We are at an interesting time in our history.
We will not soon forget the 2016 election and whatever transpired or will transpire over the next couple of years.
But President Donald Trump’s ascendancy is not a historical aberration, although it may be for us.
The United States has always regarded itself as a paragon of democracy and unwavering moral example. But other countries have seen themselves that way as well, and even they have succumbed to periods of darkness some argue we entered years ago and are only feeling the effects of now.
A perfect example of a prosperous, powerful nation clutched in nationalism and dragged through history’s ignominious depths is Germany.
We all know what happened in that home of Beethoven, Bach, and Goethe between the years of 1914 and 1945.
The ways in which the German people have acknowledged their embarrassing past can teach us a great deal about why, for example, the Confederate monument issue is more than just about our “history.” Germany’s example can teach us about what happens when we allow jingoistic demagogues to undermine our most fundamental institutions.
Travel to Germany today, specifically Berlin, and we will see monuments, but not to Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, or Josef Mengele. People do not fly swastikas from their trucks or flagpoles either. In fact, displaying any symbols of the Nazi era, or Volksverhetzung–inciting hate speech–is illegal. There is also a law criminalizing Holocaust denial, like in more than a dozen other European countries.
The city enshrines its victims, not perpetrators. Instead of “beautiful” statues to failed ideological extremists, record of their crimes against humanity in full display.
While strolling through a neighborhood, one literally stumbles upon them. Bending down to get a closer look, one sees engraved on brass plates people’s names, deportation dates, the concentration camps to where they were deported, and dates of their death.
Since artist Gunter Demnig began laying the stones in the early 1990s, more than 20,000 have been put down in Berlin. They appear in other German towns as well, as they do in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Norway, and the Ukraine.
Let’s not forget the remains of the Berlin Wall, which could have been completely effaced to make room for high-rise apartments and shopping outlets. Much of the wall has yielded to these purposes, but fragments exist near the old Gestapo headquarters as a perpetual reminder of what literally divided humanity for 28 years.
As Fred Kaplan wrote in his Slate piece, “Ugly History Shouldn’t Be Beautiful:”
“This is a true monument of the regime and the era that Berlin authorities have deemed worth memorializing—not to romanticize the past but to present its dimensions starkly, as something to gasp at in horror and to avoid repeating. This monument is not beautiful, nor should it be.”
We can learn from others’ mistakes; we can start by admitting we make them too.
Our history is full of embarrassing events we would rather not acknowledge, but there is a fine line between ignorance and idolatry.
Right now we seem to be courting both.
Image credit: cagle.com