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Monuments of the Past: German Remembrance, American Ignorance

While the world struggles to create a more equal and just future, the only place one can look for guidance is the past. Regardless of one's feelings towards German commemoration of World War II, their legislation sets an important precedent and offers the United States insight into how a country might reconcile with its tumultuous history.

Recent events – such as attempts to tear down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square in Washington DC, and Mississippi passing legislation to change its state flag to no longer include Confederate symbolism – are evidence of a cultural metamorphosis occurring in the United States. Not only are tensions high in regards to the cultural representation of the Confederacy, there is also anger towards unfair legislation that has allowed the glorification of the Civil War to persist.

In order to provide the United States with a clear proposal to come to fair terms with its past, it is important to look to a country which has invested time, energy, and legislation towards reconciliation with its own troubled history. Germany’s role in the Second World War has never been diminished by any German government after 1945. Its efforts to memorialise those who lost their lives and their loved ones as a consequence of the Holocaust have been admirable. Furthermore, Germany has presented a unique approach towards protecting the truthful legacy of the Holocaust within its own legislation.

A specific clause within the Strafgesetzbuch, the German Penal Code, allows a closer view into Germany’s reconciliation with its complicated past. The term used to introduce Section 130 of the Code is “Volksverhetzung”, the official translation of which is “inciting hatred” or “agitation of the people”. The language in this piece of legislation is very intentionally specific so that there is little debate surrounding its exact meaning. The section reads:

“Whoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or downplays an act committed under the rule of National Socialism of the kind indicated in section 6 (1) of the Code of Crimes against International Law in a manner which is suitable for causing a disturbance of the public peace incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or a fine.

Whoever publicly or in a meeting disturbs the public peace in a manner which violates the dignity of the victims by approving of, glorifying or justifying National Socialist tyranny and arbitrary rule incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or a fine” [translated from German].

This section is swift to clearly and unequivocally protect the principles prioritised by the German government following the Second World War. This legislation also contributes to creating a culture where the glorification of World War II is considered unjust in the eyes of the law, thus setting the stage for a completely different approach to remembrance of past wars than in the United States.

It is important to note that the Nazi regime and the Confederacy are not the same; and often these historical nuances are exploited as a way to justify American responses to Civil War monuments. However, Dr. Beorn, a Nazi historian and senior lecturer from Northumbria University, notes that their essence – the belief in white supremacy and the encouraged enslavement of other humans based on racist ideologies – remain the same. In a 2018 article, published by The Washington Post, Beorn points out that, unlike what happened in the United States after its Civil War, Germany's choice to honour its victims, rather than the defeated National Socialist Party, is the key difference in establishing a cultural idea of somber remembrance, rather than reverence of the past.

A question arises: why does the United States glorify leaders of a movement whose goal it was to preserve slavery and who ultimately lost the right to do so? And when did this glorification begin? The argument to preserve history through historical monuments, mostly statues, is one often adopted by right-wing politicians. However, more often than not, these monuments were not constructed with the objective to honour history, but rather, with the purpose to alter it.

Where does this false history stem from? Research shows that many of these statues were erected either in the wake of the Civil War or during the Civil Rights era. A recent article from Vox exposes the original perpetrators of this false history: the Daughters of the Confederacy. The women’s group – formed in 1894 – made efforts to create a revised history of the South in a movement known today as “The Lost Cause”. They proceeded to “campaign to portray Confederate leaders and soldiers as heroic, and it [The Lost Cause] targeted the minds and identities of children growing up in the South so they would develop a personal attachment to the Confederate cause”. The creation of this history was not accidental – it was engineered to deliberately glorify the Confederacy and manufacture a sense of pride within the South, the dangerous effects of which are still being felt today.

The reality is that most Confederate statues were put up between the 1890s and 1950s, the exact era during which the Black population suffered segregation under the Jim Crow laws. Their purpose differed from the statues erected directly after the Civil War, which mourned those lost in battles. Their objective was instead to glorify Southern leaders such as Robert E Lee, and General “Stonewall” Jackson. This is also evident by the fact that they were placed in prominent sites such as city squares, while many of the earlier statues had been placed in cemeteries. How can the United States, a country which prides itself on protecting democracy and truth, stand for what can be considered falsification of history? When one suggests legitimate legislation to ban the glorification of the Civil War, we should be asking ourselves: why are we satisfied surrounding ourselves with a false and nonexistent history of glory and victory which does not reflect what really happened?

The argument can be made that any change in legislation will infringe on the First Amendment, the freedom to express oneself on whatever topic. However, these statues, the majority of which were put up with the sole purpose of glorifying vanquished leaders and perpetuating openly racist policies, should be considered symbols of hate and therefore subject to different legislation.

A recent article published by The New York Times and written by Caroline Randall Williams, a mixed-race woman who traces her lineage back to both Confederate generals and Black slaves, addresses the feelings of deep anger and sadness caused by these statues. While to other white Americans they symbolise remembrance, to her, and many African-American citizens, they are an attempt to reshape history. In light of the arguments that taking down these statues is akin to censoring history, Ms. Williams advises people to “understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of ‘airbrushing’ history, but of adding a new perspective”.

Banning the glorification of the Civil War through a change in legislation is not the liberal agenda rewriting history; it takes away a false narrative from a defeated South who refused to face its failure in the aftermath of the Civil War. Real legislation that would outlaw such glorification is fighting for history, not against it. One does not debate the existence of the Confederacy, one debates whether its policies and the leaders who implemented them should garner admiration in the United States. Outlawing such admiration allows for a more rational and truthful discussion of the Confederacy and its legacy.

It should not be forgotten that Germany also has many war memorials which recognise those who served under the Third Reich and were either missing in action or killed. The history behind these memorials is complex. They were first erected in memory of those lost in Prussian conflicts such as the Austrian War and later, the Franco-Prussian War. Many were also erected in the wake of WWI with the names of victims of World War II added later onto the same monuments. They differ immensely from the Confederate monuments in question. From the images presented in this article, it is clear that these memorials do not have the intention of celebrating those whose names are inscribed. But, despite its remarkable reconciliation with its past, Germany still struggles with the consequences of its colonial ties to Namibia, as a recent article remarks. While we may take notes from their legislation concerning Nazi memorialisation, their approach to cultural reparations is still up for debate.

It is important to note that following its reunification in 1990, Germany has been able to more properly address its past, and for this reason most monuments in Berlin have been constructed in the last 25 years. There were attempts before 1990 to support citizens who had family members who fought for the Third Reich, a fact often forgotten. Descendents of the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, fought for the German government to make “remarks exculpating German soldiers”. In response to this, the Hamburg Social Research Institute conducted the “Wehrmacht Exhibit” which ran from 1995 to 1999 and showed evidence of war crimes committed by average Wehrmacht troops, thus helping dismantle the myth of their honorable participation in the war.

As journalist Susan Nieman said: “By choosing to remember what its soldiers once did, it [Germany] has made a choice about the values it wants to reject”. So why, in the United States, can we not take a stand for the values we want to keep and the ones we want to disavow?


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