Afew years ago Susan Neiman published an article titled ‘History and Guilt’, which asked whether America can ‘face up to the terrible reality of slavery in the way that Germany has faced up to the Holocaust’. Her new book tries to answer that question, considering the ways in which the US can learn from Germany’s Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit, its ‘working through the past’. The German Stolpersteine – brass bricks set in the pavement just high enough to cause the passer-by to stumble, stop and read the name of a murdered victim of the Holocaust who lived in a nearby building – inspired the eight hundred columns bearing the names of murdered blacks, county by county, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, often called the National Lynching Memorial. And German reparations over the past half-century are a model – precedent may be a better word – for Neiman and many others who argue in favour of some form of reparations for slavery. They seem to demonstrate moral principle in action at a national level. Dressed in its memorial trappings, Berlin today is the Nazi capital in sackcloth.
Neiman seeks analogies between Germany’s experience and possible ways of recuperating the more or less unredeemed American past. What Nietzsche called ‘monumental’ history extracts from the past a particular great and worthy deed and uses it as a model: by showing that a thing was ‘at least possible once’ we see that it ‘may well again be possible sometime’. Neiman wants Germany’s way of coming to terms with its criminal past to be such an example. But Nietzsche also warned that monumental history caused ‘the individuality of the past [to] be wrenched into a general shape, with all its sharp corners and angles broken off for the sake of correspondence’. Neiman understands, of course, that ‘no two histories are ever entirely alike.’ The question is whether we can, without doing violence to the past or the present, usefully take lessons from the German experience. Do analogies between the two countries work? In one sense they do: it is possible to make historical redemption a national project. And the same moral principles ought to apply. But after we put back the sharp corners and angles, once we take the details seriously, it becomes harder to learn anything from this particular comparative history. The reason lies in the corners and angles. What Neiman regards as mere ‘details of difference’ are more significant than that.
The more we restore detail to the German reparations project the less applicable it becomes to the American debate. The Luxembourg Agreement of 1952 – reached between Adenauer’s government and the state of Israel, along with representatives of the Jewish Claims Conference – and the legislation that followed it, the Additional Federal Compensation Act of 1953, didn’t apply to Jews in general, or to their descendants, or to the tens of millions of other victims of the Nazi regime. Under the agreement Germany paid Israel compensation for resettling half a million Jewish refugees. The use of the money was severely restricted: most of it could be used only to purchase goods produced in Germany – telephone systems, electrical generators, railway sleepers, chemicals. There is no question that this was good for the new Jewish state as well as for German business, and it improved the standing of the Bundesrepublik with its Allied occupiers. But it has little relevance for those in the US who want to think about how reparations for slavery could be arranged.
A revised Federal Compensation Act in 1956 also offered reparations to a narrowly delineated subset of German Jews who had suffered specific sorts of ill-treatment and to their surviving dependants. Claims had to be filed by the end of 1969. Over the next fifty years other groups became eligible for reparations, each with a different compensation schedule. The last large-scale payments were agreed late in 1999 after a series of lawsuits were brought in the US on behalf of people who had worked as forced and slave labourers during the war, as well as claimants against various German insurance companies and banks. Hundreds of lawyers and functionaries representing clients with divergent interests came up with a schedule of payments with which no one was happy. By the time the fund was established in 2000, 10 per cent of those who might have benefited were dead.
The Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future paid out €4.45 billion, and was jointly financed by the German government and 6500 German companies. Smaller amounts are still being distributed: in 2018 the Claims Conference and the German government announced that there would be a one-off payment of €2500 to each of the few remaining survivors of the Kindertransport. But many of those who had suffered most were beyond reparations, including the rabbis who were murdered with their congregations in the forests of Ukraine or the death camps of Poland. The German rabbis who managed to escape to safety were given back pay or pensions as the civil servants they had been, or reparations for lost personal property if they could document chair by chair and fork by fork what had been taken from them. The chasm between suffering and recompense was vast.
I need to declare an interest here: a coming to terms with my own past. As a child of the German Jewish diaspora I lived in some intimacy with the Wiedergutmachung, the German reparations. There was a lot of talk in my family and among our friends about finding documents that would establish eligibility and prove damages; there was a lot of talk about who got how much and what for. There was general agreement that the single biggest determinant of success in obtaining reparations was the effectiveness of your lawyer. I don’t remember there being any of the moral fervour that informs the debate about reparations to African Americans for slavery. But an elegiac sadness was attached to the country they had lost: every household in my parents’ circles in the US and England and Israel had copies of Goethe and Schiller. For them, an inner Germany remained: ‘Die Schweine’ – the swine – had captured their Germany, the real Germany, but it remained the home of the soul even if return was impossible, just as the South has remained home to some of the African Americans who left it.
My cousin Gunther emigrated to Holland with his mother, my father’s oldest sister, after Hitler came to power. In the summer of 1943, when he was 22 and she was 44, they were caught up in one of a series of raids on Amsterdam’s Jewish areas. Gunther, wearing a leather bomber jacket of the sort the SS favoured, started shouting abuse at his fellow Jews, was presumably mistaken for a German, and allowed to walk away. At least, that’s how he tells the story. He never saw his mother again. He lived underground for nearly two years until Amsterdam was liberated in early May 1945. His mother was murdered at Sobibor on 9 July 1943. Gunther fell between the stools of eligibility for reparations: too young for a profession, he couldn’t get reparations for his career being interrupted; being between high school and university when the war began, he couldn’t argue that his studies had been interrupted.
My grandmother never quite believed that her daughter had been murdered: she was somewhere in ‘the East’, she claimed. I’m not sure she was ever told what had become of her own older sister: the Yad Vashem database says only that she was ‘murdered in the Shoah’; according to Red Cross records, she received a care package in Terezín. Maybe she died there. My grandmother escaped to Turkey in December 1939 with all her possessions in a couple of suitcases. She had no documentation for her Bechstein grand piano, which had kept her in Germany until it was almost too late, or for the other possessions she’d left behind, and so had no chance of proving a claim for material losses. The law held that German citizens whose relatives could be shown to ‘have been killed or driven to death within eight months of persecution’ were eligible to apply for reparations, but only if the person killed had been the family’s primary breadwinner. My grandmother got a share of the pension due to her husband as director of the health insurance system in Hamburg.
On the scale of Holocaust suffering my family’s was modest. But those who had suffered far more got proportionally much less. My colleague Paula Fass, the child of camp survivors, has written about discovering her ghost family, the families her mother and father lost before they met in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany and started anew. These were the families of which they would not speak. Her mother sent off her nine-year-old son with a bit of bread in a sack she had sewn when he was taken from the children’s ghetto in Lodz to be murdered on 4 September 1942; her then husband was murdered later. Paula’s father, his first wife and four children – aged between ten and fifteen – were transported to Auschwitz when the Lodz ghetto was liquidated in August 1944. Only he survived, and there is no record of when the rest of his family was killed: ‘presumed murdered’ is all the Yad Vashem database says. By that point, in 1944, the Germans were murdering and burning Jews at the rate of ten thousand a day and their record-keeping had slipped. I asked Paula whether her parents received any reparations. They had: for impairment to their health. He was judged 40 per cent disabled; she 30 per cent, the lowest level for which compensation was available. Their eligibility had to be recertified every year by a German doctor.
The Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future wasn’t so much part of ‘working through the past’ as an attempt to ‘protect the brand’ – the sort of thing a company does when confronted with an embarrassing or damaging incident. The fund was set up, Gerhard Schröder said, to end ‘the campaign being led against German industry and our country’. Such management of historical remembrance had long been an aspect of Germany’s exercise of soft power. In the 1980s Helmut Kohl’s government saw what it interpreted as the ‘anti-German message’ of the proposed United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC as a threat to the alliance between the two countries. It offered to pay up to $50 million to set up a display that would tell the story of German resistance and suffering during the war and the country’s democratic recovery after it. The offer was rejected. It’s hard to imagine America applying this sort of public relations logic to its own history: Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that the US would feel that paying reparations for slavery would diminish ‘America’s heritage, history and standing in the world’.
The true absurdity of using the slave and forced labour agreement as a moral example or a practical lesson for the US becomes evident when we examine the fund’s compensation rates: forced labourers got a maximum one-off payment of $2500; slave labourers who survived at least six months got a maximum of $7500. Litigating individual claims kept armies of lawyers busy. I have a friend who at the age of nine survived multiple selections, and on 12 June 1943 escaped the final liquidation of the Brzezany ghetto in what is now Ukraine. Almost as a lark he applied for reparations under the new dispensation. After drawn-out negotiations it was determined that his ‘work’ – smuggling food into the ghetto in return for tsarist coins and wedding rings – constituted forced labour. He didn’t need the money. But thousands of Holocaust survivors and slave labourers did, so the payment of reparations to this newly entitled class of victims was all to the good.
But Germany’s example – an administratively and legally intricate programme of compensation for specific wrongs perpetrated over 12 years against juridically defined victims as part of a broader project not only of coming to terms with the past but also of exercising global soft power – can only serve to confuse the American debate about how to make amends for four hundred years of injustices, endless in number. Any comparative history of redemption has to deal with incommensurate temporalities. The Holocaust – impossibly long for those who lived through it – was not very long in calendar time. Six years if we follow the classification used by the Library of Congress and most Western European libraries (‘Holocaust, Jewish, 1939-45’); 12 years by the reckoning of the National Library of Israel (‘Holocaust 1933-45’).
The years 1933 and 1945 are the outer bounds of what Goebbels called the National Socialist revolution – a revolution which, he insisted, ‘can only be compared to other great events in human history’. Radically anti-Enlightenment, its aim was to ‘erase 1789 from history’. Horrible in its goals and horrible in its consequences, it was, after the Götterdämmerung, shameful to the Germans: they had followed a leader who left them with the blood of millions on their hands and a country in utter ruin. This was the past that had to be worked through, a task that might last for ever. It was shameful even for those who had not followed that leader; it was shameful to be German. ‘How did this happen?’ they had to ask. Who was responsible, where did history go wrong, what did it mean to be German after this? The generation that had come of age under National Socialism had different answers from their children: the 1960s generation forced on their parents and grandparents a reckoning for the Nazi past. Their children and grandchildren had different answers again. But the crimes Germany remembers and atones for represent a small part of its national history. The Nazi period is brief and circumscribed. The outlines of Germany’s redemption slowly became clear: acknowledge and mourn the sin; make amends as far as possible; and swear never again.
Coming to terms with the past in the United States is a different temporal matter. At issue is the entire national past: it is four hundred years since African slaves came to these shores, more than a hundred and fifty since the Thirteenth Amendment made African Americans full citizens; almost sixty since the longest-lived legally grounded racial regime in world history ended with the legislation and judicial decisions of the 1960s. This is a past that demands we explain not, as in the German case, the reason we succumbed to an evil ideology, but the reason it has been so difficult to do what Lincoln hoped for at Gettysburg, to rededicate ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal and to come to an agreement about what this might mean.
Ten years as against four centuries makes a big difference. Comparison is a mug’s game on this timescale. The presence or absence of victims’ descendants is also of huge significance in the comparative emotional history of atonement. The German public memory of the Jews who once lived among them is elegiac: thoughts of a bygone people and a bygone time. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the centre of Berlin takes the form of a monumental graveyard. The city’s much visited Jewish Museum documents a lost people, an eradicated civilisation. Its core exhibition, ‘Two Millennia of German Jewish History’, was designed by the team that was responsible for the Maori Museum in Auckland, specialists in portraying the history of a marginalised and denigrated group. (A new core exhibition is being planned that will, it is claimed, give ‘more space for the Jewish present’.)
There are still Jews in Germany, of course: refugees from the former Soviet Union, thousands of young Israelis leaving their homeland for Berlin. There are also descendants of the few tens of thousands of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Germany, who came back from other countries, or who were freed from displaced persons’ camps. But the German Jewish epoch that began with the arrival of Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin in 1743 ended with Hitler’s election on 30 January 1933. Or, to be more precise, it became a culture in diaspora. I am among the last survivors of this history, the child of parents who felt deeply German but whose love was not reciprocated. German Jews in this sense are ghosts – revenants. The Holocaust destroyed their world and they mourned it. So do the Germans.
In contrast to the Jewish Museum, Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, is a record of a past that is still present. It tells the stories not only of the African American experience in the US but of an ongoing relationship between Americans of many ethnicities and more than forty million of their fellow citizens. The ‘we’ who are working through the past and the ‘they’ who have been wronged share the present as well as a long intertwined past. It is a task of a different order to redeem a history with the dead. If we are to learn from the Germans and produce a better narrative for the United States, then we need to be clear about who constituted the ‘we’ and about what we mean by paradigmatic ‘Americans’. Again, once we put back the corners and angles, the possibility of a comparative history of redemption recedes. If we could get the narrative of the Civil War right, Neiman argues, it would mean we had learned something from the Germans. ‘Very simple truths, like the fact the Civil War was fought over slavery, need to be re-established again and again,’ she says. The South fought to defend a criminal system; the North fought for Truth. We also need to be told again and again that chattel slavery was replaced ‘by subjugation enforced by law’ – that is, by Jim Crow. The South did not learn the lessons of its defeat by the North in 1865 as the Germans did of theirs by the Allies in 1945.
If the ‘truth’ about the Civil War is still not established it isn’t for lack of effort by historians and teachers. Not since the publication of the central texts of the modern history of slavery, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom in 1947 and Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution in 1956, has any serious history book claimed that slavery was a benign paternalistic institution. No one has argued that it was anything other than the great moral stain on the American conscience. The view that the Civil War was about Southern fears of Northern consolidation and states’ rights is dead. True, the war did not begin to get rid of slavery, and few expected that to be its result. As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address in 1865, right at the end of the Civil War, neither party ‘anticipated that the cause of the conflict’ – slavery – ‘might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease’. But it was a commonplace, he went on, that ‘slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest’ and that ‘all knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.’
Neiman mentions the so-called Dunning School, named after William Dunning, a professor at Columbia at the turn of the 20th century, who, with his followers, disparaged the efforts made during the Reconstruction to establish the civil and economic rights (forty acres and a mule) of former slaves and gave intellectual legitimacy to those who created and maintained Jim Crow. But the Dunning School was on the wane by the late 1930s and thousands of history books and tens of thousands of articles have been telling the ‘simple truth’ about the Civil War and Reconstruction since then. Scores of them have been on the bestseller lists and won prizes. They have been the basis of high school and college textbooks for the better part of half a century. It is not clear what more can be done on this front.
It’s tricky to argue that the three-quarters of a million ordinary Confederate soldiers memorialised on courthouse lawns in the South were fighting to defend a criminal system, even if objectively that is what they were doing. But a similar problem exists for Germany. The Wehrmacht has been shown definitively to have played a part in mass murder, but the names of ordinary German soldiers remain on memorials throughout the country. Most soldiers fight less out of zeal for a cause than because they have to.
There is also the uncomfortable truth that the most primitive fears of the white racist imagination were not held only by defenders of slavery. Henry A. Wise, a Southern member of Congress and a future Confederate general, called John Quincy Adams ‘the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed’. Adams would have subscribed to the view that ‘all men are created equal’ – but, as James Shapiro recently showed in Shakespeare in a Divided America, he also thought that Desdemona’s ‘fondling with Othello is disgusting’ and her passion for him ‘unnatural solely and exclusively because of his colour’. It would be convenient if such views were an aberration, held only by the Southern lynch mobs that murdered black men for allegedly violating white women. But this is not the case. Only nine states never had anti-miscegenation laws; 14 repealed them between 1948 and 1967; 16 states retained them until 1967, when the US Supreme Court struck them down in Loving v. Virginia. This part of our past will not be mastered by a better interpretation of the Civil War. In 1967, only 3 per cent of marriages in the US were between people of different races or ethnicities; in the year Hitler came to power, by contrast, 33 per cent of marriages involving German Jews were to gentiles. The Nuremberg laws remained in effect for ten years, their US equivalents for centuries.
Germany’s decisive loss in the Second World War is foundational to its attempt to come to terms with its past. The South too lost its war. But it won the peace, as a result of its own efforts and the acquiescence and indifference of the rest of the country. Its victory was clear by 1896, when the Supreme Court reached its ‘separate but equal’ decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding racial segregation. The South’s effective victory was evident too in the speech Woodrow Wilson made to the gathering of veterans marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Wilson said nothing about slavery or the rise of Jim Crow but spoke instead of unity: ‘brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten’. There were no black brothers in the audience.
The Southern victory went unchallenged by the purportedly victorious but – in the matter of racism – collaborationist North. Tourists walking into the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the US Capitol still pass a bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the notorious 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that black people could not be American citizens since they had always been ‘regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect’. In the Capitol’s crypt is a statue of John Calhoun, a brilliant defender of Southern interests and author of the nullification doctrine, which became a cornerstone of Southern defences of slavery: it holds that a state has the right to nullify any federal law it thinks unconstitutional. Yale named a college after him in 1932; it wasn’t renamed until 2017.
Unlike the Germans, who were under pressure from many directions to work through their Nazi past, Americans with few exceptions – black organisations, the Communist Party, some unions, some liberal religious groups – felt no such urgency. No social legislation was passed in the US in the first half of the 20th century without the approval of Southern Democrats, who made sure that new laws contained nothing that would disrupt the racial order of the South – or, for that matter, the rest of the country. In these years ‘affirmative action was white,’ as Ira Katznelson put it. Social security payments weren’t given to domestic servants – largely black – or agricultural workers, who in the South were almost all black. The Federal Housing Administration allowed banks to refuse mortgages to people who lived in predominantly black neighbourhoods, a policy – known as redlining – that had especially pernicious effects in Northern cities. The GI Bill was locally administered, which gave racist petty bureaucrats every opportunity to discriminate.
It would be easier to come to terms with the past if Americans could contrive to label one particular period or decision as the paradigmatic crime of a criminal regime. Amends could be made for the evils of a time and we could simply start over. But there is an interstitial racism in the US that isn’t dealt with by getting the history of the Civil War right – whatever that might mean – or by tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee across the South. The 2400 miles of Route 66, America’s most famous highway, pass through only one state in the former Confederacy, Texas. Yet in 1936 the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book identified half of the 89 counties along the route as ‘sundown towns’, where blacks weren’t safe after dusk. In 1950, 35 per cent of the 89 counties remained in that category. A postcard from the 1940s advertises the Royce Café in Edmond, Oklahoma: ‘From Dawn to Dusk We’re Never Gone.’ A text box reads:
‘A Good Place to Live’
6000 Live Citizens
It seems far-fetched to imagine that comparing slavery to the Holocaust can help us to come to terms with the granular ubiquity of American racism.
Neiman thinks that the former East Germany ‘did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany’. West Germany, she points out, didn’t think of 8 May 1945 – the date of Germany’s unconditional surrender – as a day of liberation until the 1980s; in the East it had been a national holiday since 1950. But this had little to do with coming to terms with the past and a lot to do with the GDR’s Soviet masters. Stalin transformed the East German people from the vicious monsters of Soviet wartime propaganda into a largely innocent people liberated by the Red Army and ready to join a fraternal alliance with their communist former enemies. In this narrative the great Nazi evil was fascism, not the Holocaust. Jews were counted among its many victims but they didn’t play much of a role in the GDR’s confrontation with its past or in its national regeneration.
There were a few Jews among the 250 or so German communists who survived both Nazi persecution and Stalin’s purges and were sent back from the Soviet Union to take over the leadership of the GDR. Some prominent Jewish writers returned from exile elsewhere – among them Arnold Zweig and Anna Seghers, though she rejected being identified as a Jew. Around 3500 Jews had survived the war in hiding and remained in the country because they had a political commitment to building a socialist Germany. But between the Stalinist antisemitic campaigns of the early 1950s and the antisemitic anti-capitalist rhetoric of the GDR itself their hopes were soon shattered. Two thousand of them left for the West; four hundred in a single night. By the 1980s there were only a few hundred left. Reparations in the GDR, like everywhere else, depended on who was recognised by those in authority as having been wronged. In the GDR they were given almost exclusively to people who had suffered political persecution under the Nazis. Forty years of fruitless negotiations by the Claims Conference got nowhere. It was only after German reunification in 1990 that Jewish claims for losses in the East were finally recognised.
One of Neiman’s favourite commemorative sites in Berlin is ‘the moving memorial to the Red Army at Treptow’, erected on Stalin’s orders in 1949. Towering over the last resting place of several thousand Soviet soldiers is a 12-metre-high statue of a Russian soldier who has put down his sword to save a child, whom he now holds in the crook of his arm. ‘Sometimes criminals can tell the truth,’ Neiman writes. The story the memorial tells gets one important fact right: Hitler was defeated largely thanks to Soviet arms. But the Holocaust is absent from the version of the past being worked through in Treptower Park. One can defend the Third International’s view of fascism, just as one can claim that slavery was a distinctive type of economic exploitation, perhaps no worse than the capitalist exploitation of the 19th-century working class – though this is hardly an argument that those, like Neiman, who want us to learn from the Germans would endorse. And it’s worth considering the amnesia that monuments like the one in Treptower Park induce. Red Army soldiers raped around two million German women towards the end of the war. Few of the women who attended the celebration of Germany’s surrender on 8 May 1950 would have escaped this fate, but they had no voice. Theirs was a past that would not be spoken of in public for half a century.
The monument in Treptower Park does have some relevance to the American case: it shows us that monuments can change their meaning. Memories of 8 May as a national holiday faded quickly after unification. Slowly the giant soldier standing over the Soviet dead succumbed to the fate of many statues, becoming a roost for pigeons. People picnicked in the park around him; tourists came to indulge in Ost-nostalgie. Some locals still gathered on 8 May to remember the story as it was once told. But largely the monument became a ‘heritage’ site evoking a past version of history. And then, like the Civil War monuments, it suddenly leapt back to life. Beginning in 2015, the Night Wolves, a nationalist, anti-feminist, anti-West, anti-gay Russian motorcycle gang reputedly funded by the Kremlin, began to rally there on the Day of Victory, 9 May. We will have to see what happens to its meaning next.
The GDR, as Neiman writes, turned the major concentration camps in its territory into memorial sites well before the West did, but not in order to work through a version of the past that gave much prominence to the Holocaust. The stories told at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück could support the GDR’s official narrative without much need for mythmaking. In none of them were Jews in the majority. Between 11,000 and 18,000 Soviet prisoners were murdered at the shooting range at Sachsenhausen; ethnic Poles made up most of the prisoners in the women’s camp of Ravensbrück; Buchenwald was the place of martyrdom for Weimar Germany’s Communist Party leadership. About 11,000 of the roughly 56,000 men murdered by the SS over eight years in Buchenwald were Jews, roughly the same number killed in one day in 1942 when Treblinka was in full production, or in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. The camps in East Germany (or in the West, for that matter) played a small part in the murder of the six million, though they were part of the parallel story of the political and social repression and ruthless exploitation of what were regarded as lesser races and undesirable citizens.
The former GDR was subjected to a second reckoning with its past after reunification that should also give us pause. The former West purged the East’s civil service, universities and arts institutions with a thoroughness far exceeding its efforts to rid itself of former Nazis. Then, in 2003, the Bundestag decided, over loud protests from citizens of the former East, to tear down the Palace of the Republic that had housed the GDR’s parliament and replace it with a reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, which had been heavily damaged during the war and demolished in 1950. The fact that the Stadtschloss had been the seat of the Prussian monarchs, including Frederick the Great, whose ghostly image hovers above the Führer’s on scores of propaganda posters, was ignored, as was its long association with Prussian militarism. The reconstructed imperial palace is to become the home of the Humboldt Forum, which will be filled, as such museums are, with the spoils of empire. Once again, we can learn from Germany that a past represented in a monument can become truly past and at the same time part of the future.
Germany never had any monuments to the leaders of the Third Reich or any statues comparable to the ‘Johnny Reb’ statues in the South. There are very few monuments to the soldiers of the Second World War anywhere in Western Europe. In Germany, as elsewhere, the names of dead soldiers were added to the ubiquitous existing memorials of the Great War, built mostly in the 1920s and early 1930s, and some German memorials built in the later 1930s in a recognisably Nazi style still exist, again with names added after 1945.
The German authorities, unlike those in the US, have the legal authority to regulate what can be said and done at politically sensitive memorial sites. In 1981, 2500 people showed up at the grave of Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s successor as head of state, who had been convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. Present and former members of the armed forces were allowed to lay wreaths, but not in uniform and, of course, without Nazi insignia. In the US the First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech and to peaceable assembly. In 2017 the mayor of Charlottesville tried to stop a Unite the Right rally taking place near a statue of Lee that was slated for removal, arguing that it should be moved to a nearby park, where demonstrators and counter-demonstrators could be kept apart. But even a ‘content neutral’ argument – worries over crowd size – failed to pass judicial review, because a court held that the city’s decision to move the rally ‘was based on the content’ of the white supremacists’ speech. The rally went ahead and a woman was killed after a white supremacist drove his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators.
To make its memorials signify not a living past but a past that is really past, to make them mean something other than what they once meant, the US has to denature a vast memorial landscape built over more than a century. One option is to destroy them; another to put them in a museum; another to make them into museum pieces in situ, so that like the reliquaries and crosses you find in museums they are no longer charged with their original meaning.
Again, the corners and angles are relevant. Germany does not have to rename every Bismarck Allee or tear down the statues of the Iron Chancellor or Kaiser Wilhelm in order to discredit militant nationalism or Prussian militarism. Utter defeat in 1945 and the geopolitical consequences of the war rendered the Second Reich history and transformed its memorials into heritage. (It’s true that Germany has recently been under pressure to work through its colonial past. Munich used to have a von Trotha Strasse, named after the general who oversaw the genocide of at least 75,000 of the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia between 1904 and 1908. A century later a member of the German government apologised to Namibia for the murders but refused reparations. All the human remains that had made their way to German universities have been repatriated. In 2006 the Munich street was renamed Herero Strasse.)
Neiman suggests that the ideology of the Southern ‘Lost Cause’ should be seen in the same terms as the murderous ethno-nationalism of the Nazis and similarly discredited. The memorials in its name would then fade into insignificance. But this can’t be done. Its history is too long and convoluted. The notion of the Lost Cause had its origin in the antebellum South, where Walter Scott’s novels were in every literate household. Jefferson Davis, the wartime president of the Confederate states, made a pilgrimage to Culloden four years after their defeat. Such thinking blossomed in the next decades, when in the imagination of its elites the South became like the Scotland of the Jacobites, who fought for an honourable cause and lost. With the rise of Jim Crow it became associated with a nostalgic defence of slavery and the plantation system: beneficent, gracious, pre-capitalist. By the 1930s, the Lost Cause looked like it was becoming the ideological equivalent of statues reduced to pigeon roosts. In the middle of a voter registration drive in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Sr allowed the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir, dressed as house slaves, to sing for a ball celebrating the 1939 première of Gone with the Wind. His ten-year-old son was dressed as a pickaninny. King was criticised by his fellow Baptist ministers, but not for seeming to endorse the Lost Cause: they said he shouldn’t have performed for a segregated audience. In the 1960s, the Lost Cause was reinvigorated by segregationists, who claimed it as a defence of ‘our way of life’. The idea has now been thoroughly debunked in academic and popular histories as well as in school textbooks, but the Dylann Roofs of the world with their Confederate flags pay no heed. They are beyond revisionism.
Maybe tearing down memorials would help the US work through centuries of racism. But there are thousands of them. Some of the most overtly offensive have been removed; others slumber in place. May they sleep on. If the statues were gone, white supremacists would find other venues for their rallies. There are two promising alternatives to removing monuments. One is to create pluralistic landscapes that mimic the museum effect of making the past past. The statue of Jefferson Davis that looks down from Alabama’s State Capitol and sees, to his left, Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial fountain (‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’), and, to his right, the National Lynching Memorial, is not the same statue that was there when the segregationist George Wallace was governor of Alabama. The plaques that offer anodyne accounts of Montgomery’s role in the Confederacy can no longer be read as they once were, now that they are accompanied by the Equal Justice Initiative’s plaques describing the operation of slave markets. The statues of Lee and Jackson on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia haven’t been the same since the great black tennis player Arthur Ashe, emaciated by Aids, took his place beside them in 1996, to be joined last year – three blocks to the west, in front of the art museum – by Kehinde Wiley’s Rumours of War, a huge bronze equestrian statue of a man with dreadlocks wearing a hoodie. That new company for the Confederate generals might have been enough to reframe the history they once stood for, but on 3 June Richmond’s mayor announced that the statues of Lee and Jackson would be removed. Rosa Parks’s statue in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol similarly serves to reframe the many Confederate worthies and defenders of Jim Crow represented there, though many of those are being replaced too.
Even the largest bas relief in the world – on Stone Mountain in the outer suburbs of Atlanta, depicting Lee, Jackson and Davis – has gone in and out of museum mode. Work began on it in the early 1920s, at the tail end of the great Confederate monument boom. Then it stopped for three decades until Brown v. Board of Education prompted the Georgia state legislature in 1958 to buy the site, finish the monument and dedicate it to those resisting integration. It was finished in 1972, but by the early 21st century had lost its purchase: black and white families picnicked in the large park below it without giving much thought to its origins. After Dylann Roof carried out his shootings in a Charleston church in 2015 it was suggested that the figures be sandblasted. Yet two years earlier, in 2013, there had been a bell-ringing ceremony at Stone Mountain to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, in which he, born in Atlanta, had invoked the site: ‘Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.’ Mike Thurmond, chief executive officer of the county in which the memorial sits, has proposed that a bell should be sited permanently on the mountain summit. The question is still being debated, but the story shows again that there are ways to detoxify a site and to rework its history without recourse to dynamite.
A second approach, which has more in common with the German effort, is to build anew rather than demolish. There are now two impressive memorial sites on the National Mall in Washington DC: the Martin Luther King memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Across the country, many African American cemeteries are being recovered – among the best known is the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan. And the sites of some of America’s most egregious episodes of racial violence have been reclaimed: on the site of the 1921 Tulsa Riot there is now the John Hope Franklin Park for Reconciliation, named for the great African American historian who grew up in the city; the 1898 Monument and Memorial Park in Wilmington, North Carolina, opened in 2008, commemorates the white coup that violently overthrew the town’s elected biracial administration and forcibly expelled its black population. One of the panels reads: ‘The memorial stands here on the banks of this river as a testimonial to a community that, one hundred years later, strove to acknowledge injustices of the past and worked to move forward together towards a society of greater justice and inclusiveness for all its citizens.’
On a smaller scale, the local history museum in Edmond, Oklahoma should tell the story of the racist postcard advertising ‘No Negroes’ rather than saying only that Royce’s Café was famous for its hot Dr Pepper. A sign put up by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the road into Levittown says that it ‘was a landmark in the development of suburban housing in the United States’. It needs another sign that says: ‘There were nine days of riots here in 1957 to expel the first black family that moved in.’ But there has been progress. Overtly bigoted signage has been removed; the National Park Service has worked with the Organisation of American Historians to reinterpret the history of race and slavery in its sites; civil society has begun to come to terms with the past.
Back to Nietzsche: if we return the corners and angles to the past and acknowledge that more than ‘details of difference’ separate the German case from the American one then simply copying the German example won’t work. But attending to those differences may help us figure out what can be done. Holding up an idealised image of the German case and a hazy one of a United States in need of tuition only makes that more difficult.