and extensive.
The comparability of the Holocaust and American slavery regarding their state-sanctioning, foundational prejudices, and extremities of evil allows for the German example of coming to terms with its Nazi past to be applied to the United States regarding its history of slavery. Each nation is itself responsible for the injustices it perpetrated, their foundational prejudices were systemically ingrained, and the extremity of their evils are beyond comprehension – all of which demonstrate the need for each nation to come to terms with the past by accepting responsibility for this dark period in its history.
2.2 America’s Shortcomings in Accepting Responsibility for Slavery
The end of slavery in America is marked by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery under constitutional law. However, today, over a century and a half later, black Americans are still fighting for their rights as citizens of the United States and systemic racism remains a major issue nationwide. These facts can be traced back through history and attributed to America’s shortcomings in coming to terms with its history of slavery. Unlike Germany did in the aftermath of the Holocaust, America failed to adequately accept responsibility for the injustices of slavery and subsequently neglected the importance of building a culture of remembrance in coming to terms with its past.
Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Americans continued to face extreme levels of prejudice. State-sanctioned Jim Crow Laws allowed for continual racial discrimination in all aspects of American life, and it is estimated that over 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950 (Equal Justice Initiative). It wasn’t until the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that racial discrimination was prohibited under federal law, and, over fifty years later, black Americans continue to be incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white Americans (Nellis) and are over three times more likely to be killed by the police (Schwartz and Jahn). The civil rights legislation that the United States has passed since the 13th amendment does the bare minimum to eradicate discrimination and fails to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism that originated with its institution of chattel slavery.
Neiman explains that self-reflection was essential to Germany’s accepting responsibility for the Holocaust and its subsequent ability to come to terms with the past (62). America’s unwillingness to reflect on its history has been instrumental in its allowance for injustices against African Americans to continue nearly two centuries after slavery was abolished and is most clearly demonstrated in the American education system and the modern debate over Critical Race Theory. In recent years, scholars have begun investigating the ways that American slavery is taught in the public education system and have found that “[s]chools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America” (Teaching Tolerance). The problems and gaps that are being uncovered in the American education system have led to growing popularity of the concept of Critical Race Theory, which is an educational framework that “acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation” (George). Critical Race Theory would allow children to learn about slavery in a way that recognizes the impact that it continues to have on American society and would be a massive step towards the idea of self-reflection that Neiman believes to be instrumental in a nation’s accepting responsibility for its past. However, nine states have banned Critical Race Theory or anything like it from being taught in American schools exemplifying the nation’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for slavery and modern systemic racism (Ray and Gibbons).
2.3 American Progress and the Beginnings of a Culture of Remembrance
Nevertheless, the fact that Critical Race Theory and reflections about teaching slavery have become popularized at all illustrates the progress that America is beginning to make towards accepting responsibility for its history—which is also reflected in the recent growth and development of memorialization efforts for American slavery. For instance, in 2004, The African American Civil War Memorial Museum was established in Washington D.C. The official website for the museum states that “[t]he mission of the African American Civil War Museum is to correct a great wrong in history that largely ignored the enormous contributions of the 209,145 members of the United States Colored Troops” (African American). The creation of this museum and its explicit admittance of America’s failure to acknowledge this essential element of history in the past exemplify a degree of progress in America’s acceptance of responsibility and in building a culture of remembrance. Other monuments such as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland, the Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia, and more have also been established across the United States over the past two decades which further illustrate American progress in coming to terms with its past of slavery.
The developments that the United States has made in recent years regarding its reflections on the history of slavery and its modern implications, as well as its remembrance and memorialization efforts, give hope for the future of America coming to terms with the past. As was discussed previously, Germany didn’t immediately begin to reflect and take responsibility for the Holocaust following the end of World War II. It took time and gradual efforts for Berlin to become the center of remembrance that it is today, and America is showing hints that the past couple of decades could be its turning point for accepting responsibility and remembering its true history of slavery. If the United States can continue following the German example of Vergangenheitsbewältigung by participating in self-reflection, accepting responsibility for the impacts of slavery, and building a true culture of remembrance, it could begin to come to terms with its past and eradicate systemic racism. However, America’s history of neglecting these important factors is long and dark and will take much more reflection and remembrance efforts to meet the bar that Germany has set.
One might object that doing so much to acknowledge American responsibility nearly two centuries after slavery was abolished wrongfully makes today’s Americans feel guilty about slavery just because of their nationality, and that they are too far removed to rightfully hold any responsibility for the crimes of the nation’s past. Although it is true that Americans today cannot be personally blamed for the history of slavery in the United States, I argue that it is the responsibility of modern Americans to understand the ways in which slavery shaped the society that they live in today. To continue allowing America to forget the crimes of its past allows the effects of those crimes to persist, which is why modern Americans are continuing to live in a society where systemic racism is still so prevalent. In the same way that it is important for Americans to learn about the victories and bright spots of their nation’s history to better understand and appreciate why they have the privileges that they do, it is important to learn about the dark periods in their nation’s past to understand how those events have also shaped their present lives. Moreover, as has been exemplified by Germany’s success in reflecting on its past, accepting the responsibilities of a nation and building a culture of remembrance around those responsibilities can ultimately lead to a society that is more just and prosperous.
3. Germany’s Stolpersteine as a Fitting Memorial in the American Context
An element of Germany’s culture of remembrance that America could learn from to further come to terms with its past is the development of counter-monuments. Reynolds explains that “whereas traditional monuments claim permanence in their efforts at remembrance, counter-monuments incorporate flux, ambiguity, and self-negation, leaving the memory work to the viewer” (164). By rejecting the traditional and straightforward tools of remembrance that are employed by customary monuments, counter-monuments force the viewer to analyze its meaning and understand the memorial for themselves. Resultantly, people are forced to truly reflect on their understanding of history and how it applies to a monument, which contributes to the process of self-reflection that Neiman describes as essential for a nation’s coming to terms with the past. A German example of a counter-monument that would apply well in America is that of the Stolpersteine. These stumbling stones that I described previously can be found all over Germany and Europe and typically mark a location where Nazi perpetration occurred to an individual, having the effect of interrupting people’s daily routines and reminding them that the Holocaust occurred right beneath their feet and that it happened to people just like them. By making people stop and recognize this, the Stolpersteine makes people reflect on history and confront the misunderstandings that they may have about the Holocaust that contradict the individuality and the extent of the genocide.
Countermonuments, Stolpersteine specifically, would be fitting in an American context for a few reasons. First, America is in the early stages of building a culture of remembrance and accepting responsibility for its past of slavery. Integrating counter-monuments into this developing culture would encourage people to reflect on American slavery and, subsequently, aid in the process of America’s coming to terms with the past that it is currently working towards. Furthermore, many Americans today believe that they are too far removed from slavery to need to take responsibility for it. By using a memorial technique such as the Stolpersteine, Americans would be reminded of the realities of slavery for its individual victims and the fact that it happened on the same soil that they’re walking on today, making them more likely to reflect on that period in American history. Thirdly, many Americans, especially white Americans, fail to acknowledge the impacts that slavery still has on society today. By making reminders of slavery a normal occurrence in the lives of white Americans, they will be more likely to acknowledge the modern systemic racism that they would typically ignore by making them reflect on the impacts of slavery.
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