How Germany Can Help America Remember
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On this week’s On the Media, how to tell our real history and make people believe it.
FEMALE MUSEUM-GOER: I want to go to that Legacy Museum because it said something about the lynchings that happened after the abolition of slavery and I’m, like, what?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Most people can't tell you anything about slavery, ‘cause they don't know that there were 4 million enslaved people living in this country when the Civil War began.
WOMAN: They treat us like animals. I sleep on this, this naked floor in chains and handcuffs.
PETER WEISSENBURGER: There is no point in which we can say, okay, we’re done now. This is always going to be what happened.
FEMALE MUSEUM-GOER: Look at the feet, look at the hands, look at the, the creases in the -- I have a much larger vocabulary but I am still so overwhelmed. [LAUGHS]
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think a lot of, of people realize, yeah, something bad really did happen, and they don’t want to acknowledge it because they’re afraid they’re going to be punished for it. I have no interest in punishing this nation for its history. I want to liberate us.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone, with our second hour from Alabama about the national stories we embrace and those we refuse to hear, because getting history right is pretty much the most important thing a citizen can do in a nation at war with itself, as ours was, and is. It’s often said that the North won the war but THE South won the narrative. That’s why the battle still rages, still takes casualties every single day.
To chronicle the opening of a new front in the war over the Civil War, 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. “At the start of the Civil War, the city had a larger slave population than Mobile, New Orleans or Natchez, Mississippi. Slave trader’s offices were located primarily along Commerce Street and Market Street --
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Now Dexter Avenue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- now Dexter Avenue, yeah.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: We’re on Commerce right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Over time, 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, [SIGHS] to design it as if it were permanent.
BRYAN STEVENSON: This is a community that prides itself as being the cradle of the Confederacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson has sprung well over a hundred innocent prisoners from death row. He won a historic case ending mandatory life without parole for children under 18, and he 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. It built a Civil Rights Museum and a Lynching Memorial, attracting headlines across the nation, 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 that have been placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted. Germans seemed 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. And 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/Robert E. Lee Day.
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 Stolpersteine, 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 have replaced 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. And, of course, all those millions of people who had Nazi uniforms from the Hitler Youth or the National Socialist stormtroopers burned them or buried them or threw them away.
The Allies had a huge program of denazification. Old Nazis were fired. There were thousands of trials, not just in Germany but in Poland and France and 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 cinemas.
NARRATOR: They have been beaten down to live like animals, far worse, for few animals had lived in the terror, hunger and filth of these victims.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: A lot of Germans simply refused to believe what they’d seen in these films because they’d been fed a diet of Nazi propaganda lies for 12 years. And most Germans too, in the immediate aftermath of the war, were simply trying to survive. I mean, there was mass malnutrition. Economic conditions were 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 in 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 following on that but, I mean, as a result of that, of course, Germans mistrusted democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: They didn’t think it delivered prosperity, whereas Hitler’s rearmament had delivered something of a boom. So it wasn’t until 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.
HIMMLER: Yes, our job will soon be finished, a Jew-free Europe.
So perhaps the camps and the machinery could soon be obliterated.
DORF: Forgive me, my Fuhrer, would it not be more fitting to let them stand as monuments to our great service to mankind? We have merely followed the logic of European history. A case can be made for Auschwitz!
SIR RICHARD EVANS: And that had a big effect on Western Germany but it’s not really ‘til the 1990s there’s a further step towards a reckoning. When the Berlin Wall fell, a lot of West Germans who’d lost their property to the Communist regime in East Germany from 1949 onwards, they claim for the return of their property. And 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 was a whole process of restitution on 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 moldering 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 battlefront and in 1936 in the Nazi period they put up a big stone block with a concrete relief of the soldiers in their 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: So there were a lot of protests but then, of course, understandably, the relatives and descendants of the men who'd been killed who were memorialized in this block said, no, you mustn’t take it down, 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 40,000 civilians were killed. And it makes you think, well, you know, if that’s what happens in a war then 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. And so, they didn’t have to confront any sense of involvement in the crimes of Nazism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: And then, on top of that, the democratic political culture which was rooted in West Germany by 1990 had very shallow roots in East Germany. They’d lived under a Soviet dictatorship or a Communist dictatorship and before that under the Nazi dictatorship. So you find that in East Germany the votes for the anti-immigrant party alternative for Germany are much, much higher than they are in West Germany. It’s still only about a fifth of the electorate. Some of the politicians say that Germans feel too guilty about the Nazi Party’s. It’s time to stop feeling guilty. But, as I said, most of Germany, 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 is mostly confined to former Communist states, so Poland, Hungary, for example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Denmark, Sweden?
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Czech, Czech Republic. No, they’re not. They haven’t come to power there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they’re gaining strength.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: Yeah but they’re not very strong. I mean, that’s the point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SIR RICHARD EVANS: So everyone gets terribly worried when the alternative for Germany scores, you know, 15% of the vote, but 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 those 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 is 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 streets in this neighborhood are named things like Plantation Parkway, Confederate Lane, Scarlet Circle, Shiloh Street, Ranger Road, Raider Lane. It goes on and on. But what makes all this even worse, in my estimation, is that these aren’t houses that were built in the early 20th century. These houses were actually built in the mid-1960s, well after the civil rights movement had had an opportunity to seep into the consciousness of Americans and always seemed to me the real intentional insult and poke in the eye to the better angels of our nature. Thanks for this. Bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.