On Nazis, Redemption and Racial Justice

It is a remarkable thing, that should I have the means and desire to do so, I could comfortably vacation in Germany. I could spend an afternoon in Berlin, walking along a path that once split the city for a generation. I could hike the Black Forest, see the castles of Saxony and drink myself silly at Oktoberfest. Or of course, as has become a rite of passage for so many Jews of my age, I could visit the remains of a Nazi concentration camp, skillfully preserved in displays and museums that are well-attended and funded by the state.

That I can visit these camps, camps representative of institutional hatred that robbed me of my extended family, and not curse the country they stand on is nothing short of amazing. I am privileged in being able to mourn in dignity, in having the opportunity to learn the painstakingly researched history of the slaughter of my people by the descendants of their murderers, and not feel the least bit threatened. Between the end of WWII and the official establishment of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Europe by way of impossibly cramped ships making their way to the Holy Land, risking disease, hunger and the very real threat of British maritime patrol to escape the sadistic continent.

My family is very small, but also very old. My father, along with one of my aunts, survived the Holocaust as young children. I was raised on stories of ancient families being slaughtered, of ghetto walls taking the place of synagogues and Jewish shops, of racial discrimination — both Nazi and Soviet — more ruthless and outward than my generation living in all but the most vicious urban ghettos can even imagine. The Holocaust and surrounding war never left the imaginations of those it most affected. My father and the other surviving members of his generation are more familiar with the names of Nazi generals than they are with modern politicians. As such things are expected, I have spent more time reading, studying, listening, thinking and speaking about the Holocaust than about any other topic. I must have read dozens of books, seen scores of films and heard hundreds of accounts, but astoundingly, in 21 years of life I have not heard a single anti-German sentiment. I have grown up amongst some of the least racially sensitive people I have ever met, and yet have never heard a single derogatory remark made against the population whose grandfathers threw mine into gas chambers. I don’t mean to imply that either my family or ethnicity is particularly forgiving or understanding.

I think that the reason we can be at so much peace with Germany, while survivors of its extermination campaigns are still living, is because Germany has done the impossible — it has redeemed itself. Through a series of extraordinarily painful and difficult measures, it has surrendered itself in hopes of being built anew. It has spent enormous amounts of resources in reparation efforts. Most importantly, it has volunteered itself to be made vulnerable; it has forced its citizens to look into themselves and recognize the evil they have, either passively or actively, allowed to grow. Germany does not try to revise its own history. Rather, it stresses its study. School-age Germans are better instructed on the Holocaust’s history than any Jewish counterparts I have encountered. The tremendous shame of the Holocaust is not something Germans would have ever been able to truly repress. Rather than try, they faced their guilt hat in hand. It was only through this sincerity that Germany found rehabilitation.

What made German rehabilitation so successful was that it didn’t rely purely on denazification. Rather than focusing on just the Nazis as a corrupt element in their system, Germany recognized that it was facing an institutional corruption, an evil that existed systemically, rather than on an independent basis. Rehabilitation would never have been possible had Germany just eradicated the Nazi party and struck outright anti-Semitism out of their lawbooks. Jews could never be made comfortable enough to vacation in their ancestors’ hell unless they could be made sure of true institutional transformation; redemption could not have been possible unless the very core of the old Germany was removed, and this could not have been possible unless Germans earnestly accepted the amount of shame they did.

The United States has never had a Holocaust. We have never built an Auschwitz and have never implemented a Final Solution. Extermination has never existed as a policy goal, and we have never systematically starved, tortured and murdered our prisoners. However, what isn’t an obvious crisis may still be a subtle, drawn out one. Our country was formerly founded when slaveowners signed a document proclaiming that “all men are created equal.” We built economies based on imported slave labor, labor forced out of individuals that we only referred to as human when it was politically convenient. We forced and coerced the aboriginal inhabitants off all of the lands that we preferred. We discriminated ruthlessly, and frequently violently, against immigrants and anyone who deviated from the Protestant standards of the time.

Then, of course, came the Civil War, erupting after the Southern states refused to give up their privilege of enslaving their black populations. More American men died in those four years than in any other of our many wars. After unthinkable sacrifice the Confederate South was eventually defeated, and laws prohibiting slavery and demanding full and equal universal citizenship were added to our Constitution. The bold Reconstruction effort was attempted to rebuild the South, several black men found their way from the South into Congress and a hundred years later protection was added to the same Constitution against any outward racially-based discrimination.

Nonetheless, as the Hadley Arkes so loves to remind all of his classes, human rights, as we understand them, “extend well beyond any list that can be set down in a Bill of Rights” (Beyond the Constitution). The inherent problem in any structure of law, as Arkes puts it, is that it deceives its population into envisioning it as all-inclusive, that we limit the extensive scope of our self-inherent natural law whenever we put it down on paper. Curiously enough, Arkes sets up the argument beautifully for the liberal human rights movements. For banning discrimination in the books does not necessarily ban it in practice. Exactly as he predicted it could, our dependence on legal systems to eradicate discrimination has made us neglect it in practicality, when its sources aren’t easily eradicated by the Fourteenth Amendment. It has made us believe that we are somehow “post-racial” simply because discrimination has put on a new hat. Our system of literal slavery has been replaced with corporate de-facto slavery, laws demanding segregation with urban housing policies that practically guarantee it and systematic legal prohibition against social mobility with institutions of incarceration that prohibit it with a little more force. We have allowed all this to happen because Reconstruction failed. The South was never made to come to terms with its evil. We have substituted institutional reform with cheap, incomplete legal provisions and have deceived ourselves into thinking that this would be enough.

Americans have not yet learned to feel shame for slavery. The privilege I have in Germany is not extended to an African American in Alabama. We still see Confederate flags, unabashedly discriminating penal policies and on this campus a mascot of a person most famous for endorsing a genocide. The chutzpah we grant ourselves is astounding. We could take serious care to learn from Germany about proper collective guilt and self-reflection.