Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Django Unchained and Historical Memory: Germany has Confronted the Holocaust, How Come White America Will Not Acknowledge or Take Responsibility for the Horrors of Slavery?

In 1999 the German parliament voted, after years of public debate, to build the official Holocaust memorial in the most prominent piece of empty space in Berlin. I prefer a more unsettling monument to the past — the thousands of Stolperstein or ‘Stumbling Stones’ that the German artist Gunter Demnig has hammered into sidewalks in front of buildings where Jews lived before the war, listing their names, and birth and deportation dates. 
As some opponents predicted, the uses to which the Holocaust Monument has been put are anything but appropriate. But given that the centre of Berlin has been rebuilt with bombast, a bombastic Holocaust memorial, sticking out like a stylised sore thumb amid the triumphalist architecture of the Brandenburg Gate and its surrounding embassies and institutions seems just about right. 
By comparison: can you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall? Suppose you could walk down the street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labour, or that the site was the home of a Native American tribe before it was ethnically cleansed? What we have, instead, are national museums of Native American and African American culture, the latter scheduled to open in 2015.
A friend of We Are Respectable Negroes forwarded me this essay about Germany, the Holocaust, historical responsibility, and the movie Django Unchained by Susan Neiman in Aeon Magazine.

There are some other great essays in that publication including "How Could a Russian Jew Not Hate the Germans?"

Django Unchained is one of my favorite movies in many years. It is not perfect.

The racial politics of the film are far more sophisticated in some ways--and quite regressive in others--than most viewers and critics have yet to realize and acknowledge. Many articles and books will be written on Django Unchained. Such oversights will be remedied imminently.

As I wrote about on several occasions, Django Unchained is a black fantasy revenge film presented as mythologized fairy tale spaghetti western set during slavery whose intended audience is really white Americans.

For example, the slavers in Django Unchained are caricatures. The violence, and Tarantino to his great credit has said as much, was a G-rated version of the centuries-long institution of chattel slavery in the Americas.

Moreover, that a speculative fiction fantasy film had to be created by a white writer/director in order to "educate" audiences about the reality of chattel slavery speaks to the unwillingness of viewers to engage the unpleasant historic facts. Genre became a means for Tarantino to massage the truth of African-American enslavement in the United States into a product that would be palatable for the mass public, and as a work of "popular" film that could be given industry awards and earn a hefty profit at the box office. In all, a world that didn't really exist, but also did exist, is a neat and convenient way to deal with uncomfortable feelings in a psychologically safe space for both the black and white public.

As such, cartoon villains are far less disturbing and upsetting for white folks than a matter of fact depiction of racial tyranny where "good" white folks held human property, abused, tortured, raped, dismembered, and worked them to death for profit. Such an observation holds true for many black people as well, those born after the civil rights movement, and especially those "Obama kids", are drunk on a type of historical myopia because they do not want to acknowledge how even in a country where a black man is President, that race still over determines their life chances.

To own a slave (or slaves) was the primary means of upward economic mobility for most of American history. Slavery was central to America's rise to global power and not a sideshow or coincidence: American power was built on Black and First Nations blood.

White America is still not prepared to accept that its genesis came from two wicked events. The first was the genocide of indigenous peoples. The second was the enslavement and murder of millions of black people. This system morphed and involved into a racialized democracy where white success and wealth creation was subsidized by the exploitation and denial of full citizenship, as well as economic liberties and opportunities for black and brown people.

America wants to talk around and/or avoid such facts. Germans do not seem to have the same problem in grappling with the Holocaust and its history in the near and past present.

The banality of evil was not just that of Germans in the Holocaust; the deeds of white Americans who supported, either actively or passively, a slave society and American Apartheid should be described in a similar light:
Contemporary Germans understand collective responsibility as meaning a commitment to avoiding in the future the sins their fathers and grandfathers committed in the past — but this raises fresh moral tangles. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and a few others offer clear cases of guilt and responsibility: they planned and carried out crimes with malice and forethought. What about those who didn’t plan them, but merely carried them out without much thought of any kind? Were those who signed orders on desktops more guilty (because further up in the hierarchy) than the guards who herded naked Jews to their deaths? Or is a human being who is capable of doing that to another human being more depraved than a bureaucrat such as Eichmann, who claimed that watching a mass execution made him sick? And what about the voters who put the Nazis in power, hoping it would stop the inflation, streetfighting, and general chaos that threatened to engulf the Weimar Republic?
The United States is a relatively young country which (conveniently) does not have a history except for the one it (re)imagines for itself in the service of any given political project. The United States is also not alone in that regard: what is the nation state if not an imagined community that selectively remembers and forgets its own history?

In Germany, the Nazis and the everyday folk who were complicit with the Holocaust are still alive. They are real. By contrast, the United States paints cartoon images of those "rednecks" and Southern bigots to mock and run out of the public square as a means of furthering a narrative that white supremacy is a thing of the past and a living anachronism when it does surface in the present.

Again, it is easier to focus on those bigots from central casting than to think about how one's own nice, gentile, and respectable parents, grandparents, and other relatives signed restrictive housing covenants, harassed black people moving into their neighborhoods, likely did not support the civil rights movement, created a hostile workplace environment for people of color, and were given opportunities and privileges denied those not white.

America never had a truth and reconciliation commission to work through how white supremacy and the colorline was an institution that worked through white people committing day-to-day acts of cruelty against those marked as non-white. The United States has never given reparations to African-Americans who were held as slaves, and their descendants for the wealth, income, and labor stolen from them (black slaves were the single greatest capital good in the colonies and then United States).

White America was, and remains, unwilling to take responsibility for its crimes--and the direct inter-generational privilege which accrued between and among members of the white community--because of that fact:
We all of us benefit from inheritances we did not choose and cannot change. Growing up involves deciding which part of the inheritance you want to claim as your own, and how much you have to pay for the rest of it. This is as true for nations as it is for individuals. 
A Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung must force emotional confrontation with the crimes it concerns, not just a rational assessment of them. This confrontation was notably missing in the first decades of the Federal Republic of West Germany, which used reparations payments to the State of Israel as a substitute for facing up to what it meant to have caused the murder of millions. 
The country thus assumed forms of legal responsibility without really assuming moral responsibility until the slow, fitful turmoil of the 1960s. Mutatis mutandis, something similar has happened in America. Affirmative action measures are a way of taking collective responsibility for slavery and the blackface minstrel Jim Crow, but few white Americans have been forced to face just how awful slavery was.
I have long argued that the notion of a "national conversation" on race is empty, tired, and weak.

It is language which does no political work except to deflect and distract from a real and substantive engagement with white racism's impact on the life chances of people of color in the present. Moreover, what is there left to talk about? The reality of white racism, both institutional (what we call "colorblind" or "symbolic racism") and personal in the present is a repeated finding and conclusion in the social sciences.

Denying racism and making it a hypothesis or speculation to be "proved" in a manner sufficient to satisfy those white folks who disagree with its semi-permanence in American life is a ploy and a trick that only furthers white supremacy. Here, white privilege works in many ways--one of its most pernicious tricks is forcing people to debate facts that should otherwise be self-evident.

For thinking, reasonable, and considerate people with any fair knowledge of American society and culture, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia should be assumed priors; the onus is on those who want to disprove that reality, not the other way around.

Are the Germans a "better" people in terms of owning and acknowledging their wicked history than (white) Americans? Do the twin cultural myths of American Exceptionalism, and America as a country of immigrants/settlers, make impossible the type of honest soul searching about slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, and their shadows in the present?

Ironically, is Barack Obama a type of post racial wunderkind who makes such conversations even more impossible? 


nofurylikeanegroescorned said...

The Jews made themselves powerful, a force to be reckoned with, thus the collective apology from the Germans.

The American Negro, not so much.

In fact, the squeakiest self-appointed spokes-wheels in the nonexistent American Negro community stay on their knees simultaneously begging and attempting to shame whites into paying attention to their endless whiny drivel.

If they reallocated more of their effort to standing up and becoming men to reckoned with, like the Jews were forced to do in the wake of the holocaust, then perhaps they wouldn't find themselves moping around the Quixotic garbage pail of their pathetic simultaneous admiration of all things white and resentment of whites who don't care.

Hell hath no fury like negroes scorned.

RBGmachine said...

I think a part of the problem is that, as has been mentioned here before, to be white means that one is an individual and not a part of a group. If whiteness protects white people from having to discuss what all the white mass murders reflects on white people and their culture as a whole, then it also protects them from owning up to slavery and Jim Crow because it wasn't them and it was along time ago. Likewise they can't talk about privilege because each one of them is a unique individual and self made

Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

A couple of things. First, it's hard to have this sort of conversation without mentioning America's genocidal treatment of the native population for which we've not exactly apologized, either.

Second, I recently went to an amazing exhibit of Australian aboriginal art that was hosted at the Toledo Museum of Art. There were some movies (or excerpts thereof, that included the National Sorry Day speech given by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd . What I saw at the museum was incredibly moving, with people all over Australia listening and responding with deep emotion to the speech.

When I mentioned this on-line somewhere, I was told by several Australians that while this movement has been a good thing, the overall situation isn't very much improved for Australia's indigenous people.

And yet, I can't help but wonder why it's so incredibly hard for this country, the United States, to offer the apologies it owes to native Americans and to African Americans. I know that there has been good analysis written about this issue by Tim Wise and others. But it's depressing and enraging to contemplate just how unrepentant and thoroughly in denial, defiance, or both, most white Americans are.

Frank said...

I think you are over-analyzing this. The reason can be summed up in four words.

Germany lost the war.

chauncey devega said...

East Germans lost the war too and don't have the same dynamic as West Germans.

We have to be careful to not confuse means and ends; plus the CSA lost the war too, what happened instead? the myth of the noble lost cause and reunion through the terrorizing of black Americans.

Frank said...

Racism, though, was not restricted to the South. Even as the North won the war, which arguably was about slavery, I don't think that a argument can be marshalled that the North was fighting against racism per se, but for the Union and against slavery.

Slavery ended, but racism most undeniably did not.

After the war, for whatever reasons, the secesh were not detested as the Nazis were. Had they been, the analogy might hold.

Ultimately, the CSA went on to win the peace and propagate the plantation mythology epitomized in Gone with the Wind.

The South lost the war, of course, but it did not lose it to an enemy that would later force it to face what it had done, as Germany did. Rather, it lost it to an enemy that was happy to avert its eyes and pretend that, after 1877, everything was hunky-dory.

chauncey devega said...

Absolutely. And then that doesn't even begin to touch on the neoconfederate rewriting of history that systematically took place--and continues to this day.

I don't know if white americans have ever had a moment like this one experienced by Germans after WW2? MLK and the movement used the mass media to shame a nation; but how many white folks internalized his truth telling about historical responsibility?


chauncey devega said...

Self-interest and self-delusion work together. During Jim and Jane Crow in the 1960s and late 1950s there was public opinion research which suggested that a majority of white americans thought that race relations were "good" and that blacks had roughly the same opportunities to succeed as white Americans. Madness.

Learning is Eternal said...

A memorial or apology won't do a damn thing for us. We all know whites in the united snakes aren't sincere. Even non-blacks who empathize/sympathize w/us, it means nothing 'cause they ain't us. Killer Mike once proclaimed "I don't want reparations as a hand out. By not honoring the deal of 40 acres... Let us go to college free." Not a solution or band-aid to our woes in ameriKKKlan but not the worst idea being most of your ivory league universities started w/plantation profits and it was nice to hear a rapper think/speak logically bout a critical matter. Besides those 40 acres belong to 1st nations folk.

Barack is not that wunderkind making these convos possible. I wanna see the reaction of a nation to a pres. That comes from 2 black parents, dark as 3am yet articulate & educated. Barack's cool but still light enough to be non-threatening to hipster racists who voted for him or side w/us @times.

Your take on Django is different. I thought it was one the worst films in '13. I went for cultural/ historical/significance left w/what I felt was no nutritional value. You weren't wrong in your assessment. It's just that how you spake of the film I haven't heard no one, not even the stars paid to promote the film. Its a good thing. Tarantino is obsessed w/the n-word who like other titans in hollyweird can always say "its art."

chauncey devega said...

"I went for cultural/ historical/significance left w/what I felt was no nutritional value."

Read a book or watch a proper documentary for that my friend. A Hollywood movie? No.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

This is a contrast I often bring up to my students, and I ask them why the two nations deal with their most heinous crimes differently. They tend to have some very thoughtful responses. Glad you brought it up here.

I'll weigh in with my somewhat expert opinion here as a historian of memory in Germany and dabbler in the history of memory in America. In reference to another poster, the East German government told its people that the victims of the Holocaust were killed for being "anti-Fascist" and basically refused to acknowledge that Jewish victims had been killed for being Jewish, rather than opponents of the regime. The East Germans were told that they were anti-Fascists, and thus not guilty of anything.

In the West, the real engagement with Nazi crimes didn't really reach critical mass until the 1970s. As one poster mentioned, Germany lost the war, but that did not mean that its people -East or West- would accept responsibility for the Holocaust. For decades they largely blamed Hitler and a small group of henchmen and absolved themselves of guilt.

The white South lost the Civil War, too, but never allowed themselves or were forced to have the reckoning over slavery that Germans eventually did over the Holocaust. By the turn of the century, the Lost Cause ideology reigned in the South, and reunionist narratives dominated the North, where the Civil War became a "tragic" "war between brothers." In both sections racial oppression and segregation were the response to slavery's demise, not a questioning of America. I think the window for a real reckoning about slavery in this country closed with the end of Reconstruction. (Lincoln's second inaugural, when he considers the war a just punishment by God for America's sin of slavery, is still sadly as far as anyone at the political heights has ever gone in acknowledging slavery's role in American history.)

Part of the issue might be that Germany's history (at least as far as I am concerned) long featured a conflict between progressive, democratic elements and authoritarian, militaristic ones. The former, defeated in 1849 and 1933, has come out on top for good, and thus it might be easier for Germans to accept responsibility for the Holocaust, because they have rejected the political tradition that the Nazis grew from. In America the political ideology of the Confederacy -white supremacy, hierarchical society, cheap labor, extractionary economy- is alive and well and calling the tune of one of its major parties.

I've got some other thoughts on this, but I've babbled too long here. Good post, and thought provoking.

chauncey devega said...

You are the expert Mr. Bear. Standing offer. Educate and share something for us to digest. Random question--what do you think of Goldhagen?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I like most other historians of Germany, find Goldhagen's thesis to be erroneously flawed. In the first place, while eliminationist anti-Semitism did indeed exist, it was hardly the point of view of most Germans, as he asserts, even under the Nazi regime. Goldhagen makes this viewpoint the lynchpin of his entire book, and it just doesn't hold up. He doesn't come close to proving it, and as someone who knows German history, can say that while anti-Semitism was common in Germany, the eliminationist variety was very much a fringe phenomenon.

Goldhagen also read his documents in such a way as to ensure they would confirm his thesis. In fact, I have used his comments on his sources as an example for undergrad history majors on how not to perform reputable research.

Of course, if the majority of Germans did not have a visceral hatred of Jews that motivated them to murder, that doesn't mean that "ordinary Germans" weren't culpable, just that the reality is more complicated, and I would argue more disturbing. Christopher Browning's _Ordinary Men_, Peter Fritzsche's _Life and Death in the Third Reich_, and Goetz Aly's _Nazi Welfare State_ show that many "ordinary Germans" were involved in the mechanism of the Holocaust, that most others knew something about it but turned their heads, and that many Germans directly benefited from it, in the form of property and homes taken from Jews.

When I read this stuff, it really points to the horrible potential of apathy. The majority of Germans did not want Jews exterminated, but they also weren't all that interested in their fate either. Germans benefited from a Herrenvolk system, and when their Jewish neighbors disappeared, and Germans were told they were "relocated to the East" they simply went on about their lives, happy to live in the homes of deportees and wear their coats. That to me is so much more frightening and chilling than Goldhagen's narrative of a murderous mass engaging in a huge pogrom.

chauncey devega said...

Is he popular because of the timing nature of this claims? Funny how insider-outsider knowledge works.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

People want simple answers to complex questions, and the lay person doesn't have the knowledge or training to judge such claims. This is why I wish more historians blogged, and directly confronted common mis-uses of history.

Miles_Ellison said...

Who watches a Tarantino movie for cultural and historical significance? That's like seeking nutrition from junk food.

Daniel Goldberg said...

That's very helpful, WHB. I am an historian and an Ashkenazi Jew raised with a very strong sense of Jewish history (1st gen American, too), but am not an historian of Germany.

So it is nice to see you really eloquently frame what I have long felt to be the case, as both an interloper and a living part of the chain that claims the memories, in some important sense.

Namely, that Goldhagen's specific thesis is way off, but the basic idea of ordinary, everyday people's culpability for the Shoah is eminently defensible.

When I teach these kinds of things -- mostly in context of research ethics and the prominent role of physicians in the Third Reich (right?) -- I always begin and end with Asch-Milgram, and the capacity of ordinary, everyday people to do great evil.

I think the greatest peril comes in the soothing opiate that moral monsters are really sociopaths, a tiny percentage of the population. The truly heinous are such a proportion, but things like genocide and mass evil do not happen without the the complicity of large numbers of people. Virtually all of us have the capacity to be monsters.

And like you say, that possibility is by far the most chilling, more so than the shocking evil of the true sociopaths.


Cavoyo said...

An important thing to remember is the length of time that Nazism and slavery happened. Nazism lasted 12 years, while slavery in the Americas took place for more than 2 centuries.

Another thing that might be going on is race. Look at how long it took for Germany to apologize for their genocide in Namibia (without reparations, of course). In neighboring Belgium, King Leopold II's face was minted on coins in 2007, even though he enslaved and killed millions of Africans in the Congo Free State. So a part of Germany's Holocaust guilt may be because America informed them that Ashkenazi Jews are "white."