Germans are taught that their historical horrors were collective failures. Americans, on the other hand…
Both the US and Germany have committed horrific racist atrocities in the past. But Americans learn about their own cruelties differently than Germans do, writes Megan Carpentier
In America, we learn that Hitler and the Nazis committed the Holocaust; in Germany, German children learn that they all participated in it, because the Germans came to believe that acknowledging their collective culpability as individuals was the only way to prevent it from ever happening again.
Americans, meanwhile, continue to debate whether the Civil War was fought to preserve the institution of slavery, as stated by actual Confederates at the time, or to settle a far more abstract and nebulous quarrel over the less morally indefensible concept of “states rights.” History isn’t always written by the victors, especially if there’s a version that makes everyone feel a little less guilty.
Obviously, this is to some extent simplifying the cultural and political differences between the US and Germany. (For one, Germany hasn’t wholly avoided the rise of right-wing extremism since the Nazis.)
But as Carpentier explains in her piece, America tends to take individualistic views of its history, focusing on heroes like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and villains like Adolf Hitler. Germany has instead made a conscious effort to look at its role during World War II not through individuals but through a collective view — hence the focus not on how Hitler himself went wrong, but on how the nation that supported him and the Nazis did.
The impact of these distinct approaches sticks with us today. Germany still atones for World War II in its schools. Americans learn of slavery and other racist acts as largely the mistakes of their individual ancestors, and sometimes even refuse to admit what the mistakes were at all.
Just last year, there was a big debate about the Confederate flag after the Charleston church shooting, in which a gunman — who donned the flag and describes himself as a white supremacist — shot and killed nine black parishioners.
The flag is a racist symbol of a racist institution that defended slavery, based on the direct admissions of the Confederate states at the time. But some Americans refuse to see the flag in this way, terrified of what that would say about ancestors who once supported the Confederate cause. So there was a national conversation about the issue, mostly focused on if the flag should come down at the South Carolina Capitol.
It seemed ridiculous to be having this debate 150 years after the Civil War, but that’s emblematic of how much of the country has never truly atoned for America’s racist past.
The result is that we repeat the mistake of enabling systemic racism over and over again. After slavery, there were Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and stripped black Americans of their voting rights. After Jim Crow, we still have mass incarceration, aggressive policing tactics, new waves of voting restrictions, and redlining and other forms of residential segregation, all of which have hurt black Americans much more than their white counterparts.
And all the while, many Americans deny that any of this is part of a deeper collective story of systemic racism. So we never fully learn our lesson.