How Germany Can Help America Remember
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Bob Garfield is away this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week and next we're re-airing two episodes about the stories of our histories. The ones we embrace and those we refuse to hear. Because getting history right is pretty much the most important thing citizens can do in a nation at war with itself–as ours was and is. It's often said the North won the war but the South won the narrative. That's why the battle still rages and still takes casualties every single day. To chronicle the opening of a new front in the war over the civil war in May OTM producer Alana Casanova-Burgess and I went to Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. And not far from our hotel we saw a sign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the start of the civil war the city had a large slave population than Mobile, New Orleans or Natchez, Mississippi. Slave traders offices were located primarily along Commerce Street and Market Street, now Dexter Avenue. Yeah.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: We're on Commerce right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Overtime, Montgomery became one of the most important and conspicuous slave trading communities in the United States. After the Alabama Legislature banned free black people from residing in the state in 1833, enslavement was the only legally authorized status for African-Americans in Montgomery. And that sign was put up by the Equal Justice Initiative. And there it is.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Right next to the Hank Williams Museum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right next to the Hank Williams Museum. But look at that, Equal Justice Initiative. It's painted as if it had been there forever. You know? It seems almost to be etched in the brick as if it had as long a legacy as the slave trade. But it doesn't. This is an effort, I guess, to design it as if it were permanent.
BRYAN STEVENSON: This is a community that prides itself in being the cradle of the Confederacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Public interest lawyer, Bryan Stevenson has sprung well over a hundred innocent prisoners from death row. One, a historic case ending mandatory life without parole for children under 18 and founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 to help provide legal services to men and women on death row in Alabama. Now EJI is not only defending marginalized people but marginalized history. A civil rights museum, a lynching memorial, attracting headlines across the nation when it opened in the spring–spotlight on Montgomery.
BRYAN STEVENSON: When we began our work, we bought this building but we didn't know it was the site of a former warehouse where enslaved people were held. No one had actually documented the primacy of slavery in this community. I went to Berlin, you can't really go 100 meters without seeing markers and stones have been placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted. Germans seem to want you to go to the Holocaust memorial. They were intent on changing the narrative. They didn't want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists forever. And I just don't think we've created cultural spaces in this country that motivate people to say, 'never again to this history of enslavement and lynching and segregation,' in the absence of that commitment, I think has left us vulnerable. And not only do we not do that we actually romanticize this era and we tell stories about how glorious and wonderful the architects and defenders of slavery are. In Alabama Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. We do not have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King slash Robert E. Lee.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stevenson has made Montgomery his laboratory in a vast experiment to shift the narrative on American racism's roots and legacy. And he's taken as his models similar efforts in South Africa, Rwanda, Germany and especially its capital Berlin where Stolperstein, literally stumbling blocks, bear the names of Holocaust victims swept up from nearby apartments. Where there's a vast Holocaust memorial just south of the Brandenburg Gate–acres of concrete slabs of various size that you cannot avoid. In Berlin history comes at you around every corner. But the Nazi viewpoint has no presence there in the spirit of never again.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: The street names are replaced to what they used to be before the Nazis came to power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Historian Sir Richard Evans is author of the Third Reich In History and Memory. We asked him to trace Germany's path to reckoning.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: The concrete swastikas and eagles were taken down. Some smaller buildings were blown up to erase the immediate memory of the Nazi period. Of course, all of those millions of people who had Nazi uniforms from the Hitler Youth or the National Socialists stormtroopers, burnt then or buried them or threw them away. The Allies had a huge program of denazification, so Nazis were fired. There were thousands of trials, not just in Germany, but in Poland and France in other places. And the denazification program involved sending out questionnaires to millions and millions of Germans. It went very far and very deep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you think about the denazification films and newsreels the Allies made?
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Yeah they were made by well-known directors like Billy Wilder or Alfred Hitchcock. Mills of Death was one of them with archive footage of the concentration camps. Germans were forced to go and see them in local cinema.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:They had been beaten down to live like animals–far worse or few animals had lived in the terror, hunger and filth of these victims.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: A lot of Germans simply refuse to believe what they'd seen in these films because they've been fed a diet of Nazi propaganda lies for 12 years. And most Germans too, in the immediate aftermath of the war we're simply trying to survive. I mean there was mass malnutrition, economic conditions are really terrible so they didn't really want to know. And then it took a long time after that for Germans to accept the idea of democracy after all. Democracy in the 20s and Germany, the Weimar Republic, had led to Nazis coming to power and it was an economic disaster. First of all hyperinflation and then a huge depression, much deeper than the slump in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that was related to the First World War?
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Yeah, it was falling on now but, I mean, as a result of that of course Germans distrusted democracy. They didn't deliver prosperity, where Hitler's rearmament delivered something of a boom. So it wasn't till what the Germans called, in West Germany, the economic miracle in the 60s when the German economy recovered, they began to think well maybe democracy can actually deliver prosperity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a television series called Holocaust in 1978 starring Meryl Streep. That was really influential.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: That's right, it was. It was shown in Germany and you follow a number of fictionalized characters, a Jewish family and a young man who joins the SS and becomes, bit by bit, a vicious Nazi thug.
ARCHIVAL VIDEO: I guess our job isn't finished, a Jew free Europe. So perhaps the camps and the machinery could soon be obliterated.
ARCHIVAL VIDEO: Forgive me Mike's, would it not be more fitting to let them stand as monuments to our great service to mankind.
ARCHIVAL VIDEO: We have mainly followed the logic of European history. A case can be made for Auschwitz. [END CLIP]
SIR RICHARD EVANS: That had a big effect in western Germany. But it's not really till the 1990s, that there is a further step towards a reckoning. When the Berlin Wall fell, a lot of West Germans who lost their property to the communist regime in East Germany from 1949 onwards, they claim for the return of their property. There were a couple of million of these lawsuits and then that sparked former slave laborers of the Nazis from Poland and Eastern Europe to put in their claims and then there's a whole process of restitution of looted artworks that began in the mid to late 90s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Germany, today only the unhinged would reminisce about the virtues of the Third Reich or define its defeat as a lost cause. If there are trunks bearing the mouldering remnants of Nazi regalia, they aren't brought out for fun filled reenactments of the Battle of Belgium. There are no high schools named for Adolf Eichmann, no statues of Heinrich Himmler. Actually there is one controversial monument in Hamburg. It commemorates a World War I Battle but it was erected by the Nazis and was fascist in its execution. This presented a problem.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: That's right. The Hamburg regiment in World War I, they lost a number of people on the battle front. And in 1936, in the Nazi period, they put up a big stone block with their concrete relief of the soldiers in helmets and rifles marching around it and above it in Gothic lettering, 'Germany must live even if we must die.' That isn't necessarily what the soldiers thought at all. And this was thought to be a monument in the terms of national socialist Nazi ideology. So there were a lot of protests but then of course understandably the relatives and descendants of the men who'd been killed were memorialized in this block said, 'no you mustn't take it out. You mustn't forget them.' So the idea came of constructing an anti-monument next to it. The biggest and most damaging air raid of the entire World War II was in Hamburg in 1943 and 40 thousand civilians were killed. And it makes you think, 'well, you know, that's what happens in a war, than war, perhaps, isn't as glorious as the monument implies.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To Evans, an ideal solution. If there's a reason to keep a problematic monument build another one next to it for context to balance the narrative. Evans argues that the Germans will never return to fascism because they're always coming across -- literally stumbling over -- these memorials to the victims of the Nazis. But there is a difference between the west and the east. The west was made to feel responsible, the East was not.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Yes, East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Communist Party from 1945 until 1990. And what the East German puppet regime tried to do was to tell East Germans that communists resisted the Nazis and they should identify with the communists. So they have to confront any sense of involvement in the crimes of Nazism. And then on top of a democratic political culture which was rooted in West Germany by 1990, had very shallow roots in East Germany. They lived under a Soviet dictatorship or communist dictatorship and before that under the Nazi dictatorship. So you find that in East Germany the votes for the anti-immigrant party, the Alternative for Germany, are much, much higher than they are in West Germany. They are still only about a fifth of the electorate. Some of the politicians say the Germans feel too guilty about the Nazi past, it's time to stop feeling guilty. But as I said, most of Germany's, it's a very small minority. Remember the rise of authoritarian, anti-immigrant, right-wing leaders who are undermining democracy in all kinds of ways, it's mostly confined to former communist states. So Poland-Hungary for example--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Denmark, Sweden--.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: --the Czech Republic. No, they're not, they haven't come to power there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they are gaining strength.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Yeah, but they're not very strong. I mean, that's the point. So everyone gets terribly worried when the Alternative for Germany scores a 15 percent of the vote. They forget that virtually every other political party in Germany supports Angela Merkel's policy on letting immigrants into the country. Not just the Christian Democrats, which is her party, but the social democrats and the Greens, for example. As I say, it's where democratic values are strongly anchored in political culture that the memory of what happens when you have a far right dictatorship, for most Germans is more than enough to put them off.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's recap the lessons of Germany. Extirpation of Nazi symbols and ideology, much of it imposed by the Allies bearing gifts, prosperity, generational shift and, yes, responsibility finally internalized in the form of reparations. In America, still marked by slavery's legacy, that seems like a very uphill climb. Bryan Stevenson's EJI started with signs and even though it was met with resistance. Now he has a museum and a memorial. Testaments To an ugly past that we can no longer afford to ignore and a challenge to the nation designed to shame communities that turn away. All that's coming up in the next segment. But first, we presented a challenge to our listeners. To look at your streets, your monuments to see who was being memorialized and to let us know.
LORETTA COOPER: My name Loretta Cooper and I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. The neighborhood that I would like to bring to your attention is called Mosby Woods. And it's named after John Singleton Mosby who was a Confederate Army battalion commander in the Civil War. And the street in this neighborhood are named things like Plantation Parkway, Confederate Lane, Scarlet Circle, Shiloh's Street, Ranger Road, Raider Lane, it goes on and on. But what makes this even worse in my estimation is that these are houses that were built in the early 20th century, these houses were actually built in the 1960s, well after the Civil Rights Movement have had an opportunity to seep into the consciousness of Americans. And all these things made a real intentional insult and poke in the eye to the better angels of our nature. Thanks for this bye. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media.