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Richardt Stormsgaard: Learning from the Germans

Richardt Stormsgaard | Other Voices

Susan Neiman in a book with that title writes a compelling story about post-war Germany with the opening words of, “I began life as a white girl in the segregated South, and I’m likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin.”

As a boy in southern Denmark, I watched with horror the German documentary series “Das Dritte Reich” on the ZDF channel, one of two German television stations at the time. It ran in 1960 and in 1965 as well. It was shown Friday nights, and repeated Monday nights.

It described the political events in Germany leading up to World War II and its final defeat in 14 episodes, including the liberation of the survivors from the concentration camps. It was watched by 58% of television-viewing Germans, and was part of a deliberate campaign by German authorities to face up to their recent atrocities during World War II.

We visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover in 1992 with its mass graves with an estimated total of 50,000 dead. We were there with other somber tourists, Germans and non-Germans, and Israeli students chanting from morning to evening, During the school year, the site was visited by older students with teachers as part of their curriculum and the process of “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” which Susan Neiman has defined as the processing of disturbing events from the national past.

I suppose the Catholic practice of confessing your sins to achieve absolution would be similar to what the Germans have done on a national scale.

For most of American history, the false narrative of the Lost Cause has prevailed. The Civil War was usually described as the South asserting their states’ rights, but in fact, the Confederacy rebelled to create a nation with black slaves from coast to shining coast in a total reversal of our founding principles.

The many thousands of murders during the prolonged reign of terror against blacks were successfully suppressed. The Tulsa Tribune deleted front-page stories of the Tulsa race riot from its archives, and so were police and state militia records.

The cover-up remained successful until the 1970s, and even in 2012, a state bill requiring all students to learn about the events failed. Railing against critical race theory has become an important aspect of the Republicans’ culture war efforts to sow further hate and division, and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill outlawing the teaching of “some race and racism concepts” in Oklahoma schools just prior to the recent 100-year commemoration of the Tulsa massacres.

The 100-year anniversary of an incident so gruesome that the House of Representatives passed its first and only anti-lynching bill (later blocked by Senate Democrats) received no national coverage at all.

In 1918, very pregnant Mary Turner was lynched, burned, disemboweled, and her live baby stomped to death by a white mob in Georgia, an incident still unknown to most local residents. Her husband had been lynched along with other blacks after the murder of a white planter and the actual killer died in a shoot-out several days later. A local group erected a memorial, but it was vandalized beyond recognition, and subsequently removed.

Some will ask: Is it really necessary to hear about these unpleasant facts? The Chinese don’t think it is necessary for the world to know about their recent atrocities against the Uighur minority, and neither did the Soviets when it came to the murders of millions of their own people. The Turks still deny their atrocities against the Armenians, a century ago, and apparently for most of our history, Americans have concurred that past misdeeds should be forgotten, suppressed, or denied as well.

Much of the Republican Party has edged perilously close to outright authoritarianism. Hundreds of moderate and conservative national security and military members from current and former administrations have warned against this disturbing tendency under Donald Trump.

A majority of Republican voters still support Trump and his attempted coup even though the leading perpetrators of the “Stop the Steal” myth in court have defended their false claims in court documents stating, “No reasonable people would consider these statements believable.”

Despite these damning admissions, a major portion of Republicans is increasing their assaults on our democracy leading up to the next elections. There are disturbing similarities between the USA today and Germany in the early 1930s, including the attacks on the democratic rule, along with the personality traits of Hitler and Trump and their fanatical supporters.

Richardt Stormsgaard lives in Nevada City.


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