Guilt Trip: What America Should Learn From Germany’s Nazi Reckoning

 In E3, CIS, Russia, Germany, P5

FEELING GUILTY? From Dante to Freud, guilt is a ripe sub­ject for explo­ration. More often than not, the sen­ti­ment is under­stood in per­son­al terms, as the respon­si­bil­i­ty assumed by an indi­vid­ual for a wrong­do­ing. It is Raskolnikov, not Mother Russia, who splits open the heads of the sis­ters with an axe at the outset of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry novel, Crime and Punishment, and it is his lone task, no one else’s, to atone for his crime.

In the twen­ti­eth and now the twenty-first cen­tu­ry, though, guilt has enjoyed a dif­fer­ent con­no­ta­tion. It’s become attached to the deeds of nations and even of civ­i­liza­tions. The French writer Pascal Bruckner, for exam­ple, took up this theme in The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, pub­lished in French (La tyran­nie de la péni­tence) in 2006 and in trans­lat­ed English in 2010. His sub­ti­tle notwith­stand­ing, Bruckner insist­ed on a cru­cial dis­tinc­tion between America and Europe. “America is a project, Europe is a sorrow,” he said: “one broods on the past, the other starts over again.”

No longer. Today, America is expe­ri­enc­ing what is pop­u­lar­ly called a reck­on­ing — a return to the past with an eye on crimes relat­ed to race, the crime of slav­ery espe­cial­ly, charged not only to par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als or insti­tu­tions but to the nation as a whole. It is a back­wards voyage with an avowed for­ward pur­pose: to make America a better, more just soci­ety. Still, even if inten­tions are laud­able, the ques­tion can be posed: What does it profit a nation to embark on what might aptly be called a guilt trip? Is the hoped-for des­ti­na­tion likely to be the actual point of land­ing?

A PLACE to begin to look for an answer to that ques­tion is with one of those long, nearly impos­si­ble for the English speak­er to pro­nounce, German words: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. This word, for which (of course) there is no ready English sub­sti­tute, can be trans­lat­ed as “work­ing-off-the-past,” Susan Neiman, direc­tor of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, tells us in her 2019 book, Learning from The Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman, a Jewish native of the American South who has lived in Tel Aviv and now lives in Berlin, offers a guide to this ter­ri­to­ry. In her book, she notes a marked gen­er­a­tional dimen­sion to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung:

Working off Germany’s crim­i­nal past was not an aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise; it was too inti­mate for that. It meant con­fronting par­ents and teach­ers and call­ing their author­i­ty rotten. The 1960s in Germany were more tur­bu­lent than the ‘60s in Paris or Prague — not to men­tion Berkeley — because they were not focused on crimes com­mit­ted by some­one or other in far-off Vietnam, but those con­sid­er­ably closer to home, com­mit­ted by the people from whom life’s ear­li­est lessons were learned.

And the spirit of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, Neiman takes care to remind, was not a one-off of the 1960s, but con­tin­ued to express itself for decades to come. In Berlin, in the autumn of 1982, she recalls:

…those who came of age in the ‘60s were … work­ing-off-the-past with spe­cial inten­si­ty, for the fifti­eth anniver­sary of Hitler’s elec­tion was approach­ing. There seemed no end of books and speech­es … The arts acad­e­my offered work­shops on making films about the Third Reich. There were per­for­mances of music the Nazis banned and per­for­mances of music they pro­mot­ed, with lec­tures accom­pa­ny­ing each. Neighborhoods com­pet­ed with each other to explore their own dark his­to­ry.

That last sen­tence bears repeat­ing, fol­lowed by a ques­tion mark: “Neighborhoods com­pet­ed with each other to explore their own dark his­to­ry?” To come to grips with per­son­al guilt, as seen in Raskolnikov’s par­a­dig­mat­ic expe­ri­ence, tends to be a wrench­ing, anguished, deeply pri­vate matter — in his case the occa­sion for a con­ver­sion from a sort of casual nihilism to hard-won reli­gious belief. The spec­ta­cle of neigh­bor­hoods in left-tilted Berlin vying with each other to exhume crimes of the past hinted at a cul­tur­al or polit­i­cal fash­ion. To parade guilt, was this to be a public badge of authen­tic­i­ty in the new Germany?

Still, Germans were right to reject the tempt­ing idea, all too tempt­ing, that, some­how, only Hitler was respon­si­ble for the evil­ness of the Nazi period, a point made by the iron­i­cal­ly-titled play, It Wasn’t Me, Hitler Did It, that opened in Berlin in 1977 and con­tin­ued on for thirty-five years. Even Bruckner accepts this lesson: in The Tyranny of Guilt, he com­mends Germany for its “exem­plary effort to reflect on itself.” In his frame­work, guilt becomes oppres­sive, an exer­cise in “masochism,” in sweep­ing self-indict­ments of Europe as essen­tial­ly a crim­i­nal enter­prise and no more than that. He may sound like he is exag­ger­at­ing but there are many such exam­ples. In the 1990s, the Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, pro­nounced that exter­mi­na­tion was “at the heart of European thought,” with the Holocaust prop­er­ly under­stood as a cul­mi­na­tion of Europe’s impe­r­i­al and colo­nial crimes in places like Africa. This refusal to acknowl­edge Europe’s accom­plish­ment as the pio­neer of the Enlightenment in the thick­et of the obscu­ran­tism of the Middle Ages — the trail­blaz­er for what became known as modern Western lib­er­al values — was more than just warped his­to­ry. In this orig­i­nal-sin ren­der­ing of an entire civ­i­liza­tion, here was a past that could never be worked off. Picture this Europe as a char­ac­ter con­signed to Dante’s eighth circle of hell, head plas­tered with excre­ment.

SO, WHAT is it to be for America, circa 2020: A nar­row­ly-cast Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, in the pur­pose­ful and bound­ed (if not always pris­tine) German manner — or some­thing a good deal messier than that?

An answer is sug­gest­ed by two defin­ing dif­fer­ences between the German expe­ri­ence with Nazism and the American expe­ri­ence with slav­ery and racial injus­tice gen­er­al­ly. First, on the dimen­sion of time, the Germans have less past — a lot less past — to work off. The Nazis became a nation­al force on their party cap­tur­ing nearly twenty per­cent of the vote in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions held in 1930. Just fif­teen years later Hitler com­mit­ted sui­cide in a Berlin bunker, his ambi­tions, his regime, the thou­sand-year-Reich, oblit­er­at­ed for all time. By con­trast, slav­ery in America began with the arrival of a slave ship in the British colony of Virginia in 1619 and was not abol­ished until 1865, on the pas­sage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the U.S. Congress and rat­i­fi­ca­tion by states of the American repub­lic.

Second, the American reck­on­ing of 2020 occurs a cen­tu­ry-and-a-half after slav­ery was for­mal­ly out­lawed. The American South, home of the defeat­ed Confederacy, did not expe­ri­ence, post-Appomattox, a Berlin Sixties type moment, a new gen­er­a­tion rising up to con­front the sins of the fathers. To the con­trary: defi­ant Southerners estab­lished the Ku Klux Klan to ter­ri­fy freed slaves and per­pet­u­ate white suprema­cy, and they built mon­u­ments to honor Confederate lead­ers as mar­tyrs to the Lost Cause. And even with slav­ery made ille­gal, African Americans were kept from fully par­tic­i­pat­ing in American soci­ety well into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry by a vari­ety of mea­sures, from the insti­tu­tion of share­crop­ping to the prac­tice of voter sup­pres­sion.

For these two fun­da­men­tal rea­sons — the sheer amount of past that America has to process, and the long-delayed nature of the reck­on­ing — an American attempt at Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung is bound to be less tidy than the German orig­i­nal. And so it is indeed prov­ing.

Consider The 1619 Project. This “major ini­tia­tive” of The New York Times, an ongo­ing col­lec­tion of essays and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, is intend­ed, as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, said on inau­gu­rat­ing the project last year, “to reframe American his­to­ry by con­sid­er­ing what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” What it would mean requires no stren­u­ous exer­tion of the mind: it means a reduc­tive, racial­ized under­stand­ing of a dichro­mat­ic America, divid­ed into black and white. It is, in short, bunk.

To see race as the one recur­rent thread in our his­to­ry is, well, to see race as the one recur­rent thread in our his­to­ry. That insis­tent view trans­lates, inevitably, into a flawed under­stand­ing of our past, includ­ing some of our most impor­tant moments. “Conveniently left out of our found­ing mythol­o­gy is the fact that one of the pri­ma­ry rea­sons the colonists decid­ed to declare their inde­pen­dence from Britain was because they wanted to pro­tect the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the first pack­age of Times essays for The 1619 Project. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay even though she had her facts wrong. “The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of pro­tect­ing slav­ery — I just don’t think there is much evi­dence for it, and in fact the con­trary is more true to what hap­pened,” the his­to­ri­an Gordon Wood, his career devot­ed to the study of the American Revolution, has coun­tered. He offered that remark in an inter­view given to one of the few media out­lets in America com­mit­ted to a rig­or­ous, dogged chal­leng­ing of the 1619 nar­ra­tive: a web­site oper­at­ed by Trotskyists, a clan wedded to class, not race, as the motive force of his­to­ry. “The Revolution,” Wood added, “unleashed anti­slav­ery sen­ti­ments that led to the first abo­li­tion move­ments in the his­to­ry of the world.” In response to this cor­rec­tion of the record, the Times made a modest “update” to the Hannah-Jones piece.

National Interest source|articles

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