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Vergangenheitsbewältigung in America

November 13, 2017

This year represents the 25th anniversary of one of the great enduring memes of modern American culture and politics. In his thundering speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, former Nixon hatchet man and Adolf Hitler admirer-turned GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan darkly warned of a "cultural war" already underway, one he deemed a "struggle for the soul of America." After Buchanan concluded by proclaiming that "block by block ... we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country," the late humorist Molly Ivins joked:

Many people did not care for Buchanan's speech. It probably sounded better in the original German.

And so it was that Buchanan's kulturekampf spawned a generation of tongue-in-cheek declarations that various right-wing policies, programs and politicians--including Donald Trump--"sounded better in the original German." (For examples of such assessments of Mein Drumpf, see here, here and here.) In some cases, the translation was literal. As Scott Horton documented in Harper's in 2007, long before the Bush administration began using "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a euphemism for its regime of detainee torture, the Gestapo in 1937 introduced the original German verschärfte Vernehmung (which means "enhanced interrogation techniques") into its lexicon of savagery.

But all snark aside, recent developments in the United States show the urgent need for an Americanized version of a German term central to the understanding of Deutschland and Europe since 1945. Vergangenheitsbewältigung (pronunciation here), variously defined as "coming to terms with" or "overcoming" or simply "confronting" the past, describes the ongoing, painful process by which Germans grapple with the inescapable, horrific crimes committed by Adolf Hitler and the nation's Nazi Third Reich.

But while the symbols, likenesses, and ideology of the perpetrators of the conquest of Europe and Holocaust are beyond the pale in Germany, in the United States a much different approach guides Americans' attitudes toward our original sin--and world-historic crime--of slavery and the Civil War fought to eradicate it. Here, many whitewash the obvious cause of that war, traffic in antebellum nostalgia, and venerate statues erected to the traitors who in the service of perpetual human bondage killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. So, when the president of the United States calls for protecting "our great statues/heritage" and his chief of staff--a four-star American general at that--calls Robert E. Lee "honorable" and chalks up his blood-drenched treachery to a mere "lack of compromise," something about America's present is very, very wrong, indeed.

That point was driven home to me during and after my recent trip to Berlin.

With just a couple of days to explore, it was impossible to make a dent in the city's overflowing culture, art and history. Nevertheless, we tried, visiting the Pergamon Museum of antiquities, the German History Museum and even the kitschy DDR Museum. We saw the Reichstag, gutted in the February 1933 blaze which was used by Hitler to outlaw the Communist Party and assume "emergency" powers, now preserved as a reminder to future generations. We walked quietly through the Topography of Terror exhibition, set on the grounds of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is not far away; neither is the Jewish Berlin Museum. You can also see the horrible and hallowed Track 17 at the Berlin-Grunewald station, once used to send hundreds of thousands of Jews to perish in the Nazi death camps.

What you won't find in Berlin are hagiographic statues dedicated to legendary World War II commanders like blitzkrieg pioneer General Heinz Guderian or the "Desert Fox," Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. There's no "Hitler Highway" spanning the country sponsored by a group like the United Daughters of the Reich. There are no reenactments of the battle of Stalingrad and ritualized lamentations about Von Paulus' surrender. And German states like Bavaria, Hesse or Thuringia don't issue proclamations commemorating "Nazi Heritage Month." (For that matter, visitors to Buchenwald probably don't ask docents, "Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got?")
When it comes to what Germans commemorate and why, there is a one-word answer. As the New York Times explained in 2008:

It means coming to terms with the past: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German mouthful. Every German knows the word. Generations have been raised on it.

But as the Times also noted in its 2008 discussion of the film, The Reader,

The Germans have a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- more or less, "coming to terms with the past." It's not an easy concept to translate into English; even less so, perhaps, into the American idiom.

Sadly, the meaning is lost in translation from German to English because Americans have been engaged in altogether different national project. Three generations after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, Germans are still trying to confront--and atone for--the unparalleled horrors their values and their society produced. But over 150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, here in "the land of free and the home of the brave" Americans have sought to avoid, evade and eviscerate our national legacy of slavery, white supremacy and institutional racism.

And make no mistake: slavery was the Confederate project. We know this because the leaders of the Confederacy and their founding documents told us so. The Confederate Constitution did merely proclaim that "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." Southerners "shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired." Importantly, any new territories brought into the Confederacy would become slave states, too. As Mississippi Senator Albert Gallatin Brown explained in 1858, he sought to annex Cuba and some of the Mexican states. Why?

"I want them all for the same reason--for the planting and spreading of slavery."

In the 1840's, the Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches split north and south over the issue of slavery. While the 1861 Mississippi Declaration of Causes for Secession stated that "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia declared his breakaway nation was erected on the cornerstone of slavery:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution...

Our new government is founded upon...its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

But American President Abraham Lincoln offered a different truth. Despite the fact that traitors like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson killed more Americans in defense of chattel slavery than would either Adolf Hitler or Hideki Tojo, the entire country was complicit in that abomination enshrined in the Constitution. As Lincoln so eloquently put it in his Second Inaugural Address just six weeks before his assassination, slavery was the national tragedy and the Civil War the inevitable and necessary price America had to pay for its extirpation:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained...

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." [Emphasis mine.]

But in the aftermath of the war, those in the South did not share Lincoln's "malice toward none" and "charity for all." They would not "do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves." And for their part in helping "bind up the nation's wounds," the former Confederates would demand the re-entrenchment of white supremacy across the South. It is to our lasting shame that through politics, propaganda and violence, they succeeded.

In a very real sense, the North won the war, but the South won the peace. The "Southern "Redemption" movement swamped national Reconstruction as an ivory curtain of white supremacy, intimidation, and violence soon enveloped the states of the former Confederacy. Northern exhaustion, complicity in the Johnson White House, and the entrenchment of a racist, conservative Supreme Court undermined the clear meaning and intent of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In less than a generation, the institutionalization of segregation was complete.

As W.E.B. Dubois lamented, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." It took 100 years after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox for the civil rights movement to begin the demolition of the edifice of Jim Crow and with it, make possible the liberation of all Americans for all time.

Possible, but still far from complete. Far from engaging in an "enduring confrontation with the past," the United States for over 150 years has allowed Confederate sympathizers, southern partisans and white supremacists rewrite it. As Coleman Lowndes explained at Vox, "the United Daughters of the Confederacy altered the South's memory of the Civil War." Between 1894 and 1918, their campaign to sanctify the "Lost Cause" which produce dozens of textbooks, hundreds of memorials and statues and even the Jefferson Davis Highway to "portray Confederate leaders and soldiers as heroic" and just. (Though their UDC approved textbooks faded from Southern schools by the 1970's, in 2015 Texas schoolbooks used "workers" or "immigrants" instead of the word "slaves.) And as Eric Foner warned, "the early 20th century works of William A. Dunning and his students at Columbia University...provided an intellectual foundation for the system of segregation and black disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction."

As for the Confederate statues that continue to desecrate cities and towns across the United States, they weren't built right after the war to honor or memorialize Lee, Jackson or "Johnny Reb." As the building booms of 1890 to 1915 and 1955 to 1970 show, they were erected precisely to combat periods of progress in civil rights. After the lash, the white hood, the burning cross, the noose, the poll tax and the literacy test, the Confederate monument was just the latest weapon of white supremacy.

When President Trump defended white supremacist and neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville this summer as "good people," he was only following the script for the Southern Strategy at the heart of Republican electoral politics for the past 50 years. Combining incendiary racial rhetoric, zealous xenophobia, and even Confederate idolatry to manufacture a terrified and furious white majority, that gambit has been the go-to weapon for Republicans north and south. As one leading Republican put it in an October 1998 interview in Southern Partisan (a magazine which previously featured a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln):

"Your magazine helps set the record straight," said Ashcroft. "You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

That perverted agenda was the Confederacy's crusade to preserve slavery under a system in which five million white Americans owned four million black Americans as their property. And that Republican was John Ashcroft of Missouri, the same John Ashcroft who in less than three years would become Attorney General of the United States of America.

If a crucial prescription for killing off the disease that was the Confederacy came "in the shape of warm lead and cold steel, duly administered by 200,000 black doctors," the antidote to this kind of cynical and dangerous race-baiting is a never-ending campaign of truth. This May, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered a very large helping of the truth as announced his city's decision to remove the Robert E. Lee monument in place since 1884:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This 'cult' had one goal - through monuments and through other means - to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

As Cold War historian Yuliya Komska put it in the Washington Post, "the task at hand is to purge the imagery in a way that guards against amnesia while also transforming the statues from celebratory monuments into objective evidence." In that effort, the German experience with Vergangenheitsbewältigung can provide some guidance to Americans:

The removal of the relics of a hateful social order is not in itself cause for celebration. It is the aftermath that matters.

The German case is exemplary not because Germans attained closure but rather because they came to recognize that closure is neither tenable nor desirable. Instead, the processing of history is like an open wound that slowly heals only with careful debate about the often explosive issues at stake.

That said, there are important differences between the anti-Semitism, racism and eliminationism of Nazi Germany and the enslavement and subjugation of African-Americans. For starters, Americans have constitutionally-protected free speech rights. Anyone who wishes to praise the traitorous Confederacy, its treasonous leaders and its horrible cause has every right to do so. If Richard Spencer, David Duke or anyone else wants to display a Confederate flag on their person or their property, they are certainly entitled to do so. People who carry those banners dedicated to racism, fratricide and treason will be called many things; "patriotic American" by definition can't be one of them. (That goes double for many NASCAR fans and those Trump supporters who taunt protesting professional football players by declaring "NFL" stands for "N*ggers for Life.") Confederate flags, symbols and statues have no place on public property, unless housed in an American version of the "Topography of Terror." America would be much better off if those who go to worship Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania or Stone Mountain, Georgia instead visited Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Andersonville prison in Georgia, the site of the Colfax slaughter in Louisiana or the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

If American Vergangenheitsbewältigung is rightly constrained by the United States Constitution (including the Civil War amendments), we possess a major advantage our German friends can never claim. It took the combined Allied powers to crush Hitler and the Nazis. The U.S. the UK, France and the USSR liberated Germans from the evil they themselves produced. (The rise and fall of Soviet domination in East Germany is another story for another day.) By contrast, Americans were--and must continue to be--our own liberators. Emancipation (and the still-ongoing realization of the full fruits of citizenship for "all persons born or naturalized in the United States") was won by Americans who shed American blood and who vindicated American ideals. And those victories and the civil rights triumphs still to come belong to all Americans everywhere and for all time. Your distant relative may have followed John C. Calhoun or fought for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but you can always choose freedom over slavery, brotherhood over racism, Grant over Lee, Sherman over Bedford Forrest and Lincoln over Davis. Donald Trump was saying more than he knew when he announced, "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more."

If Americans are our own redeemers (or to quote a wise man, "we are the ones we've been waiting for"), it is precisely because our national mission is to never stop becoming a "more perfect union." In 1855, Abraham Lincoln lamented that "as a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'" Speaking at Lincoln's Memorial 108 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream of an America living up to its creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." But America has never been great because of its "volk" or its "blood and soil," but because of the American idea. And central to that American idea is the promise "We the People" make to each other to become greater still.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

You won't find that in German. It always sounds best in the original American English. Nevertheless, to secure that future for all Americans, we must honestly confront our past.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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