Vergangenheitsbewältigung: What Living in Germany Taught Me About Dealing with the Past

This article was originally written for Yossi Bartal’s course, “Seemingly Inseparable: Reporting and Debating Israel-Palestine, Antisemitism, and Racism in German Media,” at Bard College Berlin.

 

When I was sixteen, I received a scholarship that funded a year-long study abroad experience in Hamburg, Germany. In the days directly preceding my departure, my scholarship organization hosted a series of presentations intended to prepare my class for the challenges of cultural exchange. These lectures—hosted in the carpeted conference room of a budget hotel on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.—were bookended with helpful mantras and slogans. Half a decade later, the one I most remember is: Remember, it’s not good or bad, just different.

This epithet applied to most surface-level markers of cultural difference, the visible signs that I lived in a large German city rather than my hometown in Ohio. That the students in my local Gymnasium, or high school, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes rather than vaping mango-flavored Juul pods, for example, was neither good nor bad, just different. That shops were closed on Sundays, that restaurants sometimes charged less for alcohol than water, or that coffee was almost always hot rather than iced, even in the damp heat of late August: not good or bad, just different.

But as I slowly began to think more critically about my host and native cultures, I readopted the terms better and worse, even if only in the safety and solitude of my own mind.

Throughout my exchange year, I realized that any engagement with German society or culture returned to or involved the Holocaust given six degrees of separation. Sometimes, I anticipated this route. For example, my scholarship class visited the Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg at the start of the year, the Jewish Museum and a synagogue in Munich in the middle of the year, and the Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Musuem in Berlin at the end of the year. I also awaited this conversation in history class, where we discussed deeply and at length the Second World War.

I did not expect this conversation when asking my host father which political party he supported in the upcoming election. Many Germans kept those allegiances private, he explained, because of the Nazi Party’s persecution of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its members in 1933.1 I did not expect it when stepping into my host mother’s gray Volkswagen Beetle, when my host father informed me that the car had first been commissioned by Hitler.2 And I did not expect it when my host mother told me that Germans seldom pinned up their national flag in their front yard or on their door, as Americans did; most Germans viewed it as a fanatic display of nationalism.

It was everywhere: on a trip to Berlin, I noticed bronze blocks set into the ground. I learned later that they were called Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, and that they marked the former residences of Jewish citizens before the Holocaust.3 The more I opened my eyes, the more I found—relics of the past made present, from plaques at U-Bahn stations to statues in parks.

A year prior to these experiences, I had nothing to do with the Holocaust; I was neither German nor Jewish. But by receiving my scholarship and traveling abroad to Germany, I had become part of its framework, because to know Germany—the German language, people, and culture—is also to know, and therefore become part of, the legacy of the Holocaust.

 

I did not learn the words for the German obsession with the crimes of their past until three and a half years after I returned to the States, when I studied abroad for a semester in Berlin. There, in a class about German media, I first encountered the terms Erinnerungspolitik, memory politics; Erinnerungskultur, memory culture; and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the act of coping with the past.

I could not help but compare the German attitude toward the crimes of their past with my experiences in the United States and find it, to use a word forbidden by my exchange organization, better. If Germans celebrate Erinnerungspolitik with a devoted fervor, making the crimes of their past the perpetual guest at the dinner table, the mentality in the States is the opposite. We attach fictional end dates to our prejudice: slavery ended with the Civil War, sexism with the Nineteenth Amendment, racism with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, homophobia with Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.4 Though certain spaces and professions continue to embrace and further these conversations—in academia and cultural institutions like museums, for example—the public opinion and way of thinking in the U.S. remains stagnant, and therefore ignorant.

The scholar Thomas McCarthy writes about the potential and importance of applying the German attitudes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung to the U.S. context, particularly with regard to the history of slavery and racism. “Without a developed awareness of the sources and causes of our racialized practices and attitudes,” he notes, “we will, I suspect, continue to find it extremely difficult even to carry on reasonable public discussions of racially inflected problems, let alone arrive at just and feasible solutions to them.”5

In other words: as long as the United States fails to integrate its past into its present, it cannot adequately combat its contemporary problems of discrimination and injustice.

Yet as much as the U.S. has to learn from Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the fixation on the Holocaust within German culture is far from perfect. In attempting to focus with such precision on the crimes committed during the Second World War against the Jewish people, Germany runs the risk of marginalizing other parts of its past, such as its colonialist history,6 including the Namibian genocide.7

Moreover, Germany’s avid support of Israel raises important questions about the true intentions behind the Holocaust’s legacy. Though Israel is a nation formed out of unspeakable tragedy and genocide, it has nonetheless perpetrated ethnic cleansing in the form of the Nakba, or the collective displacement of Palestinians since the late 1940s.8 Germany and much of Europe, as well as the U.S., remain conspicuously silent on this subject, more intent on preserving an international image of social progress and upward mobility.9

Susan Neiman writes about the conundrum of German’s exclusionary historical practices in her book Learning from the Germans. Quoting the scholar Mischa Gabowitsch, Neiman writes, “‘We have enshrined one narrative: the national crime was that the Germans killed the Jews. By solidifying this narrative in stone, they made it impossible for future generations to think about it in any other way.’”10 By creating one story about the Holocaust, Germany’s Erinnerungskultur obscured other, more nuanced truths about its dark past.

It seemed to me, coming from the U.S. culture of forgetfulness into the German culture of selective remembrance, that there must be an in-between—a middle ground where we might begin to have conversations about the horrors of the past, acknowledging their influence on and position in the present, without only pushing forth one version of one story. But how can we find this perfect balance? Where might it be?

 

I received my acceptance letter to Harvard College a little less than a year after I returned from my first trip to Germany. I was—like most in my graduating class—ecstatic. Harvard had been a far-fetched dream; I had no more expected my acceptance than I had anticipated a trip to the moon or Mars. I had spent my time in high school looking at the elite academic institutions on the East Coast with envy and longing, and now I had been offered a key to the ivory tower.

I did not understand the costs of this ivory tower until halfway through my freshman fall, when I realized that Harvard was not the utopia I had imagined. As a student on significant financial aid who did not attend a private preparatory school and was not a legacy, I arrived to find many doors, physical and metaphorical, still locked. My classmates spoke in languages that I could not understand, and I do not mean Latin or ancient Greek (though many spoke that, too), but rather that secret language of those who celebrate their privilege, rather than being ashamed or at least aware of it. I mention this because, as I spent more and more time at Harvard, attempting to understand the implications of my position there, I also began to unravel and untangle for myself its complicated, gruesome history, much of which had been hidden and then forgotten.

For example, in a seminar course I took on museums my freshman fall, I visited the archives at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. There, I learned that the Peabody, along with the Warren Anatomical Museum, both of which are associated with Harvard, hold over 22,000 human remains, many of which come from marginalized and exploited American Indian and Black communities. Their bodies did not come to be shelved in these collections by accident; many were stolen or unethically obtained.11

I also learned about the lawsuit of Tamara K. Lanier, who sued the Peabody Museum for possession of daguerreotypes of two of her enslaved ancestors, Delia and Renty.12 These daguerreotypes were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a scientist who contributed to and furthered the study of social Darwinism, attempting to use science in order to prove racial inferiority.13 Lanier lost the lawsuit in 2021,14 and Agassiz’s name remains above the Museum of Comparative Zoology.15

The contents of the Peabody collections and the malevolent legacy of Agassiz are not secrets, but they have remained largely unacknowledged until the past few years. In January 2021, Harvard announced the formation of a steering committee to assist with addressing the remains in the Peabody and Warren museums.16 While long overdue, and though many other crimes, like the involvement and influence of Agassiz’s research, remain unsolved, it marks the beginning of critical conversations around the problematic components of Harvard’s long history.

Most recently, in April of 2022, Harvard published its report on the legacy of slavery. It acknowledged the slavery that occurred at Harvard, from slaves who served Harvard students to the slaves who served Harvard presidents. Some of the most prominent members of the early Harvard community, like John Winthrop, for whom one of the undergraduate residential houses is named, owned slaves.17

The actions that Harvard has taken to address its history are far from perfect, and there is still much work to be done. Since its founding in 1636, Harvard has been a site of classism, racism, sexism,18 and homophobia,19 and it remains—as I have myself experienced—elitist and exclusionary. But these reports, these initial efforts, give me hope that all is not lost; that if we continue to discuss, admit, and accept the college’s tarnished legacy, we might build a better Harvard for the students who come after me, and they might find it the place they envisioned.

 

To a degree, the history of slavery in the United States and the Holocaust have little in common; they are simply two examples of extraordinary marginalization and violence in the shadowed histories of contemporary world powers. There is, however, something to be learned from the ways that the U.S. and Germany encounter and treat their comparative histories. We must find a way to approach our Erinnerungspolitik, our Vergangenheitsbewältigung, without only telling one version of one story or without pretending our history does not exist altogether.

I do not include Harvard’s struggle with its history in an attempt to frame this university as a model. Instead, I mention it because it has formed my own conceptual bridge between these two memory cultures. I wrote this essay at the end of my study abroad semester in Berlin, after months of reckoning with my place in a country that, while not my own, was still in some way familiar to me. Bits and pieces of myself and Germany belong to one another, shaped by the years I have spent here during the most formative periods of my life, when I did not know how to conceptualize who I was as a person, let alone as a citizen of the United States and an individual in the world.

I returned to Harvard in this essay because it has formed the unstable center of the last three years of my life, and I was searching for a place to apply my observations about how the United States and Germany deal with the process of remembering. Harvard must still come to terms with its role as an institution on settled land,20 as one of the universities with the highest sexual assault rate in the United States,21 and with its unabashed embrace of damaging selectivity.

But this work begins with people like me, which is to say students who notice a problem and seek to solve it. There are parts of the U.S. and Germany that are better and worse than one another, rather than just different, and that ideal middle place between holding so tightly to a memory that it obscures all others and forgetting these memories altogether can exist. We must fight for it, noticing and comparing between the places we come from and the places we go, building both the college campus and the world we want to live in.

 

Emerson Monks is an undergraduate student at Harvard College with interests in History, Literature, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

 

Notes

  1. Smaldone, William. “Rudolf Hilfering and the Total State.” The Historian 57, no. 1 (Fall, 1994): 96.
  2. Rieger, Bernhard. “From People’s Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle.” The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (2010): 93.
  3. Cook, Matthew and Micheline van Riemsdijk. “Agents of Memorialization: Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine and the Individual (re-)creation of a Holocaust Landscape in Berlin.” Journal of Historical Geography 43 (2014): 138–47.
  4. McCarthy, Thomas. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the USA: On the Politics of the Memory of Slavery,” Political Theory 30, no. 5 (2002): 634.
  5. Ibid., 636.
  6. Rothberg, Michael. “Introduction” in Multidirectional Memory (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2009), 22-23.
  7. Melber, Henning. “Germany and Namibia: Negotiating Genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research 22, no. 4 (2020): 504.
  8. Bashir, Bashir and Amos Goldberg. “Introduction” in The Holocaust and the Nakba (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 1.
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Neiman, Susan. “Chapter 3: Cold War Memory” in Learning from the Germans (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, Limited, 2020), 93.
  11. Bacow, Larry. “Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museums Collection,” open letter to Harvard Community, January 27, 2021.
  12. Iqbal, Salma S. “Louis Agassiz, Under a Microscope.” The Harvard Crimson. March 18, 2021.
  13. Wallis, Brian. “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerrotypes.” American Art 9, no. 2 (1995): 38-61.
  14. Riskin-Lutz, Oliver L. “Massachusetts Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over Harvard’s Possession of Slave Photos.” The Harvard Crimson. March 4, 2021.
  15. Iqbal, “Louis Agassiz.”
  16. Bacow, “Steering Committee.”
  17. Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. April 25, 2022.
  18. “Sexism at Harvard.” Forbes. February 28, 2005.
  19. Hasnoo, Saieed. “Homophobia at Harvard.” The Harvard Crimson. May 9, 2011.
  20. “Acknowledgment of Land and People.” The Harvard University Native American Program. https://hunap.harvard.edu/land-acknowledgement/.
  21. Anderson, Nick. “These colleges have the most reports of rape.” The Washington Post. June 7, 2016.

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