“When authoritarian ﬁgures can do no wrong, the problem is not so much with the leader but with the followers, who, like followers of religious cults, willingly drink the proverbial Kool-Aid regardless of how high their IQ may actually be. Seeing their unearned, privileged positions threatened by merit-based concepts such as equality, they embrace cult leaders who present themselves as the only solution to their downward-spiraling predicament, or as Trump proclaimed while mounting the Republican National Convention stage: ‘I am your voice. I alone can ﬁx it.’”
—Miguel A. De La Torre, from his book Burying White Privilege.
My train journey last month from the Rhineland to Berlin provided several hours to reflect on what I had experienced thus far during a three-week stay in the fabled “country of poets and thinkers,” Das Land der Dichter und Denker.
At top of mind was the memory of what I had seen only days before: basement floors of the Nazi Documentation Centre in Köln, a museum of horrors that includes a preserved warren of shadowy dungeons below Appellhofplatz…
…where Gestapo goons tortured and executed prisoners of the Hitler era (1933-1945); where the naked and starving pressed bloody fingers to rough cement walls and scratched out their words of final despair. The barbarity of well more than a half-century ago was palpable. Gestapo ghosts with knife blade smiles haunted the corridors outside the cells, their monster eyes shining. I could practically hear the exhausted sounds of suffering and sadism from within the cells: a rude splash of water as a prisoner’s head is submerged in a tank, a jagged glass bottle jammed into a prisoner’s mouth until his lips split from the pressure, Nazi boots kicking genitalia, the crunch of vertebrae broken as a prisoner lies across a chair for his morning beating with a spiked iron ball.
Unlike those consigned to Hitler’s dungeons, I was free to leave. Yet I was not free from an existential pessimism begun on Election Day in the United States—November 2016, forward to the present and its new normalcy of white supremacist and fascist impulse as bases of support for the Trump regime.
My companion that day in Köln was Jürgen Bürger, the publisher, esteemed translator, and friend of twenty years. The expression on his face as I blurted gut reactions to the museum’s curated crimes echoed the fearful timbre of my voice.
“This place,” I said, “is where we’re headed in America.”
Reminders of the most depraved chapter of German history, the Holocaust, are everywhere in the country, not just Köln. Near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; in Frankfurt, the Börneplatz Memorial Site; in Hamburg, the Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp Holocaust Museum and Prison Memorial; near München, the Dachau Concentration Camp; in urban neighborhoods throughout the nation, the ubiquitous Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones—small brass plates set in the cobblestones outside the last homes of Nazi victims, most of them deported and murdered, their names inscribed in the metal.
Nie vergessen. Never forget.
America’s own depraved chapter of national history, kidnapped Africans held in chattel slavery, occurred between 1619 and 1863. Which adds up to two hundred forty-four years of state-sanctioned violent inhumanity in the U.S., compared to twelve years of the Third Reich. Physical remembrances of America’s greatest sin are few and far between. Conversely, there are more than a thousand monuments and statues extant that celebrate the treason of southern slave states that fomented the American Civil War of 1861-65, the deadliest conflict in all U.S. history. Red-white-and-blue banners of the Confederacy, the traitorous “stars and bars,” are now mainstays of Republican Party campaign rallies, in which candidate Trump’s rhetoric thrilled his largely white racist audiences in 2016, and continues to thrill today.
With the hopeful exception of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—commonly known as the “Lynching Museum,” established only last year in Montgomery, Alabama by acclaimed civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson—the few monuments and statuary reminding us of America’s darkest past have been destroyed or vandalized, the remains often left with calling cards from neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. As Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak asked in August 2017:
“Where, exactly, are all the statues to the millions of enslaved men and women who were so crucial to the foundation of our great nation? Where are the monuments to Nat Turner, Madison Washington, Gabriel Prosser, or ‘Jemmy’—all men who led slave rebellions on behalf of their people. Aren’t their heroic actions, and the bloody results, as worthy of memorializing as the Confederacy?
“Compare that with the massive statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond [Virginia]…where Gen. Robert E. Lee commands a sixty-foot high view of the city.
“It took eighteen years of debate and planning for Charleston, South Carolina to erect a statue of Denmark Vesey, a freed slave who was…executed for organizing a foiled slave revolt in Charleston in 1822. Just a few months ago, three years after it was unveiled, city officials believe damage they found on the Vesey statue may have been the result of vandals trying to topple it.
“This is what happens when America tries to remind itself of its bloody past.
“—America can do better.”
A riverside promenade in Savannah, Georgia is the site of a granite-and-bronze monument showing an emancipated black family in the immediate post-slavery years. Broken chains surround the feet of mother, father, and children. When the monument was proposed in 2001, citywide furor erupted over the quote selected for its base, written by the late Maya Angelou (1928-2014): “We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in others’ excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together.”
The city council of overwhelmingly black Savannah was sharply divided over that quote. Alderman David Jones, an African American, was typically resistant to Ms. Angelou’s lines, calling them “a little far out.”
“I myself wouldn’t want to be reminded of that every time I look at it,” said Mr. Jones. “History can hurt.”
Remarkably, the quote remains—at this writing.
Remaining as well is the open question of how and when—or if—America might come to terms with the worst of its history: slavery as a policy of “radical evil,” a term coined by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Kant defined such iniquity as the privileging of one’s own interest over that of others, effectively reducing those around you as objects to be manipulated and used to your own ends. German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) broadened the term. Radical evil, she wrote, rendered vast numbers of people superfluous, possessing no value, to be discarded as human refuse.
Now comes moral philosopher and essayist Susan Neiman with a new book that provides a pathway for American replication of what Germany has undertaken, in fits and starts, since the end of the Second World War in 1945—a complex and painful social process known as Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working off the past” of radical evil.
Influenced by the works of both Kant and Arendt, Ms. Neiman is an American expatriate living in Berlin, where she directs the Einstein Forum, academic symposia in the eponymous spirit of German-American physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein (1879-1955). In her book—published in English last September by Farrar Straus & Giroux of New York, due out in Germany next March from Carl Hanser Verlag—Ms. Neiman sets forth what she identifies as “critical facets” for successfully confronting, and seeking to overcome, radical evil.
• “A nation must achieve a coherent…narrative. Language is front and center. Was the [American] Civil War about slavery or [so-called] states’ rights? Was May 8, 1945 a [German] Day of Liberation or a Day of Unconditional Capitulation to Foreign Powers?
• “Narratives start with words and are reinforced by symbols, and many symbols involve remembering the dead. Which heroes do we valorize, which victims do we mourn?
• “Narratives are transported through education. What are children taught to remember, and what are they meant to forget?
• “Words are even more powerful when set to music. …A national anthem, done properly, expresses its people’s best hopes. …It may be time for the United States to [replace] our national anthem, with its unsingable tune…I’d vote for Paul Robeson’s version of ‘Ballad for Americans,’ the only song ever played at the Democratic, Republican, and Communist Party national conventions [of] 1940.
• “What about things less symbolic: hard, cold things like prison cells and cash? Are perpetrators brought to justice…is restitution made to victims of injustice? …West German justice prosecuted only a tiny number of Nazis, and usually commuted [their] sentences…East Germany tried and convicted a far greater proportion of war criminals. Both countries paid reparations, in different ways, for crimes committed in the Nazi era.
“As of this writing, the United States has refused to consider a congressional resolution to discuss the possibility of reparations for slavery.”
On that matter of reparations—a hot-button issue in America that has united Democrats and Republicans in ignoring it—Ms. Neiman adds, “Without remembering Martin Luther King’s calls for economic justice, making his birthday a national holiday is hollow.”
And on the matter of American statuary in honor of Confederate military leaders, Ms. Neiman draws a biting comparison to the German approach by trying to imagine, “over and over,” a Germany filled with monuments to the men who fought for the Nazis.
“My imagination failed,” Ms. Neiman writes. “[T]he vision of statues honoring those men is inconceivable. Even those who privately mourn for family members lost at the front, knowing that only a fraction of the Wehrmacht belonged to the Nazi Party, know that their loved ones cannot be publically honored without honoring the cause for which they died.”
She qualifies such noble outlook by noting a 1945 directive from the joint Allied forces that defeated the Third Reich, an order that comprehensively outlawed “the planning, designing, erection, installation, posting, or other display of any monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia which tends to commemorate the Nazi Party, or which is of such a nature to glorify incidents of war.”
The aforementioned Bryan Stevenson—founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, part of New York University School of Law—is cited in Ms. Neiman’s book as the only nationally known U.S. figure who takes German confrontation with the Holocaust as a model for what Americans should do in owning up to slavery and its modern-day legacy of educational, professional, and income disparities between blacks and whites…
…as well as racist chants by the white army of Trump cultists who show up at the president’s frequent and frightening rallies of rage and blind resentment. The cultists serve up the same stinking stew of hateful emotions that gave rise to nearly five thousand lynchings of blacks in the decades following the American Civil War, a series of murders from 1889 clear through to 1968 (!), countenanced by nudge-nudge-wink-wink local police departments.
What is missing in the American context of “working off the past,” according to Mr. Stevenson, is public shame. In an interview with Ms. Neiman at his National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, one-time capital of the Confederacy, he said:
“We’re sitting in a building that’s on the site of a former slave warehouse. A hundred meters from here is the river where tens of thousands of enslaved people were brought by rail and boat. The slave auction site is…up the street. If you came here three years ago, you’d find fifty-nine markers and memorials to the Confederacy, and not a word about slaves. …[In Germany], there were people who said, ‘We can choose to be a Germany of the past or a Germany of the future. …Either we’re going to reject [the Nazi past] and claim something better, or we’re going to be condemned by that for the rest of our existence.’ That was something that never happened in the United States.”
In everyday American conversation, it is no longer unusual to hear my countrymen tick off the historical parallels of the religiopolitical cult of Trumpism to the religiopolitical cult of Hitlerism. In a press conference last August, on the White House lawn, Trump proclaimed himself “The Chosen One.” Likewise, Hitler entertained messianic purpose, evidenced by an autobiography-in-disguise fronted by the “author” Victor von Koerber (1891-1969), a Prussian aristocrat and dullard.
In “Adolf Hitler: A Man and His Speeches,” published in 1923, Der Führer a/k/a Koerber imagined his rôle as Heaven-sent savior to the German people, no less a martyr than Jesus Christ. Hitler’s lunatic psalm to himself reads, in part:
“This man, destined to eternal night, who during this hour endured crucifixion on pitiless Calvary, who suffered in body and soul; one of the most wretched from among this crowd of broken heroes: this man’s eyes shall be opened! Calm shall be restored to his convulsed features. In the ecstasy that is only granted to the dying seer, his dead eyes shall be filled with new light, new splendor, new life!”
Victor von Koerber is to Hitler as New York journalist Tony Schwartz is to Trump. Which is to say, Mr. Schwartz is “co-author” of “Trump: the Art of the Deal,” first published in 1987. In that book, the future president spends three hundred and seventy-two pages touting himself as a brilliant businessman—a contestable assertion in light of his six corporate bankruptcies and a current debt load of $315 million (€283.46), according to the respected Business Insider magazine. Such braggadocio presaged later self-stylings meant to woo that segment of the American electorate susceptible to pure bunkum: “I’m, like, really smart,” Mr. Trump has declared, along with “I have a very big, ah, brain” and “I’m so good-looking, and also a very stable genius.”
For his participation in the claptrap of “Art of the Deal,” Mr. Schwartz has issued numerous mea culpas. So, too, did Herr Koerber in the earlier case of “A Man and His Speeches.” For his disloyalty, the woebegone Prussian was locked up in one of Hitler’s concentration camps, an experience he barely survived. Mr. Schwartz has not met similar fate—yet.
It is possible that we ordinary citizens—never mind our fascist president and his feckless comrades—will muster sufficient vision and patriotism to achieve our own Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or to at least entertain shame for unsettled radical evil.
Donald Trump currently stands in the way of such decency.
Be that as it may, one chamber of Congress is likely to very soon impeach the president for his criminality. After which, Mr. Trump is subject to trial in the other chamber, perhaps by Christmas; after which he may resign rather than face a theoretical conviction, and the U.S. Army arranging a humiliating frog march out of the White House.
What, though, of the sixty-three million citizens who in the presidential election of 2016 consciously voted for a known swindler and white racist? Mr. Trump’s “university” scam was adjudicated as fraudulent in the New York courts, a heavily publicized finding. His racist rap sheet stretches back to the 1970s when the federal government twice prosecuted his real estate firm for its refusal to rent apartments to African Americans—onward to August of 2017 when he declared that “some” of the armed neo-Nazis on parade in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia were “very fine people.”
Not long ago, another of my German friends, the Berlin-based publisher and literary scholar Thomas Wörtche, posed a disturbing question. “What’s wrong with you Americans?” he asked me. “Have you learned nothing from what happened to us Germans?”
During that Rhineland-to-Berlin train journey, I thought of how on earth I might answer my friend. Susan Neiman’s book aids my thinking…
…But then there is what she would call a hard, cold fact: America is terribly late, perhaps irretrievably late, in grasping the importance of shame. After all, it was not until 1998 and President Bill Clinton that my country actually apologized, as a country, for the crime of two hundred-plus years slavery. Mr. Clinton’s apology was made almost off-handedly, and not on American soil; he said he was sorry on behalf of America while traveling in Uganda.
At this moment, the best answer I might give my friend Wörtche would be to quote a line of dialogue from my all-time favorite movie, “Casablanca,” released in 1942. Speaking of her deeply troubled country, a refugee character from fascist Bulgaria tells the proprietor of Rick’s Café (portrayed by Humphrey Bogart), “Oh, things are very bad there, Monsieur. The devil has the people by the throat.”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag
Additional photo credits:
Nazi Documentation Centre—Thomas Adcock
Book cover: “Learning from the Germans”—amazon.com