Americans Are Divided By Their Past, Germans United
Americans Are Divided By Their Past, Germans United
As a dual citizen of the US and Germany, I’ve spent much of my life pondering how my two countries deal with their respective histories. The latest occasion was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That’s the date the departing administration of Donald Trump chose to issue a 41-page report called the “1776 Commission.”
The document was produced at Trump’s behest by a commission of 18 conservatives, none of whom is a historian. It presents a rather whitewashed narrative of American history, grudgingly conceding certain “missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs” but insisting that these shouldn’t distract from the primary narrative of heroism and nobility.
The report is in effect Trumpism’s answer to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, a controversial journalistic initiative that places slavery and racism, rather than liberty, at the center of the American narrative. Trump and his commission consider it leftist “indoctrination,” and blame it for the Black Lives Matter movement and “identity politics” generally. What they demand instead is “patriotic education.”
The 1776 Commission report was scorned and ridiculed by professional historians as soon as it was released. And yet there’s no denying that American society remains bitterly torn about the country’s past. The struggle over its interpretation — over which narratives should have priority — even inspires hatred and violence, as in this month’s ransacking of the Capitol. It’s hard to perceive much genuine healing.
Postwar Germany has followed a different path, which I’ve described in some detail. That journey has been no less harrowing, and may never reach its end. But on the whole, German society has confronted and accepted its history in a way that unites its citizens more than it divides, and that inspires responsibility more than revisionism.
For more than a decade after the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, West German society maintained a deafening silence on its past. Too great were the scale and weight of the crimes, and of individual complicity, for most Germans to find words or gestures.
This started changing in the 1960s, when the “Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials” indicted 22 former Nazis, exposing German crimes in detail on the nightly news. In student riots as well as the privacy of living rooms, the sons and daughters of the perpetrators confronted their parents and professors. From the 1970s, when West Germans were glued to the American television series “Holocaust,” history became a West German obsession.
Some West Germans became emotionally fatigued by this historiography. A few — mainly on the far right — rejected it. And even among academics, a “historians’ dispute” belatedly erupted in the 1980s about whether Nazism could be relativized as a response to Bolshevism. East Germans, meanwhile, missed out on all of this soul-searching. Their regime maintained the fiction that the country was full of good communists who had resisted “fascism” all along and had been its victims rather than perpetrators.
Nonetheless, by the 1990s a consensus prevailed in the newly reunified country. It says that history should strive to be above politics. Facts must be respected ruthlessly, and all stories have an equal right to be told. History’s proper role in the present, moreover, is to exhort people to make the world better.
Gradually a new German narrative emerged, of a country that had “worked through” or “coped with” its past. Outwardly, this is visible in the ubiquity of monuments, from the sprawling Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin to little brass plates in pavements across the country that commemorate victims at their last known addresses.
This historical awareness amounted to a new and “post-heroic” national identity based on atonement. It is pro-European, philo-Semitic and pacific, if not literally pacifist. In short, it’s about being the opposite of Nazi: good.
Occasionally, a new superciliousness creeps into this atonement psychology. To others — notably the former Allied Powers and Israel, with their martial prowess and pride — the Germans often come across as moralistic finger pointers, compensating for their complexes and distracting from their own prejudice.
But on balance German society has succeeded in rallying around an honest accounting of history, one that’s sensitive to victims and their descendants and rejects euphemisms or evasions such as those found in the 1776 Commission. When a far-right politician not long ago opined that the 12 Nazi years were “just a speck of bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history,” the outrage was immediate and widespread and he expressed regret.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Germany’s lessons are easily exportable. American history has been told as a story of progress — a tale with some dark chapters, but a tale of glory nonetheless. German history is the opposite: A long book with many bright chapters (Kant, Goethe, Beethoven and so forth) but also with parts so dark that they have the gravitational effect of Black Holes.
Moreover, Germany after its “zero hour” of 1945 had the “advantage” of total collapse, necessitating a subsequent rebirth, with a new state, constitution and moral purpose. The US, similar to the UK, has been the same state with the same constitution for more than two centuries. This stability is remarkable. But as Henning Schroeder, a German-American professor at the University of Minnesota notes, this absence of a “system failure” has also denied it the opportunity of a clean reset and a new and more inclusive narrative.
And yet, I do believe that Americans have lessons to learn from the German experience since 1945. One is that “exceptionalism” is neither a complete (and thus truthful) narrative nor a helpful one, and is usually dangerous, as I’ve argued before.
Another conclusion is that nations are like individuals, like us. They’re endlessly complex and contradictory, with constant struggles between noble and base impulses playing out over time. History in that sense is like self-awareness. It requires merciless honesty — and then the grace of embracing your own contradictions. That way lies freedom, and peace.