Op-eds, Opinions

Steinman ’19: What we can remember from ‘Never Forget’

By
op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, September 7, 2017

When I traveled to Berlin with my family last month, my mom was so worried about violating German laws prohibiting Nazi symbols that she taped over the swastikas on the cover of her copy of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Imagine the effect, then, of passing by a stand of German newspapers bearing the faces of men wearing Nazi armbands and proudly displaying the swastika — and knowing they were American faces.

The American Nazis that marched in Charlottesville and what they stand for have been voraciously documented in the media, both in the United States and abroad. They seek a nation in which white, Christian men possess the entirety of power — political, social, and economic — while the rest of us cower in a state between disenfranchisement and terror. The monuments they defend as “history” represented much more than a commemoration of the past. Strategically placed as weapons of intimidation against a generation of African-Americans seeking the most basic rights, these statues were never meant to be historical at all. Instead, they send a message to people of color that rings as clearly in 2017 as it did in 1920 and 1960: You will never be safe here, and you will never be one of us. For proof, look no further than the words of a Georgia state representative who suggested that anyone who tried to dismantle the statues would be met with “something a lot more definitive” than torches by his constituents .

American Nazis are aghast at the thought of suppressing our history, by which they mean Confederate generals and their supposed honor in committing treason. As a nation, we’re very good at commemorating the Civil War and its soldiers. Its battlefields are major tourist attractions, re-enactments occur across the nation, and an almost unimaginable amount of literature and media is still produced to tell the story of a war that ended 152 years ago. We’re much worse at discussing the cause of the Civil War (which, no, was not “states’ rights”). And when we do talk about slavery, or segregation or Jim Crow laws, we tend to do so in a way that obscures their relevance to our everyday lives instead of confronting their ongoing manifestations and lasting harm.

This inability to address the racial injustice that has been a part of America since its beginning is shameful, and it is destroying us. But if we’re serious about rethinking the way we grapple with the legacy and reality of racism, there is hope. In Berlin, it occurred to me that I was watching the events in Charlottesville unfold from perhaps the only nation on earth that can teach us how to rid ourselves of our own Nazi scourge and come to terms, at long last, with the hate and cruelty that underlie our past.

In German, there are two words for “memorial”: Denkmal, derived from the word for “think,” and Ehrenmal, from the word for “honor.” Some of the many memorials throughout Berlin are Ehrenmäler, like the memorial to fallen Red Army soldiers that the Soviets built immediately after occupying the city. It towers over former West Berlin like a Communist postcard. But most of the memorials that reflect Germany’s darkest era are Denkmäler, designed not to celebrate, but to provoke reflection. Walking through Berlin, it’s impossible not to feel the double burden of the city’s evil history: the weight of what happened there and the weight of the reckoning. The story of Germany today is the story of a nation still grappling with its actions, forcing you to remember them, even trip over them. The streets are dotted with brass placards — Stolpersteine, stumbling stones — marking the spot where Jewish Berliners lived or worked before they fell victim to the Nazis. Once confined to Berlin, these stumbling stones can now be found all over Europe, making up the largest decentralized memorial in the world.

Similarly, in 1993 in Bayerischer Platz, a prosperous Jewish area before the war, a pair of artists hung signs that reflected laws and ordinances the Nazis passed against Jews: “Jews are no longer allowed to keep pets.” “Aryan and non-Aryan children are not allowed to play together.” Some residents of the neighborhood promptly called the police, mistaking the Denkmal for neo-Nazi vandalism. The misunderstanding was cleared up, and the signs remain as a poignant and haunting memorial today. Compare that to America, where monuments like statues can glorify the past and obscure its darker moments to a point where we consider them something worth celebrating. But in Germany, Denkmäler remembrances like this force observers to confront the realities of the past.

Contrary to the strawman arguments I’ve read over the past weeks, I don’t think we should erase history. I don’t think we could even if we wanted to. We can’t escape our hateful past. The vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow linger in our criminal justice system, in our halls of power and in our segregated neighborhoods and schools. If we’re going to erase history, we should start there. But when it comes to the much harder process of remembering, confronting and building a path toward healing, we must learn how to memorialize without honoring, how to honestly confront the past and absorb the pain it caused. Monuments and memorials aren’t about the past; they’re lenses through which we view the present. We have too many Ehrenmäler for men who tried to destroy the Union and not nearly enough Denkmäler for the crimes on which that same Union was built. It is only through the most twisted of ironies that we find ourselves facing Nazis in Virginia because of a failure to act more like Germany. We know the consequences of allowing hate to fester under the surface, only coming to our attention under the light of tiki torches. It is time to bring it into the light ourselves, so that it can be extinguished once and for all.

Clare Steinman ’19 would like to thank Sadie Tilleray and Ronen Altman Kaydar, her tour guides in Berlin, for sharing their history and inspiring this piece. She can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu.