As an American, I see my country ignoring the shady secrets of our past. As an American in Germany, I saw a country doing a much better job of making amends and progressing.
Berlin is a city haunted. The tragedies and devastation that litter German history are impossible to miss in the capital.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Berlin Wall Museum. Topography of Terror.
The horrors of the past are not tucked away in the city. For many German natives, these ghosts are likely hidden in plain sight. Tourists, though, see them in screaming color, visiting from hundreds or thousands of miles away, in part to pay their respects to those lost during the reigns of the Nazi and Communist parties.
Tourists come for the culture; that culture includes this history. The Berlin Wall, an unmissable sign of the country’s former division and suffering, now showcases some of the most profound artwork of recent times, preserving the soul of the people of Berlin. The Holocaust Memorial spans nearly five acres just a block from the Reichstag building, a cemetery in the form of an art installation.
Berlin — and Germany as a whole — has accepted and acknowledged the evils of its past and grown from them. Are people ever going to think of German history and not immediately have the Holocaust spring to mind? It seems unlikely. And the German people appear to know that, and thus make no effort to avoid confronting that legacy.
The German government paid — and is still paying — reparations to the victims of the Holocaust. They established laws to ensure nothing like the reign of the Nationalist Party can ever occur again. They poured thought, time, and money into building memorials to pay respects to the lives lost in the wars and to ensure the city never forgets what happened and what can happen again without proper diligence.
They have ensured joyous spirits walk among the ghosts.
The United States of America has taken a different approach.
It could be referred to as the ‘Who, me?’ strategy or just flat-out denial. America and the Allies won World War II, but that does not mean the country is free from the black stain war leaves behind on everyone.
American schools do not teach about the internment camps set up for Japanese-Americans during the war. There’s no photo of Japanese-Americans being liberated from camps in the textbooks next to photos of American soldiers freeing Jewish prisoners in Germany.
Brushing off responsibility and wrongdoing is nothing new for the United States. It’s been happening since slaves were brought over on ships reeking of death and Native Americans were intentionally infected, murdered, and driven from land that was rightfully theirs.
Obviously slavery has since been abolished and peace treaties have been signed with Native Americans. That doesn’t mean the country has openly dealt with its mistakes and moved forward, though. That is abundantly clear if one watches any news program for longer than fifteen minutes.
Nearly every nightly broadcast of American news will include the terms ‘gun violence’ and ‘racial tension’ in the same breath. Prejudice and racism have been brewing in the United States since before it was officially a country.
Many were uncomfortable earlier this year when, at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama, the nation’s first black First Lady, gave a speech in which she discussed raising her children in the White House, “a house that was built by slaves.”
The discomfort stems from the fact that long-standing systematic racism is not discussed in the United States. In the eyes of many, the issue was over with the Civil War. For others, it ended when the Civil Rights Movement faded or with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Others know better. They know that racial equality has not yet come to fruition in the United States of America, but they have not been able to start a nationwide discourse.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a prominent example. The reservation lands given to Native American nations decades ago by the United States government as part of a treaty hardly seem a fitting settlement; it was just giving back a piece of what was stolen. And now, even that land isn’t safe, as this pipeline would destroy them. (Photo of protesters via flickr/Joe Brusky)
Tensions over the pipeline are high, with protesters being arrested, attacked, and shot with rubber bullets.
But being shot with real bullets is increasingly common in the US, so perhaps these peaceful protesters should feel lucky. The victims of gun violence in the States likely do not.
A dominant reason the US cannot calm the outrage of racism is because it is treated like a dirty secret, as if speaking about it will somehow give it power and make it worse.
In a fantastic piece for The Atlantic back in June 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates detailed the history of treatment of African Americans in America and argued that reparations need to be, at the very least, considered. Fittingly titled “The Case for Reparations,” he summarized it as follows: “Two hundred and fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
And the country is fractured.
Rather than embracing immigrants and African Americans, — who are as American as any American can be — racism runs rampant. Black men are shot by police officers even when unarmed and peaceful. Minorities are followed around stores when shopping. Black women are hyper-sexualized by the media and pitted against each other.
And it is not only race. Women are blamed for sexual assault and rape, to the extent that accusing a man of such a crime is seen as shockingly brave. Women are pitted against each other at every turn and reduced to their gender by men less informed and less competent. Mansplaining runs rampant.
LGBTQA community members are called whores, their weddings are protested, and they are told they are going to hell for existing.
The mentally ill are called weak; the poor are called lazy; the struggling labeled complacent.
All one needs to do to see America has not learned from the Civil Rights Movement, the Equal Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and countless other pushes for progressivism is look at the presidential election wrapping up this week.
Donald Trump is a serious contender for President of the United States and he has mocked every group besides rich, straight, white men. Then he mocked rich, straight white men by questioning their wealth and masculinity, comparing them to minority groups as if it were an insult.
America is back-sliding, due partly to a prideful inability to admit to past faults.
Germany is coming together, thriving, moving forward.
At Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany this year, I made friends with a Jewish man from Israel who was there on holiday. He had ancestors that had been killed in the Holocaust, yet he knew things were far different in Germany now and felt comfortable taking a vacation there. Because Germany has apologized and made efforts to heal relationships.
On the other hand, the attitude in American has become so toxic that a black Irish friend of mine recently said he would probably never visit the United States. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to see the country, he said, but that he doesn’t want to get shot and shipped home in a body-bag.
A country cannot be united until its eyes are open to the fact that it is, and has been, divided. Pretending the history of America is not as scarred and dark as everywhere else does not erase those mistakes; it keeps the future from brightening.