Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung
June 6, 2021 5:41 AM   Subscribe

Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same? SLWaPo essay.

Shortly after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 on the National Mall, I was speaking to some patrons of a successful nonprofit about the importance of candid racial dialogue in politics and in the places we live, work and worship.

One of the participants had recently toured the museum and had a pointed question. Why, she wondered, were all the exhibits that visitors first encounter dedicated to slavery? Among other things, she was referring to a reconstructed cabin built by former slaves from Maryland and a statue of Thomas Jefferson next to a wall with the names of more than 600 people he owned. “Couldn’t the exhibits begin with more uplift?” the woman asked, arguing that Black achievement was more worthy of the spotlight. She suggested that the museum should instead usher visitors toward more positive stories right from the start, so that if someone were tired or short on time, “slavery could be optional.”
posted by mumimor (35 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder how much of Germany’s efforts in this regard come down to (a) the relatively limited duration of Naziism and the Holocaust and (b) effectively being forced to do it by the pressures of economics and occupation.

Are we aware of other countries that have owned up to these sorts of things in any meaningful way? Russia and serfdom? India and the caste system? Any number of countries and abusive colonialism (not to mention participation in slavery)? The Armenian genocide? And so on? I’m not bringing up these examples as equivalencies to slavery in the United States or to say that the States shouldn’t make these important efforts, but more to highlight the extent to which Germany’s work in this regard may be unique.
posted by slkinsey at 6:09 AM on June 6 [17 favorites]


History is written by the winners; in Germany the Nazis lost.

In the US and other countries, the wars of class/race/caste/slavery are still ongoing. So the answer is, of course, no, we can't face our past, because it isn't past.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:22 AM on June 6 [98 favorites]


Are we aware of other countries that have owned up to these sorts of things in any meaningful way?

I'm sorry, can you explain the point you are trying to make here?
posted by warriorqueen at 6:23 AM on June 6


Are we aware of other countries that have owned up to these sorts of things in any meaningful way?

This question is beside the point, but South Africa is a pretty good example.

we can't face our past, because it isn't past.

This is the actual problem.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:26 AM on June 6 [26 favorites]


The South African Truth and Reconciliation process provides an example of a contemporary process, but this was a process that happened after apartheid had ended.
posted by The River Ivel at 6:29 AM on June 6 [7 favorites]


I’m not bringing up these examples as equivalencies to slavery in the United States or to say that the States shouldn’t make these important efforts, but more to highlight the extent to which Germany’s work in this regard may be unique.

The article is literally exactly about how and why this happened in Germany, and it's very clear that you have shown literally no effort to engage with it.
posted by ambrosen at 6:29 AM on June 6 [7 favorites]


I wonder how much of Germany’s efforts in this regard come down to (a) the relatively limited duration of Naziism and the Holocaust and (b) effectively being forced to do it by the pressures of economics and occupation.

To a certain extent, I think that is unfair. West Germany did not really confront its history in the way that we now recognise until the children born after 1945 grew up and started asking questions. Willy Brandt's 1970 Warsaw genuflection was unexpected. His own history was someone politically persecuted by the Nazis, who escaped into exile and had his citizenship revoked. So his gesture was not likely to be interpreted as remorse for his own actions, but remorse as Chancellor for the actions of Germany and Germans. 48% of Germans polled at the time thought he went too far. They were wrong.

In the US and other countries, the wars of class/race/caste/slavery are still ongoing.

Yes. Ideally we would just stop. But I think trying to face up to our past is one way in which we can bring ourselves too see that we haven't stopped. Partly I think this because the people that I see resolutely turning their face away are doing so because they are afraid of being made to give up the spoils of war. They think that if they don't look it will stop being true. That is not how things work.
posted by plonkee at 6:31 AM on June 6 [17 favorites]


I feel like there's a lot of bad writing about how modern Germany has processed its Nazi past, as it's usually in the service of some other point the author wants to make, and isn't really interested in the messy details. I feel like this article does a really good job of threading this needle though, and characterizing the halting and limited, yet nevertheless remarkable nature of Germany's Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung.

Addendum: according to my wife Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung is also a term for referring to how people process their own past, and is not reserved for talking about how Germany processes its Nazi past. Also it's not an awkward word, it's beautiful, and rolls pleasantly off the tongue. Try Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung (certificate of the freedom from owing money for rent) for a pointlessly awkward, yet widely used German word.
posted by Alex404 at 6:41 AM on June 6 [16 favorites]


but more to highlight the extent to which Germany’s work in this regard may be unique.

somebody's already mentioned South Africa, though my guess is that the past in question and the reconciliation are both too comparatively recent to know really how effective the process will end up being (ie: what stories will they be telling themselves generations from now?) Canada also has attempted its own version of Truth + Reconciliation. I'll leave it to others to speak to its effectiveness. Though in the wake of recent horrific discoveries in Kamloops, BC, who knows how things may now galvanize?

The article is literally exactly about how and why this happened in Germany, and

paywalled, sorry
posted by philip-random at 6:49 AM on June 6 [4 favorites]


paywalled, sorry

Yes, I'm sorry, I am hoping someone can make a readable link.

I wonder how much of Germany’s efforts in this regard come down to (a) the relatively limited duration of Naziism and the Holocaust and (b) effectively being forced to do it by the pressures of economics and occupation.

It's worth remembering that European anti-semitism goes back centuries and is still deeply embedded in some religious groups' world-view. Luther was a rabid antisemite, and so were many Catholics. It may have been bad in Germany before WW2, but I don't think much worse than some other countries*. The Nazis latched on to a common feeling, they didn't invent it. However, the Germans today are much better at confronting antisemitic positions today than many European countries.
When I think of things my own country should think about it is the lack of will to save Jewish refugees before the Holocaust. The Danes saved most of their "own" Jews, but thousands were sent back to certain death at the border. And obviously we are big on racist exclusion right now.

*this is where I regularly recommend reading the collection of essays by Joseph Roth: What I Saw (link to a blog post, rather than a huge online store) Because it kind of explains why it was in Germany the Holocaust was conceived in spite of the fact that violent antisemitism was probably more common in Eastern Europe before the 1930s.
posted by mumimor at 7:12 AM on June 6 [12 favorites]


Searching on the full headline sometimes returns a non-paywalled link.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:25 AM on June 6 [5 favorites]


Here's another paywall-free link: archive.is. It's an important and well written article and I hope people read it before commenting here.

I've thought a lot about this topic, particularly after having spent a lot of time in Germany visiting Nazi memorials. (I've written on it too: self-link.) As the article notes Germany's reconciliation movement really only starts in the 1960s, with a new generation. Immediate post-war Germany is full of all sorts of upsetting stories of former Nazi officers getting positions in the new government. (Indeed, that's something that's being reconciled with just now.) Another important cultural touchstone for Germans of a specific generation is the 1979 TV show Shoah.

Germans have a clear consensus that Naziism was bad. America does not have a similar consensus about slavery. We literally just had a white supremacist president. We still have plenty of Americans arguing that slavery was somehow anything other than a pure evil, that slaves benefitted or were happy. We had a whole war about keeping or abolishing slavery and many of the losers of that war not only refused to learn from defeat but deny the war had anything to do with slavery. We defend public statues commemorating the leaders of the slave states. (Needless to say, there are no statues of Hitler or Himmler or Göring in Germany.) And we also had a legacy of 100+ years of legal subjugation and oppression in the form of Jim Crow laws which in the worst place functioned like a slightly softer form of slavery. That only ended "officially" 50 or so years ago and many of its remnants persist today. We have never had the reckoning with our history of slavery that would even allow the kind of reconciliation described in this article.

One thing that made me wince a bit; the mention of the Smithsonian African American museum (again, self-link). In Germany no Nazi memorial is ever asked to serve as a Jewish museum. Concentration camps are about Nazis, about the non-Jewish Germans who killed Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesireables". They mention Jewish people and Jewish culture, sure. But they are not museums about Jewish life. Neither are the other Nazi museums like the Topography of Terror. It would be unimagineable to confuse these places about German crimes with places about Jewish culture.

But here in America we get exactly one nationally funded major museum about African Americans and slavery. So it does double duty. The building and museum design understands this. It's clearly split into two halves, effectively two museums. There's the underground half, where most people start, which tells the history of slavery and the civil rights movement. People emerge from there after a couple of hours significantly subdued and upset, then maybe rest a bit in the atrium or have lunch. Only then do you get to the upstairs part, the joyful part, the part about African American culture. The quilts, the celebration of foodways, the sports heroes, the P-Funk Mothership of all glorious things. Both museums are great but it's a shame they have to be together in one place, one experience. Also very telling of American attitudes to African Americans, to not see the difference between the two. Perhaps it was a way to avoid making white Americans confront their history of slavery. At least the Smithsonian didn't compromise on the slavery half of the museum, it's quite powerful.

One tiny addition to the article: it's worth noting the Stolpersteine are not a government project. It's an individual project originally started by the artist Gunter Demnig. Indeed they exist all over Europe, not just in Germany. Most of the stones are paid for, installed, and cared for by individuals, often the owners of the building they are in front of. The personal nature of the commemoration seems like an important part of the project to me, a way for current Germans and other Europeans to connect to the history of the evil of what their Nazi forebearers and occupiers conducted.
posted by Nelson at 7:44 AM on June 6 [44 favorites]


I did read the whole article, but this quote is what stayed with me:

“Couldn’t the exhibits begin with more uplift?” the woman asked, arguing that Black achievement was more worthy of the spotlight. She suggested that the museum should instead usher visitors toward more positive stories right from the start, so that if someone were tired or short on time, “slavery could be optional.”

The problem with that is - how much good is "uplift" going to do if you don't acknowledge how far down you're starting from?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:45 AM on June 6 [12 favorites]


...we haven’t had that conversation.
I feel, very much, like african-american authors and artists have been having this conversation all along. It's the white, european-american side that hasn't been engaging - because we 'don't have to.' Or at least thought we didn't have to.

Germany came to it slowly and, it must be said, reluctantly. This - I know two (though admittedly I don't talk about this with everyone) people who admit to having family who were Nazi. (It was from one of them that I first heard the phrase, "If a Nazi sits down at a table with seven people and no one protests, how many Nazis are there? Eight.") Most people's grandparents "Weren't really and, probably, worked against it in their own way..."

Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved. Their names. Their fates. Their birth dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families. The conditions of their toil. Imagine how that might shape the way we comprehend the peculiar institution of slavery, its legacy and its normalized trauma. Imagine if there were similar embedded memorials for Indigenous peoples, who were forced from their land, relegated to reservations far from their normal ranges and regions. Imagine stopping to fill up the tank at a roadside gas station and noticing the reflection off a gleaming brass marker that bears the names of the tribal elders who once lived where you are standing.

This processing of the past is absolutely within the grasp of America as a culture but, as the article mentions, it could well be that the impetus has to come from the local level.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:46 AM on June 6 [8 favorites]


One interesting divergence between Germany and the United States is global reputation. Here:
"Would anyone in the world buy those affordable little rear-engine Volkswagen Beetles if they came from a place that was indelibly branded with hatred and genocide?"
America is, and has long been, a massive provider of goods to the world. How much of this is due to the passage of time, or to different nations' attitudes?
posted by doctornemo at 8:12 AM on June 6


Different point: the article on focuses on West Germany and doesn't address how East Germany handled the Nazi heritage. Offhand, I can't recall much, beyond the USSR exacting retribution for that epochal war.

Which brings me back to slkinsey's question. What can we learn from nations other than Germany, grappling with hideous legacies other than Naziism?

Think, for example, of the three other European nations which became fascist without external conquest. Italy, Spain, and Portugal each processed their fascist eras... very differently. We can add to this the nations and regions which participated in fascism through being invaded: France, Yugoslavia, Poland. It's quite a range.

But we don't need to stick to fascism if we're looking for world-historical horror. 20th century communism offers plenty. Consider how the 15 nations that once composed the Soviet Union process the heritage of Stalin's rule, to pick one example. Or how China handles the staggering horror of Mao's Great Leap Forward, not to mention the political nightmare of the Cultural Revolution that followed. Or how Cambodia deals with the memory of Pol Pot's reign.

Or reach back a bit and think of the worst colonizers, such as Belgium (through the king's personal role, yes).

Point being: there are a good range of precedents to consider for illuminating how America has dealt with the heritage of slavery, and how it might.
posted by doctornemo at 8:20 AM on June 6 [4 favorites]


History is written by the winners;.

History is written by winners and losers, by polemicists and the disinterested, by the honest and dishonest, by sticklers and by fabulists.

the article on focuses on West Germany and doesn't address how East Germany handled the Nazi heritage.

Nor Japan, critics of which say officialdom could be more active. Shigeru Mizuki has some interesting work on this. Apparently post Idi Amin Ugandans have various opinions of the man and his times.
posted by BWA at 8:34 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]


We can't address the "past" because it's not past.

And despite the pithy snark of "victors write the history books", it's a) not true, losers of wars are often more invested in writing history than the winners, and b) the Confederate States of America didn't really lose the Civil War.

Remember, at the supposed end of the Civil War Jeff Davis was fleeing to Texas, his plan was to organize more resistance there. And the Confederate forces didn't actually stop fighting until America surrendered on March 31, 1877, went home, and left the Black people and their allies in the Confederacy to be tortured, murdered, and beaten into submission. We euphemistically call that surrender "the end of reconstruction".

The result was that in the Confederacy while slavery as nominally abolished it continued in fact if not in name for close to a hundred years after the Confederacy was supposedly defeated.

It wasn't until 1968 when you could honestly say that the Confederacy really began it's true loss, and it took decades after that to even begin to have the promise of civil rights become real.

We **STILL** have enough white Americans who are white supremacists that we can't even get police to stop murdering Black people for sport.

America can't face it's horrible past because it's our horrible present. The fight is still ongoing and there's no guarantee at all that the forces of good will win. White supremacy is a major, powerful, pervasive, and entrenched aspect of American society, and one of its biggest strengths is that among liberals it's considered impolite, or extreme, or in some other way bad or wrong, to talk about it in honest and open terms.
posted by sotonohito at 8:42 AM on June 6 [34 favorites]


Nor Japan, critics of which say officialdom could be more active....
Apparently post Idi Amin Ugandans...


Yes.
posted by doctornemo at 8:50 AM on June 6


Arguably, the bad guys haven't lost until people start pulling down their statues. When did the statues of Confederates start coming down, again?
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:53 AM on June 6 [4 favorites]


Over and over again, I think of this Afroculturist piece about white visitors to “living history” plantation tours.
In South Carolina there was that time four of you walked in grinning and salivating as you often do, and were all ready to be regaled of the good old days until a German tourist scratched your record. He said, “How do you feel as a Black American, dressing like your Ancestors and cooking and working this way?”

You started to frown.

I said, “Slavery was colloquial and discretionary, one story doesn’t tell all. But its important to remember that our Ancestors survived this. Survived slavery.”

He pushed me further. You gestured towards the door.

“How do people feel about slavery?”

My retort was fast. “How do you feel about the Shoah? How do you feel about the Holocaust?”

The German said, “The Holocaust was a terrible thing and never should have happened. We were children when Germany was coming out of the ashes. But it is a shame upon our nation.”
Slavery is a shame upon our nation. We white people need to begin by admitting that. I despair of some of us ever admitting it.
posted by snowmentality at 8:54 AM on June 6 [21 favorites]


This photo of German soldiers watching footage of concentration camps is striking. It seems to me one notable difference between Nazi Germany and the American institution of slavery is that Germany felt immediate national shame for the Holocaust, while the American reaction to slavery was more delayed.

And that's an understatement... they sell Confederate flag bikinis at a shop near my home. Bigotry on boobies.
posted by jumanjinight at 8:57 AM on June 6 [7 favorites]


Snowmentality: Michael W Twitty's piece about the plantation visit has really stuck with me, too. Your post reminds me there are a couple of other big well funded museums in the US trying to tell the history of slavery and racial injustice in America in a German-style documentary way.

The first is the Whitney Plantation an hour outside of New Orleans. I think that's where Twitty is writing about. It's the first plantation museum to center the lives of the people who were enslaved there rather than indulge some romantic fiction about the South. Other plantations are starting to acknowledge the slave history more and even places like Monticello have greatly improved. But the Whitney Plantation is something special.

The second is the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. That got a lot of press for its detailed information on the history of lynching, see NYTimes and New Yorker.)

I haven't visited either of these places yet, apologies for my ignorance. Also perhaps there's others and I don't know about? I feel like we have a lot of museums about African American history that are focussed on the uplifting part, the civil rights movement, the Black people who overcome. That's great! But what's missing is more museums that tell the history of the crimes against humanity that are at the founding of our country, a truthful telling. As many people have said in this thread, I think they're missing because we don't have a real national consensus on that history.
posted by Nelson at 9:13 AM on June 6 [7 favorites]


Both museums are great but it's a shame they have to be together in one place, one experience. Also very telling of American attitudes to African Americans, to not see the difference between the two.

It's a complicated problem, because slavery was a major institution imposed on Black life in America for more than two hundred years; Black culture necessarily developed to respond to, struggle with, and defy it. To which museum would an item like Ashley's Sack belong?

This processing of the past is absolutely within the grasp of America as a culture but, as the article mentions, it could well be that the impetus has to come from the local level.

Every year on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire volunteers chalk the names of victims in front of their (usually tenement) homes. There's a lot to be said for projects that force you to reckon with the history of your immediate, intimate personal landscape. I remember the chill I got seeing the renegade memorial (since replaced with a permanent plaque, good work, young people!) on Wadsworth House, one of the historical buildings on Harvard Yard, which named the enslaved people who lived there and said "THIS HOUSE WAS ALSO A PLACE OF ENSLAVEMENT."
posted by praemunire at 10:05 AM on June 6 [13 favorites]


Meanwhile, the far right is gaining popularity again in Germany, mostly because of xenophobia and a narrative of Germany and German culture being under attack by undesirables in their midst. There's an important regional election happening right this moment where it's not clear that the AfD will lose. It looks like facing the past isn't enough; you have to keep learning and teaching the lesson, because it's quickly forgotten, and you have to not compartmentalize the lesson as being just about "the past", ignoring its implications for and relationship with the present.
posted by trig at 10:56 AM on June 6 [11 favorites]


I think a key impetus for the ongoing German Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the idea of "remain vigilant - this must never happen again". So the awareness that we are all a mere step away from the next rise of the right** and we, too, will be capable of unspeakable atrocities if we do not actively keep those memories alive.

I think Americans are taught from the cradle that they are the good guys, the anti-nazis (whereby nazis are defined as unamerican) and that they live in the greatest nation on earth and don't you dare dispute it. None of which is conducive for the necessary self-criticism.

**which is, of course, sadly true.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:53 PM on June 6 [13 favorites]


... it's not clear that the AfD will lose.

Luckily, they did - CDU (Merkel's party, conservative but not insane - AfD is what Trump would like to turn the Rep.'s into) won, last I heard, 37% to AfD's 22% - a healthy margin.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:24 PM on June 6 [5 favorites]


I’m surprised no one has mentioned Susan Neiman’s Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, which pretty much covers this from the point of view of a Jewish woman living in Berlin, and does a pretty good job of pointing out that the East actually did a better job at confronting the Holocaust, whereas the west remained fairly ambivalent.

Worth a read.
posted by snortasprocket at 3:57 PM on June 6 [2 favorites]


It's cited in the article.
posted by coolname at 5:21 PM on June 6 [4 favorites]


“slavery could be optional.”

The first thing you should know about slavery is...
posted by adept256 at 6:44 PM on June 6 [7 favorites]


Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved

And also small, embedded annotations to the memorials of otherwise esteemed Americans who bought, sold, or owned other humans, to put their legacy into context.

The Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA has in its collection and on its gallery walls portraits of people and families from America’s past, as most American art museums do. Of course these are generally artifacts of wealthy people who had enough money to afford a portrait, and influential enough to have these artifacts be preserved in the community after death. At WAM, the interpretive information on the walls next to the paintings includes whether and to what extent these people participated in and/or derived that wealth from slavery.

I absolutely agree that America needs to restore respect and dignity to the everyday people who were enslaved. At the same time, it would be good to restore shame to the everyday people who were enslavers.
posted by Sublimity at 4:02 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]


I think Americans are taught from the cradle that they are the good guys, the anti-nazis (whereby nazis are defined as unamerican) and that they live in the greatest nation on earth and don't you dare dispute it. None of which is conducive for the necessary self-criticism.

Teaching Americans what words actually mean would help too. Otherwise you get the brain-breaking situation we're in now where these "anti-Nazi" Americans are claiming to be opposed to "Antifa".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:07 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


I think i'm mostly just cranky with Canada right now but I don't understand why the US has to study whether there have been successful other models in order to do better.

It's entirely possible that before creating the 9/11 memorial everyone in power went out and studied other nations, but the problem is not lack of information. It's lack of will.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:37 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]


we can't face our past, because it isn't past.

Same issue in Canada right now. We've got our Truth and Reconciliation report regarding residential schools, but the last ten days have shown we've barely begun to grapple with the Truth, much less begin Reconciliation.

And that's just on residential schools.
posted by nubs at 6:34 AM on June 8 [3 favorites]


This is a timely article that discusses some of the already-mentioned, and less well-known, factors that contributed to the gradual shift in... what should we call it, German 'national character,' maybe? Anyway, I thought it was valuable. One linguistic nit I'd like to pick with the WaPo essay: "Aufarbeiten" to my ears, reads more like "working ON" than "working OFF." Maybe too nit-picky, but I think the word is intended to convey this work as an "ongoing process of reconciliation" rather than a "shedding" of the past. Better German speakers may disagree.
posted by ubi at 2:59 PM on June 10


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