Comparative Redemption, Germany’s Holocaust vs. American Slavery

I went out early this morning for coffee and sat in an outdoor café as I clicked around the web. I was drawn to a review by Deborah E. Lipstadt of the book, “Learning from the Germans, Race and the Memory of Evil, written by Susan Neiman. The author grew up in Germany and moved to Mississippi, which provided her with a unique vantage point to compare what she refers to as the “comparative redemption” of Germany and America related to the Holocaust and the institution of slavery.

I was aware that some reparations had been paid to the State of Israel and survivors of the Holocaust beginning in the early 1950s, but didn’t realize the extent to which responsibility was evaded during the first two decades following the end of the war. Communist East Germany claimed that all of the former Nazi’s were in West Germany and the West claimed that only the Third Reich’s leadership knew of the mass murder of Jews. West Germans also maintained that German soldiers fought honorably for their country and were not criminals. The bottom line, neither side accepted responsibility.

In the mid-1960s, the children and grandchildren of those responsible for the Holocaust began to struggle with their families’ crimes and demanded an honest accounting of past wrongs. Since then, Germany has taken steps to publicly accept responsibility. One example of that is a monument erected in the heart of Berlin that stands as a memorial to the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

In the United States, over a century-and-a-half has passed since the end of the Civil War and it seems like we are still in Germany’s initial twenty-year period of denial and failure to accept responsibility. Instead of future generations wanting an honest accounting and a chance to remember and address the ongoing legacy of slavery, the descendants of American slave-owners make the point that they bear no personal responsibility for the crimes of their fathers.   In addition, we still hear arguments supporting the appropriateness of monuments that honor the Confederacy and the efforts of honorable Confederate soldiers, as if these symbols do not detract from the need to acknowledge and memorialize the victims of slavery. Why can’t we move past this? What fundamental differences in the two cultures created this great divide in comparative redemption? I guess I’ll buy the book and get the author’s take on these important questions.

Lipstadt ended her review with the following quote by Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”   Food for thought.