What Germany Can Teach America About History
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In his acclaimed book Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014), historian Neil MacGregor opens with a detailed description of the Siegestor gate in Munich, an arch erected in 1852 to celebrate the valor of the Bavarian army in the Napoleonic Wars. At its top stands a bronze figure of Bavaria in her lion-drawn chariot while beneath her the words “Dem Bayrischen Heere” (To the Bavarian Army) are dutifully inscribed. The gate, MacGregor writes, resembles at first glance similar monuments like the Wellington Memorial Arch in London or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
But the Siegestor was significantly damaged during the course of the Second World War; Allied bombings in 1944-45 tore the chariot off the top of the gate, leaving Bavaria trapped under a heap of rubble until July 1945, when she was to be demolished along with what was left of the arch. Yet officials decided at the last minute to preserve these remains. Bit-by-bit the Siegestor underwent painstaking repairs amid intense public debate about whether or not it should be restored to its militaristic prewar condition. In the end it was only partially reconstructed; one side of the arch’s register was left completely blank. Below it the words Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstört, zum Frieden mahnend (“Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace”) are now inscribed. What was once an arch lionizing military triumph has become a monument to peace. Thus the Siegestor bears clear witness to the arch of modern German history, as MacGregor notes: “Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the role of history in Germany today,” he says, “is that, like this arch, it not only articulates a view of the past, but directs the past resolutely and admonishingly forward.”
The contrast with the United States could not be greater. Here, one of the distinctive features of the role of modern history is that it can be emblazoned on a baseball cap. The Trump administration’s atavistic admonishment to “Make America Great Again,” and its appropriation of the anti-Semitic “America First” slogan, reveals a certain ideological affinity with this country’s worst reactionaries. This affinity has been most apparent in the public debates over the presence of Confederate statues and monuments, which intensified in the wake of the June 2015 massacre of nine black churchgoers by white supremacist Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Only after the massacre was the Confederate battle flag finally removed from South Carolina’s Capitol, where it had inexplicably been allowed to flap for fifty-four years. And only after the massacre did municipalities across the country begin to look askance at some of the monuments and memorials in their own public squares celebrating individuals who fought against everything this country stands for. Recently, the proposal of the City Council in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee was protested by a rally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, during which one counter protestor was killed and dozens of others injured.
Predictably, what Christopher Hitchens once called the “white whine” has since reverberated across the country with increasing clamor, from the orifices of white nationalists to the offices of the White House. President Trump, struck with a sudden concern for “culture,” expressed his sadness at the sight of “the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.” Other Republican politicians and various conservative commentators have similarly lamented the so-called “sanitizing” of American history. But as the historian Scott P. Marler recently pointed out, the decision to erect the statues in the first place was the original attempt at sanitation: it was designed to create the illusion (or delusion) that there is something worth celebrating about a short-lived, self-proclaimed nation of secessionist states fighting for their right to use other human beings as private property. Which of course explains why so many of these monuments were raised not in the aftermath of the Civil War, but many decades later. Few were erected to mourn the dead; many were built to cement Jim Crow segregation. They are the monuments of a militant nostalgia, quite distinct from statues of past Presidents or other physical manifestations of this country’s barbed history.
Of course, this contemporary costume ball of nostalgia (to use Hans-Magnus Enzenberger’s phrase) is not necessarily unique to any single political ideology. For instance, I recently saw a photo of an antifascist protesting a Confederate monument while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. (It says something about our politically chaotic times that you can unironically protest fascism while donning a shirt bearing the face of a revolutionary who played a significant role in the creation of forced labor camps and the persecution of gay Cuban men). But in America, an insurgent white nationalist movement, which has been bolstered by the current President’s repeated failure to persuasively condemn racist threats and violence, has encouraged nostalgia for a time before the Civil Rights Movement.
How this country’s municipalities eventually decide to find a balance between what New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called “the remembrance of history and reverence of it” will necessarily be fraught and contentious (it wouldn’t be history otherwise). But again, I think Germany provides an instructive case. Sixty years after the Holocaust, in the center of the very city in which the Nazis orchestrated it, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built. In 1995, an Israeli sculptor’s memorial commemorating the Nazi book burnings was unveiled at Bebelplatz. (A bronze plate nearby bears Heinrich Heine’s famous words: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”) Outside the Friedrichstraße station is the architect Friedrich Meisler’s “Trains to Life – Trains to Death” sculpture, commemorating the fate of the more than two million Jewish children killed by the Nazis. “I know of no other country in the world,” Neil MacGregor writes, “that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame.”
In Berlin, the past is traceable with every step you take. Everywhere you go, you’re walking in the sediment of its difficult, fractured history. It’s a city that documents its own process of documentation. At the same time, it’s a city that knows memorials, whether erected or torn down, are never the final word on the past. “It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads,” the narrator of Peter Schneider’s 1982 Berlin novel The Wall Jumper says, “than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and The New Republic, and is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press).
Photo: Mother and daughter at Holocaust monument in Berlin, Anton Havelaar | Shutterstock
Published on September 6, 2017.