In Germany, monuments reflect the nation’s values

This sculpture, installed in Berlin in 1985, was the first in the city to pay tribute to the Jewish victims of fascism.
This sculpture, installed in Berlin in 1985, was the first in the city to pay tribute to the Jewish victims of fascism.

If Charlottesville established anything beyond doubt, it’s that Nazis are not just a German problem. Nor is there anything “neo” about them. The world saw armed men proudly displaying Nazi symbols and Hitler quotes in American public squares.

Of course, not everyone seeking to preserve symbols of the Confederacy is a Nazi. But the Nazis’ embrace of the Confederate cause makes plain: Anyone who fights for those symbols is fighting for Nazi values. For monuments are only incidentally about history. More important, they are values made visible.

That’s why we build memorials to some parts of history and ignore others. They embody the ideas we choose to lift up, in the hopes of reminding ourselves and our children that those ideas were once embodied by brave men and women.

In the 19th century, philosophers brought clarity and passion to the major moral struggles of their day. Without the words of Thoreau and Emerson, John Brown would probably be remembered as a deranged terrorist. At a moment when Americans are wrestling with the meaning of Confederate monuments, it’s time to look at the words of another philosopher as well. In 1897, William James gave the oration for the unveiling of a monument to Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first company of African Americans to fight for the Union. James, whose youngest brother was gravely wounded in the battle that cost the lives of half the company, spoke as follows:

“The war for our Union has but one meaning in the eye of history … Since the ’30s the slavery question had been the only question, and by the end of the ’50s our land lay sick and shaking with it like a traveler who has thrown himself down at night beside a pestilential swamp and in the morning finds the fever through a marrow of his bones.”

The existence of slavery in a country founded on a belief in liberty and justice for all made “our great republic a thing of falsehood and terrible self-contradiction.” The war, James continued, brought “truth, thank God — truth! — even though for the moment it must be truth written in hell-fire.”

That truth was obscured by legions of historians and writers of popular fiction and film who deliberately constructed the Lost Cause saga in response to Reconstruction and the early successes of the Civil Rights Movement. What was at stake was never the past, but the present and the future. When we choose to memorialize a historical narrative we are choosing values to defend, and pass on. The question is not whether those monuments offend some of our neighbors, but whether they express the ideas we want our children to believe. The ideas embodied in those statues are simply wrong, and in “terrible self-contradiction,” as James said, to the ideals on which the nation was founded.

Seventeen years ago I was offered a wonderful job directing an interdisciplinary think tank just outside Berlin, where I had lived during most of the 1980s. My only hesitation concerned my children. During the previous five years, while I was a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, they had become thoroughly Israeli. Could three Jewish children grow up in the former capital of the Reich without fear or distortion? Many things convinced me that, since the tentative contortions of the ’80s, Germany had made real strides toward treating Jews and foreigners as ordinary, welcome citizens.

I spent the first half of 2017 in the American South, where I was born, doing research for a book about what Americans can learn from those German changes. Listening to debates at the University of Mississippi about the impact of Confederate monuments on descendants of former slaves I was suddenly clear: I would not have taken my children to a place where Johnny Reb — call him Hans Wehrmacht — stood guard over hundreds of town squares.

Germany’s confrontation with its history has taken many forms. Its words for “monument” have no English translation. Denkmal commemorates an event that demands hard thinking. If the event was particularly horrendous, a Mahnmal — warning sign — may be erected.

Berlin has a dizzying number and variety of monuments to the victims of its murderous racism. By choosing to remember what its soldiers once did, it has made a choice about the values it wants to reject. Other choices, like glass walls in government buildings, from the Reichstag dome on down, reflect the values it wants to maintain: Democracy should be transparent. The rebuilding of Berlin — a long, discursive process in which historians, politicians and citizens debated for over a decade — was aspirational. No one, least of all a German, would claim that the rebuilding and renaming eradicated the roots of racism. (Old resentments die slowly, though they do eventually die — unless demagogues deliberately revive them.)

The city was not rebuilt to reflect what is, but what ought to be. Berlin’s public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic should commit itself to holding. Is it too much to ask America to do the same? For as James’ oration concluded, “The lesson that our war ought most of all to teach us is that evils must be checked in time, before they grow too great.”

Susan Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum. Her book “Learning from the Germans” will be released in 2018.