Reckoning With Memory

Atonement in Germany and the US

by Joshua Bronk

Illustration by Yuko Okabe

published March 4, 2016

On February 11, Germany began its trial of Reinhold Hanning, a former guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. He is charged with over 170,000 counts of accessory to murder. Hanning, who is 94, was arrested in 2014, almost 70 years after the end of World War II. His arrest is preceded by the 2011 arrest and conviction of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian national who defected to the Germans as a POW. He had been serving in the Red Army and was captured following a battle in Eastern Crimea. Demjanjuk was ninety-one at the time of his sentencing. He was given five years in prison for his complicity in the murder of 28,000 people at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland, where he was stationed as a guard in 1943. These trials are the latest in a series of actions the German state has taken to officially memorialize the horrors of the Holocaust. 20 years ago, Germany became the first European country to establish a national remembrance day for the victims of the genocide. With the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin starting to crumble, Germany built three new monuments to the victims of the Holocaust, including one dedicated to the Roma victims, according to German magazine Spiegel

These efforts to address the tragedies of the Holocaust not only produce a new generation of memory, but also instill a public national memory. Of course, even in distilling this narrative, the German state is not perfect. According to a report written by Humanity in Action, an international rights education non-profit, Holocaust education in Germany is inconsistent due to the lack of a standardized curriculum, although the majority of teachers do make efforts to discuss the history. The organization notes a number of reasons for this, including the generational lag, the difficulties in instituting a consistent narrative across different types of school systems, and the relatively small number of Jews still living in Germany. 

Despite these difficulties in continuing to acknowledge its history in the public sphere, Germany has made an effort to create room for reflection, for growth, and for healing. As a public impulse, Germany’s memorialization is both accessible to all and present in structural memory. It is, truly, a physical reminder of what was, and what remains. Theirs is a hard past, and painful to recall, yet present within Germany is a moral compulsion to remember. This past month, an exhibit opened at the German Historical Museum of works made by people imprisoned at concentration camps. Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the exhibit, stating, “The millions of individual stories during the Shoah [Holocaust] remain deeply rooted in our national conscience.” To this day, Germany continues its public and national efforts to ingrain its difficult history into the collective conscience of its citizens. 

Unfortunately, the United States has no similar moral impulse. Caught in a cycle of revisionism perpetuated through curricula that fail to engage deeply with the country’s traumatic past, and stuck in an economic model that offers vastly unequal opportunities for advancement, the United States makes little effort at the national level to address the histories that feed this ignorance. And in its treatment of slavery, the institution that has most profoundly affected the trajectory and growth of the United States as a nation, America has failed to foster a broad consciousness of its own culpability in preserving, perpetuating, and promoting the subordination of Black Americans. While both Germany and the United States have seen myriad individual efforts to bring to light their respective national traumas, the United States fails at a structural level to claim responsibility for its past. 

The argument here is not to compare and contrast the horrors each country perpetrated, nor to claim they are equal. There is no gain in attempting to quantify pain, trauma, and hurt. Further, because the Holocaust and US slavery constitute vastly different histories, neither is the purpose of this piece to try and draw normative conclusions on how states should act in the aftermath of monstrosities. Where the comparison lies, however, is in the immense these histories had on the US and Germany. The entire US economy was tied up in slavery, and although much guilt falls on the South and its large plantation economy, the industrializing North, too, was deeply invested in the institution, and played a large part in the importation and transportation of slaves. In Germany, Hitler’s rise took place in a critical moment after World War I when inflation was astronomical, the economy was busted, and people were desperate. By 1933, the Nazi party had won 44 percent of the vote in the Reichstag, the German parliament. Up to 14 million people voted for the Nazi party at its peak. For both the US and Germany, these systems enveloped the whole country, from its political system and economic structure to cultural production and technological advancement. In their massive scope, they merit recognition, and they merit reckoning. 



The 2011 Demjanjuk case set a new precedent in German law, overturning a 1969 ruling requiring defendants to be connected with a specific killing. Since then, German prosecutors have brought to trial dozens of people thought to be accountable for some of the brutality of the Holocaust. Though some feel sympathy for the aged suspects—the dwindling number of survivors are mostly in their nineties—a new generation of German prosecutors, called the “grandchildren generation,” disagree. In their view, Germany is trying some of its eldest citizens to preserve and commemorate a traumatic national past, a collective memory of violence. Though they are controversial, and perhaps even excessive—Demjanjuk died in 2012, effectively making the point moot in his case—these trials bring to life a real commitment to the narrative Germany continually seeks to renew. Morally just or not, the trials reveal an attention to detail at the national level.

In the United States, the rhetoric of colorblindness has gained traction in recent years. In a 2013 poll conducted by NBC News, 59 percent of white Americans believed the United States “is a colorblind society.” The argument behind colorblindness, that all people should be treated without preference because there is no inequality of opportunity, reflects a revisionist history of the United States. Colorblindness does not exist, and cannot exist, because all people do not have equal treatment in the public sphere, let alone before the law and other institutions. According to data compiled by political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, about 60 percent of white Americans believed that Black people, who are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white people, deserve this penal treatment because of predispositions toward lawlessness and criminality. 

It’s almost inconceivable to believe that Black people in the United States receive equal treatment in front of the law given how recently they won full access to political citizenship. Public schools were only legally desegregated in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision. Ten years later, only 2.3 percent of Black students in the Deep South went to integrated schools, says a report by Despite segregation being officially illegal, schools are as segregated today as they were 40 years ago, according to PBS. Redlining, the process of excluding Black communities and other communities of color from mortgage lending, was outlawed in 1968. Yet, in 2015, the largest bank in Wisconsin settled a case in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development declared that the bank discriminated against Black people and Latinos in its lending policies from 2008-2010. These two examples are by no means comprehensive, but aim to demonstrate that on the basic policy level, without concern for implicit and systemic racial bias, Black people are not treated equally by housing, education, and other institutions. 

Colorblindness is rooted in an unwillingness to deal with America’s history, and is reinforced by an education system that conflates nationalism and patriotism with willful ignorance. In response to the 2014 revisions of the Advance Placement US History curriculum by the College Board, which the Republican National Committee denounced as focusing on the “negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas all proposed bills to cut the course altogether. Oklahoma’s passed. In response, a year later, the College Board released a final version of the revisions, with references to the Founders’ belief in white superiority, the abolitionist struggles of Black slaves, and mention of colonial racial hierarchies all softened and made less critical of the American nation-building project. In 2010, Arizona banned ethnic studies curricula, which center the narratives of struggle and resistance of people of color in this country. Instead of acknowledging the reality that Black people were enslaved—owned, viewed as property, and deprived of all legal recourse—books like A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which came out this year and tells the story of George Washington’s “servants,” reinforce a false history, removing guilt from white slave-owners because the slaves were, supposedly, happy.

The rhetoric of colorblindness, rooted in this manipulation of history to create an alternative narrative more pleasing to the white majority, leads to a logical impasse for white America. People of color have been moving, creating, and fighting to put the realities of the inequalities they face on the national agenda. Yet, at a systemic level, the US is stuck at square one, unable to coherently discuss the history of slavery. In 2008, the House passed a bill apologizing for slavery; the Senate passed a different version in 2009. Despite the recent election of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, the two assemblies could not resolve the differences between the bills, and no official apology was ever passed. The tension was primarily over how the apology could morph into proposals for reparations, a contention that was revived again during this election cycle. Even Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly talked about fixing racial inequalities during his campaign, does not support reparations. Citing its divisiveness, he espouses policies that look forward, not back, in solving unequal access to opportunity in the US. To look forward without looking back, however, is misguided. The repercussions of slavery in the United States have resulted in governmental, political, and cultural inequalities, and applying a policy solution to a problem that penetrates deeply into the American ethos is inadequate.  

Sanders’ contention that reparations would be divisive is an understatement. In failing to cultivate a national memory that meaningfully addresses the history and legacies of slavery, the United States instead created a breeding ground for a culture that seeks to erase race and racial history. When Beyoncé took to the Super Bowl halftime show stage, her performance an open homage to the Black Panthers, many in white America took it as a personal attack. One news outlet, the Gateway Pundit, wrote, “Beyonce’s Super Bowl Performance Was a Racist Political Statement In Support of Marxist Cop Killers.” In the comments, people compared Beyoncé to various animals, used gendered and racial slurs, and equated her allusion to the Black Panthers as equal to invoking the KKK. When Kendrick Lamar performed at the Grammys, walking out in shackles and calling out the prison industrial complex, police violence, and injustice, he was criticized for making his performance about race. These examples are merely emblems of the antagonistic logic of colorblindness. Through deliberate historical revisionism, the present cannot be understood. And if the present is taught as an era of equality, of opportunity, and of colorblindness, then bringing to the fore the legacies of systemic inequality creates contradictions in the logic. These contradictions provoke anger and resistance. They produce racial antagonism. They undermine the values of hard work and equality that many white people, and even people of color, place at the core of their understanding of success; like a wounded animal that feels threatened, they, too, lash out.




Germany’s trial of aging Holocaust war criminals may seem excessive, but it serves a larger project: the collection and recollection of national memory. The trials forbid people to forget or to misremember. The Holocaust was only 70 years ago, they remind, and its effects linger on the German polity. In the United States, slavery officially ended over 150 years ago. Jim Crow didn’t officially end until 1965, twenty years after the Holocaust. Race-based violence continues en masse in the present. Facing contemporary realities requires dealing with the traumas of the past systemically, thoroughly, and truthfully. Policy solutions, even good ones, are not enough. Building a just present, and preventing a more unjust future, requires collectively understanding the horrors of the past in all their ugliness. 


JOSHUA BRONK B’16 remembers Selena Quintanilla.