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.
Damn! Why don’t we learn? 😦
We don’t learn because no one wants to take ownership of the fact that they could and probably are racist. Most whites feel entitlement and that leads to racism. Black people seldom feel entitlement. Entitlement…the idea that certain things or experiences are just there for their enjoyment or benefit. Hugs
You would be forgiven for adding Britain’s name to this analysis. There are those who would refute this but I’m not one of them. When all that is past is only glorified – with no thought of contrition or apology for wrongs done to people, nations, cultures – there is something intrinsically wrong with a nation’s self-perception. History – rather than being learned from or seen as an ongoing daily occurrence in the making – is told as from a distance both in time and in culpability.
I read recently of the way in which the German people deal with their country’s past and admire that they do so in a way that owns it. If it is possible, even despite this, for a right wing renewal there then the rest of us had better look, with trepidation, to what is possible in our own countries.
I am saddened beyond words at what is occurring all over. And fearful.
Pride, they say, goes before a fall. We are collectively guilty of pride in a past – and now present – that is deserving of no honour if we will not admit our wrongs and learn from them.
Posts such as these – and I’m reading plenty that still give me hope – reassure me that we have not yet completely fallen. Thank you for being another light that I can see and be guided by.
You are welcome. I don’t know if looking at Russia is the wrong direction, or if it is fear of something horrible that Trump might have planned all of this with Putin. However, the investigation will hopefully show the direction that takes us too the truth. Barbara
Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.
If only we would learn.
They will n ver learn. They don’t care to, they don’t want too! 😢
Excellent piece, Barbara. Thanks for raising this issue. America is an individualistic culture which makes collective responsibility difficult. Will America ever learn? Judging from the way the Democratic Party blames a foreign country for its loss at the recent presidential elections, I’m tempted to respond in the negative.
There is something about the individualism of “not all this” and “not all that”. People look at something like slavery and say well I wouldn’t support that. …and then they support everything connected to it with a perfectly clear conscience.