Coming to terms with the past

It’s strange to think that the first association many Americans make with Germans is Nazis. The second world war ended seventy years ago, and immediately after Germany’s surrender the Allies began to implement a series of policies meant to ensure Germany’s and the German people’s complete denazification. What exactly that meant in practice varied from occupation zone to occupation zone, and in many ways the effort proved flawed; certainly in the West the desire to get Germany back on its feet quickly allowed many former Nazis to retain or regain their positions in the (soon to be West) German economy and (after 1949) government. Indeed, very quickly the West German narrative of World War II became one of German victimhood: Germans had been victims of the American and British bombing campaigns, victims of the Red Army, and victims of Hitler and his cronies.

But the stones left unturned by denazification in the decade and a half after World War II were not to remain undisturbed, as a generation of Germans born during and after the war came of age in the 1960s and began asking uncomfortable questions about what their leaders, teachers, and even parents had done during the war. Disturbed by some of the answers they found as well as what many of them saw as the survival of conservative and even authoritarian elements in West Germany’s government and West German society, West German students, leftists, and others worked to ensure the removal of former Nazis from positions of power and move the politics of the Federal Republic to the left.

The work of “coming to terms with the past” continues to this day in Germany. Nazi flags, symbols, monuments, and street names have been eliminated, memorials and museums have been built, but work continues to make sure all victims are remembered, not just Jewish victims. Still, it is remarkable what Germans have accomplished in their efforts to not simply move beyond the past but appropriately heed its warning and root out any romanticization or nostalgia for the Nazi period. It is an imperfect process–the specter of Neo-Nazis is just the most obvious sign of that–but it has been, in the long run, an enormous success.

Especially in comparison to the United States. Parallels between the United States after 1865 and Germany after 1945 have their limits, but that does not mean they aren’t worth considering. The denazification process that began in Germany after World War II finds its counterpart in Reconstruction after the Civil War. Where denazification had its limits, Reconstruction saw disaster after federal troops were removed from the south in 1877: this move made it impossible to continue to protect the civil rights (and indeed all too often the lives) of black Americans in the south. Whereas in Germany the experience of absolute defeat and widespread desolation left few Germans willing to cling to the past, defeat in the Civil War and the experience of Reconstruction did little to similarly dissuade supporters of the Confederacy. They saw themselves as victims of their enemies in much the way Germans did after World War II, but not as victims of their leaders. Rather than rejecting the slave economy and Southern way of life that led to the Civil War, that “heritage” was preserved and mythologized. Perhaps more importantly, too many in the generations that followed failed to question their elders’ veneration of the past but instead expanded upon it. Thus the emergence of organizations like the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the proliferation of monuments to the Confederacy, even in states and counties more closely aligned with the Union during the war itself.

In the decades that have followed, “de-Confederization” has proceeded slowly. Witness the Civil Rights movement and the continued romanticization of the Confederacy until this day. Progress has been slow and occurred often only in fits and starts. As a historian of Germany with an imperfect understanding of the nuances of American history, I have to wonder if one important difference between German efforts to come to terms with the past and American ones to move beyond the legacy of slavery and the Civil War has to do with the perceived origins of such efforts. In West Germany, Allied denazifaction efforts were turned over to West German authorities remarkably quickly, and efforts in the 1960s to deal with the Nazi past largely originated in a new generation of West Germans. In the American South, by contrast, it seems that Reconstruction and many of the efforts that followed were perceived as the imposition of outsiders, be it carpetbaggers in the 1870s or northern college students in the 1960s. It’s no accident that Texan Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded with Civil Rights where the conspicuously northern John F. Kennedy had failed. That is not to dismiss the efforts of southerners involved in and indeed leading the Civil Rights movement, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to James Farmer to William Harbour and beyond. But others hailed from the north, like Roy Wilkins or (arguably) Whitney Young, and the organizations these men led (the NAACP and the Urban League) undoubtedly seemed like outside organizations as well.

I think, then, this line of reasoning also offers and explanation as to why efforts to remove the Confederate flag from state houses and memorials across the South have now been successful: increasingly, it seems, there is a generation in the South that will not allow the status quo to continue and has achieved the critical mass necessary to have real legitimacy in the South. This gives governors and other state officials the political cover to do what they and their predecessors very wall may have wanted to do for decades, namely, the right thing.

The symbolism of removing Confederate flags should not be underestimated, but it is important to remember that it is a beginning, not an end point. Electing a black president and lowering the banner of hate and racism does not mean hate and racism have been eliminated. Indeed, in many ways it makes these very real problems more difficult to spot, as they are forced to (or choose to) advertise themselves less and less openly. As the German example demonstrates, however successful such a process may be, it may never be fully realized. But that’s no reason not to try.


Germany has, of course, not only the Nazi past to deal with, but also the legacy of the East German regime. Indeed, one can conceive of a constellation of overlapping pasts, including the Nazis, the East German dictatorship, Germany’s colonial history, and more.

However, much the same can be said for the United States. Indeed, while the practice of slavery in the United States was despicable and far outstripped the use of forced labor in Nazi Germany, it is worth considering whether the removal and elimination of Native Americans across the North American continent is an even greater historical sin with which Americans have not yet truly come to terms.