By Bernd Debusmann
History takes odd turns.
Who would have thought seven decades ago that a German chancellor would find it necessary to rebuke an American president for failing to condemn racists and neo-Nazis in the United States, the country that helped Germany deal with its dark, racist past?
The rebuke came from Chancellor Angela Merkel and was prompted by Donald Trump’s reaction to a rally in the Virginia town of Charlottesville by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and people who believe that leaders of the pro-slavery forces in their country’s civil war deserve to be honored with monuments.
The rally, including a torch parade patterned on marches in Nazi Germany, attracted counter protesters, one of whom died when a white supremacists drove his car into a crowd.
Trump’s initial reaction was to assign blame to “many sides” without mentioning the extremist ideology of the marchers. They included “very fine people,” he said at a raucous press conference a few days later.
That triggered a storm of criticism on social media, from Democratic leaders and even a few Republicans. Dismayed reaction abroad included this from Merkel: “It’s racist, far-right violence, and that requires determined and forceful resistance no matter where in the world it appears.”
She did not mention Trump by name. There was no need for that.
For many, the United States became a role model.
The phrase “the student has become the master” came to mind, as did one of those German compound words as difficult to pronounce as to translate: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It means coping with the past and describes a process that began in 1945 in the ruins of a country led into World War Two by a racist ideologue, Adolf Hitler.
The victors split Germany into four zones of occupation — American, French, British and Soviet — and set to work to “de-Nazify” the country. The Western allies preached democratic values, the Soviets communism.
For many Germans, the United States became a role model — attractive not only because of its political system but also because of its pop culture, from music and Hollywood films to blue jeans.
Coping with the past included bans on the display of symbols of the Nazi era such as swastikas and the stiff-armed Hitler salute. Denying or trivializing the Holocaust was made a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Where the ideas of Germany’s dark past is concerned, freedom of expression is severely limited.
There are no monuments to Hitler’s defeated generals or public debates about who won or lost World War Two.
In contrast, there are more than 1,500 memorials and monuments in the United States that honor officers and leaders of the losing side in America’s 1861-1865 civil war, a conflict that left more than 600,000 dead and pitted the 13 southern states of the Confederacy against the northern Union. The South was fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, which had been abolished in the North.
Coping with the past is a work in progress in the United States.
For decades, the wisdom of honoring the Confederacy with public monuments has been a matter of controversy.
On the political right, they tend to be seen as historical reminders of the civil war and, for some, states’ rights. On the left, they are seen as symbols of slavery and white supremacy.
The right-wing gathering in Charlottesville was called to protest against plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general, from a public square in the center of town.
Coping with the past clearly is still a work in progress in the United States. German historian Arnd Bauerkämper of the Free University in Berlin told the Washington Post newspaper that Germany was able to integrate itself into the West — membership in NATO, German reunification — only by abandoning Nazi ideology.
“There never was such a decisive break with Confederate ideas in the United States,” Bauerkämper said.
American artist Walt Handelsman captured that view with a biting cartoon published after the Charlottesville unrest. It shows a statue of a soldier on horseback and a plaque underneath that reads:
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.