U.S. markets closed

Germany Confronted Its Past and Flourished. So Can the U.S.

Pankaj Mishra

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A cultural revolution is sweeping across Great Britain and the United States. Toppling statues of slave owners, protesters are demanding moral reparations — an acknowledgement that slavery and imperialism underpinned the wealth and power of two of the world’s most prominent countries, condemning millions of people with darker skins to generations of poverty and indignity.

The iconoclasts have shifted much public opinion in their favor, as can be witnessed in the truly incredible (if also slightly absurd) scene of Democratic lawmakers in Kente stoles kneeling in solidarity with victims of racist violence. A range of individuals and institutions have come out vigorously in favor of racial justice; those found in violation of it are being named and shamed.

But a deeper, longer and harder battle is only just beginning — over the new national identity the U.S. and U.K. need, especially as they seek to emerge from the ruins of a devastating pandemic.

Donald Trump is too obviously the reductio ad absurdum of a besieged white supremacism in an irreversibly diverse society. Simultaneously, the British cult of Winston Churchill has reached a risible culmination in the figure of his flailing understudy: Boris Johnson.

Just as the self-evident truths of slave-owners no longer persuade a large number of people in the U.S., a sentimental attachment to empire and to fantasies of resurrecting British glory and power won’t survive the ineptitude of a Tory government that seems to know only how to “get Brexit done” — and not even that.

As they search for a post-racial, post-imperial identity, the U.S. and Britain would be wise to take lessons from their implacable enemy in two world wars: Germany.

For while white supremacists unfurled swastika banners and chanted “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and British politicians and journalists spread falsehoods about immigrants en route to Brexit, Germany hosted a “welcome culture” for more than one million refugees — what Susan Neiman in her timely book “Learning from the Germans” calls “the largest and broadest social movement in Germany since the war.”

Germany's most successful postwar far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), rose to subvert this German consensus. But it has failed repeatedly to broaden its small base and, presently afflicted by a civil war and a muddled coronavirus strategy, is being pushed back to the margins. Moreover, AfD’s attempts to deny or minimize the country’s Nazi past have served to consolidate anti-racist sentiment in the country.

This broad and consistent recoiling from ethnic-racial supremacists confirms that Germany has achieved a high, if not perfect, degree of immunity to the kind of toxic politics that have ravaged Anglo-America in recent years.

This didn’t happen overnight. Neiman, a philosopher of Jewish origin who grew up in the segregationist American South and has long lived in Berlin, writes that it “took decades of hard work before those who committed what are arguably the greatest crimes in history could acknowledge those crimes, and begin to atone for them.”

De-Nazification, demanded initially by West Germany’s American occupiers, was only partly accomplished. U.S. intelligence operatives found many Nazi criminals useful in the cold war against Soviet communism — indeed, the student revolt of the 1960s in Germany was largely provoked by a postwar dispensation in which government officials, industrialists, bankers and professors of the Nazi era managed to retain their influence.

Many Germans saw themselves as victims, too. Still, over the decades, a strong culture of remembrance and commemoration flourished both inside and outside classrooms. Big and small monuments to the victims of Nazi crimes went up across the country, ranging from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin to “stumbling stones” in a local street that record the names and the dates of birth and deportation of the people who once lived there.

In 1970, many older Germans recoiled at the sight of German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto in apology to the world for Nazi crimes. But the image was extraordinarily potent. In retrospect, it announced a society and culture that was being steadily renewed by moral introspection and historical inquiry.

Contrast this with Anglo-American attitudes — for instance, the left-leaning British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declaring on a trip to East Africa in 2005 that “the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial past are over.” (Never mind that Britain never apologized).

A German-style reckoning with the past couldn't come sooner in Anglo-America. For unrepentant racial supremacism, as represented by the rants of Trump and Fox’s Tucker Carlson, can only deepen the political and socio-economic impasse that Britain and the U.S. find themselves in.

Those in thrall to racial, national and imperialist myths will no doubt see weakness in any admission of crimes in their society’s long past. Yet it seems irrefutable now, as Germany towers, morally as well as politically and economically, over its old Anglo-American rivals, that the willingness to confront shameful history is ultimately a source of great strength. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.