Confronting The Past

I am still in Germany.  Tonight the family went out to dinner while I decided to stay back and relax a bit.  It´s been quite hectic between the funeral and other assorted events.  Today we drove to Köln (that´s Cologne for us Americans) to see the famous cathedral.  It was quite impressive although the downtown area was packed with tourists for a wild celebration that will take place tonight and involve an elaborate fireworks display along the Rhine.  I am staying in a beautiful home in Köningswinter which is opposite Bonn and right along the river.  My wife and I took a scenic run along the Rhine today, which is quite low at the moment owing to the little rain and heat over the past few weeks.  As I mentioned briefly the other day, the home we are staying in sits on what was an old vineyard on a terraced hill just over the river.  The house is modern with glass windows running along the entire river side.  There is a terrace for every room and the views are simply magnificent.  Unfortunately, it´s been a sad week owing the the death of my sister-in-law´s husband – a wonderful man who passed away much too early. 

The other day my wife and I visited the Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn.  I was able to buy a guide in English as the displays were only in German.  As the name of the museum suggests, the focus of the exhibits is on the postwar period up to and through the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What I was most impressed with was the way in which the exhibit dealt with the darker chapters of the war, including the Holocaust and the suppression of political opposition under the Nazis.  One of the first exhibits that the visitor sees is a large black cube, which falls under the heading “The Ever-Present Past.´´  Here is a description from my guide:

Our eye is drawn to the massive cube of black steel in the centre of the room.  This design component is a motif that will recur in various forms in the exhibition.  It stands in the middle of the way, symbolizing the confrontation with the past resonating through German history up to the present day.  The interior is a memorial room for the victims of Nazi despotism.  The names of countless victims are projected onto screens.  A photo sequence traces the development of the brutal persecution of all Jewish citizens: from boycotts and ostracism to the murder of millions in the death camps. 

The phrase “confrontation with the past´´ and the placement of the exhibit in a way that is unavoidable strikes me as significant and an interesting point of contrast with our own tendency until relatively recently to ignore issues such as slavery in our own museum exhibits.  No doubt I need to learn more, but I am impressed with the short amount of time it took Germany to begin to seriously deal with its past following the Second World War. 

In the case of the Holocaust it may have been easier since there were so few Jews who survived the death camps.  In contrast to the period following the Civil War, most Americans harbored strong racist views and in the South the goal was not to reconcile itself with an immoral past, but to maintain a racial hierarchy.  Perhaps more importantly, the influence of the Allied Powers in forcing Germans to confront the past made a significant difference.  The museum focused a great deal on the various ways the occupying military forces controlled the newspapers, schools, and legislation.  Residents were forced to watch movies taken from the death camps.  In other words, Germans did not simply become more democratic, they were shown and to a certain extent forced. This is not to minimiz the committment of Germans to a new democratic future, but to highlight the role of an important external influence that was determined to achieve a certain result.  I venture to guess that a solid majority of Germans today believe that it is their responsibility to confront their past in order to insure that it does not happen again.  I believe that this is a healthy tendency.  Americans are not very good about confronting their past and I suspect that it has much to do with a belief in American exceptionalism.  In the case of slavery it is much easier to downplay its horror or to situate it in a progressive story that minimizes its place within the broader narrative. 

I just finished talking to a family member about these issues and she mentioned a very interesting project that is financed privately.  A great deal of research has been done to locate those homes in Bonn where Jews lived before being forced to relocate.  If it is shown that families were removed the residents of that particular street can purchase a “Remembrance Stone´´ which is placed in front of the home and indicates the names of the family members.  I was surprised to learn that this project has proven to be incredibly successful. 

1 comment… add one
  • elementaryhistoryteacher Jul 30, 2006 @ 21:13

    You really convict my thoughts when you post about dealing with the past. I enjoyed reading about your observations of how Germans have come to grips with the events concerning the Holocaust. We Southerners still have many things to learn based on your more recent post concerning the Civil War forum. I believe education is the key whether we are looking at Germany or the American South. Maybe I can turn my convictions into a worthwhile post later in the Fall.

    I’m sorry about your recent loss….one more thing we have in common, I guess….I lost my mother on July 13th.

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