What the Germans can teach us about state-sanctioned racism (and owning the sins of your country)
As Black Lives Matter protests exploded across the country, we heard from an old friend in Germany who’d finally lost it with America. “What the hell is going on there?” he emailed from Berlin, where he works as a driver for Hollywood productions in Europe (his latest gig was the new Bill and Ted movie). Our paths crossed professionally many years ago, and we’ve kept in touch over the years – he even spent Christmas with us in 2010.
What a whole different world it was back then! Since, there’s been Trump then COVID then civil upheaval after a man was publicly murdered by police. America’s reputation with the rest of the world has sunk to an all-time low. What the hell indeed.
During our time while quarantined (and then curfewed at home) we found time to research possible answers. Obviously, the state of our Union these days is a product of many factors but white supremacy tops the list: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality, systemic poverty, violent hate groups….
Surely, the US isn’t the only country with a brutal past to contend with. How have other societies historically dealt with their collective guilt and trauma?
South Africa and their system of apartheid, for instance, quickly comes to mind. But SA’s wounds are young and raw – it’s been less than 30 years since a newly-free Nelson Mandela forgave his captors and set about healing the country. Across the globe in Germany, citizens have had 75+ years to deal with their homeland’s perpetration of industrial mass murder the world has never seen.
Learning From the Germans is a fascinating book that was enlightening when it came out last fall but has proven even more relevant in the aftermath of George Floyd. The author (Susan Neiman) explores how the US has handled its racist history, and compares attitudes here with Germany’s efforts to move on after Nazi travesties. Where many Americans are still glorifying Confederate flags, battles and landmarks, Germans have taken up an active atonement that is so foreign to us we don’t even have a word for it in English.
“Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung” roughly translates “working off the past.” It’s not an academic exercise, but an intimate process. The idea took hold when a generation came of age in the 1960’s and confronted parents, teachers and other leaders about Nazi atrocities – and declared their authority rotten. What followed was decades of learning for the whole county: articles, books, movies, plays, classes, ceremonies, public art installations… Germany set itself on very conscious and encompassing task to change its narrative and create a new one where Jews and immigrants would be welcome.
So we asked Oliver about his experiences growing up in Germany – in particular, how he’s personally approached and been affected by the responsibility to “work off “ his country’s past.
Oliver (Berlin, Germany):
Sounds like a real good project and I would love to help and support. Unfortunately the impact Corona has had on my daily life is drawing all my energy and attention.
All I can say is that it’s true that we are dealing differently with the mistakes of former generations than you do in the US. All the school years after elementary school up to bachelor (which is about 9 years), we are taught about fascism, racism, the Holocaust and the responsibility of every generation to keep eyes and ears open if the same bad forces start growing again. These are essential parts of history and ethical lessons in our daily school life.
But there are also memorials, museums, exhibitions, and social and political engagements that keep these lessons alive. I mean it’s so present that you have to be an idiot to never have visited the Topography of Terror (a concentration camp), the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum (Berlin), Gleis 17 (an infamous train station in Berlin where Jews were shipped to concentration camps in the east of the country), the Anne Frank House, Stoplersteine (a national and international artistic project that remembers the victims of the Nazis by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last known address), etc.
What happened in the U.S. is a tragedy yes but the tragedy goes around everywhere. Not only Trump is insane, so many leaders in the world are going nuts and way too far in cutting democratic and human rights. The people always paying the bill for their leader’s incompetence and ignorance.
Staying with what’s going on in the states right now, I try to get my opinion by following the news — mostly the sarcastic and ironic comments of late night hosts like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah, because their comments about Trump’s behavior makes total sense to me. What is really hard to understand is why Trump is still President. He is putting oil into the fire wherever he can, he makes every problem and conflict worse, he is proved wrong the moment he opens his mouth. Instead of being a leader in times of crisis like, unemployment, Corona, economy or racism….this guy tweets and golfs. Sorry, I don’t get it.
In every big city in Europe, hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating peacefully and showed solidarity with the black life matters movement. So it’s not just Germans who learned their lesson in school about how to stand up and speak up against racism or anti-democratic forces, it’s absolutely everybody except Trump.
We have idiots here too like the very right-wing party AfD. They all use the same old lame but dangerous tricks. They are playing with the fear and concerns of good people. The protestors’ demands to give more money to support the communities, schools, libraries, and universities to prevent racism even if that means to defund the police? Seems pretty legitimate to me…
I know those conflicts between black and white have been going on for centuries now. What’s different now is that it’s harder for racists to stay anonymous because everybody has a camera and is able to show that it’s not just a few bad apples!!!
It is 3AM here and I must go to bed now! It’s always a big pleasure to see you and Carolyn posting good days together with nature, bicycles and beer. The most important things in life are health and time. And if you can share some healthy time together with someone you love, you are blessed. Talk soon. Good night friends.