Nicholas MisukanisApril 05, 2021
Manillas are a historic form of money, made of European bronze and copper. Large quantities were produced for the Slave Trade (photo: iStock)Manillas are a historic form of money, made of European bronze and copper. Large quantities were produced for the Slave Trade (photo: iStock)

In December 1970, the West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, visited the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, Poland. The memorial honors Jewish resistance to Nazi occupiers in 1943, a revolt that took place after the Third Reich started deporting Jewish people in droves to death camps the year before. The Nazis brutally suppressed the uprising, killing or deporting more than 50,000 people in the process. 

Brandt agreed to lay a wreath at the monument to honor the murdered Jewish freedom fighters. But when the moment arrived, he did something completely unexpected. He set the wreath down and then knelt on the cold, wet ground in silence. Everyone was stunned. “Under the weight of recent history,” Brandt said, “I did what people do when words fail them. In this way, I commemorated millions of murdered people.”

Perhaps this is the moment for President Biden to honor his campaign promise and begin a national discussion on our country’s tragic past.

The German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, translated as “coming to terms with the past,” refers to how German intellectuals and political leaders like Brandt—and those who came before and after him—directly faced, rather than ignored, Nazism and the Holocaust. How could a nation that had succumbed to tyranny, plunged the world into war and committed one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century rebuild itself and become a democratic leader on the world stage? German leaders wrestled with this question and dedicated the latter half of the 20th century to accepting responsibility for the past by working to mend relationships with their neighbors, including Israel, and by encouraging Germans to face their nation’s history.

Like Germany, the United States must face its own troubled history. This past year has produced intense debates regarding racism and police brutality, and it saw a resurgence of far-right nationalism. Perhaps this is the moment for President Biden to honor his campaign promise about “fighting for the soul of America” and begin a national discussion on our country’s tragic past.

Overcoming the past

The process of overcoming the past started in 1949 in the Federal Republic of Germany. Western Germany adopted a democratic system of government and elected Konrad Adenauer as its first chancellor. Adenauer tasked himself with rebuilding the public’s confidence in democracy while still dealing with the fresh memory of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power and his demolition of the Weimar Republic. 

Adenauer based his worldview on the value of individual human dignity. He argued that the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi regime were possible because supporters of the Reich submitted themselves to the collective and were willing to sacrifice others in the process. Adenauer argued that the new government had an obligation to offer compensation to those who suffered from the Nazis. West Germany paid reparations to individuals who could show displacement or deaths of family members caused by the Nazi government. 

The German government has paid the equivalent of roughly $91.9 billion in reparations to the state of Israel and victims of the Holocaust.

But a domestic effort to confront the Nazi past was not enough. In 1951 Adenauer extended this program to include the new state of Israel and expressed his willingness to open negotiations for annual payments to Israel as compensation for the Holocaust. 

The West German and Israeli governments came to what was known as the Luxembourg Agreement, in which West Germany agreed to pay over 3.5 billion deutschmarks to the State of Israel and Holocaust survivors, and DM450 million to the World Jewish Congress over the next decade. These funds were essential for developing Israel’s infrastructure. They helped Israel purchase raw materials, and they provided backing for Israel’s national bank. As of 2020, the German government has paid the equivalent of roughly $91.9 billion in reparations to the state of Israel and victims of the Holocaust.

Reparations were controversial in both countries. Many Germans found them unfair, while some Jewish politicians argued that no amount of money could rectify what Nazi Germany had done. In December 1951, a poll of West Germans found that only 5 percent felt “guilty toward the Jews.” There were officials within Adenauer’s own party who opposed these measures. 

Recognizing the past while rebuilding for a better future was not easy. But political leaders like Adenauer and Israel’s David Ben-Gurion demonstrated a willingness to lead their countries toward reconciliation. Adenauer’s efforts in particular established a tradition of acknowledging the past that was followed by later leaders, including Willy Brandt. 

Political leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s David Ben-Gurion demonstrated a willingness to lead their countries toward reconciliation.

The Allied occupation mandated a new curriculum for German schools in the postwar period, one that emphasized the perils of nationalism and the consequences of racism in Germany. Once the Federal Republic of Germany was established, Germans were placed in charge of their own domestic curriculum, but West German schools continued to prioritize teaching about the Holocaust. German churches also engaged in this process and gave new emphasis to theological concepts that supported repenteance and active resistance to anti-Semitism. 

After his election as chancellor, Willy Brandt immediately set out to change West Germany’s foreign policy. He famously declared a new direction called Ostpolitik (Eastern policy) and sought a rapprochement with the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in the Warsaw Pact. Unlike Adenauer, who refused to recognize any of the nations under the Soviet umbrella of protection, Brandt sought to relax tensions and recognized the tradition of Germany acknowledging its past mistakes as a way to reconcile with European neighbors. In 1969 Brandt moved to implement Ostpolitik in a dramatic way and, a year later, traveled to Poland to officially recognize Polish territory that had been regarded as German since the 19th century. This meeting culminated in his famous kneeling at the Warsaw memorial and a clear indication that part of easing tensions lay in acknowledging the past. 

“Coming to terms with the past” also provided the basis for diplomatic relations between East and West Germany, and this concept was crucial to the negotiations in 1989 that resulted in a single democratic, unified Germany.

Today, Germany is a leader in the European Union and one of the most stable democracies in the world. It has set a precedent on the global stage for combating climate issues. Moreover, it has accepted millions of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East. In 2007, the Federal Republic’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, acknowledged in a speech before Israel’s national legislature, the Knesset, that Israel and Germany are permanently bound together in history by the horrors of the Holocaust. “I most firmly believe that only if Germany accepts its enduring responsibility for the moral disaster in its history will we be able to build a humane future,” she said. “Or, to put it another way, respect for our common humanity is rooted in our responsibility for the past.”

There are many similarities between what the Germans were facing in 1949 and what people in the United States face today. 

How is it that the leader of Germany was able to deliver a speech to the nation of Israel? How is it that today Germany and Israel enjoy strong trade relations and continued diplomatic exchanges? The answer is found in their constant effort to acknowledge and face the past instead of burying it and denying its importance. 

The process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung was dependent upon moral leadership by political and cultural figures and required a top-down approach, but it also required the masses to engage in these conversations on a communal level. While these conversations could be difficult, the political, educational and religious efforts to face the past have proven critical to contemporary German identity. 

There are many similarities between what the Germans were facing in 1949 and what people in the United States face today. 

The year 2020 has left millions of Americans unemployed and without access to health care. The United States has lost more than 500,000 individuals to Covid-19 in roughly one year, more deaths than U.S. forces experienced in the Second World War, and the number of cases continues to rise. Furthermore, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other innocent African-Americans in 2020 brought waves of protests that took aim at police brutality and that highlighted regular inequalities and racism experienced by people of color. The fact that 74 million people voted for Donald Trump and a continuation of his policies leaves us with a question: How can we have conversations about confronting our own troubled reality while being so divided? What would facing the past look like in the United States of 2021? 

Is it possible to imagine a U.S. president going to the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail or the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and kneeling to offer an apology for atrocities committed in the past? This is difficult to picture. But it is not impossible. 

Is it possible to imagine a U.S. president kneeling to offer an apology for atrocities committed in the past?

The German experience suggests that there are three essential building blocks to this process: political leadership, educational policies and a willingness to look at all remedies. 

Political leadership. President Biden has an opportunity to initiate a nationwide conversation to face our past. Mr. Biden has already indicated in many speeches over the course of the presidential campaign that he campaigned because he felt that the “very soul of America was at stake.” Furthermore, he stated that the events of Charlottesville and the rise of white nationalism were major reasons he pursued the presidency. 

Educational reforms. Americans must re-evaluate how we discuss our own history. Debates over the origins of the Civil War and the “Lost Cause” ideology that permeates pedagogy in many former Confederate states impedes critical discussion of the past. The continued marginalization of African-Americans long after the Civil War, as well as the cost to Native Americans, Latin Americans, and Asian Americans in the westward expansion of the United States, must be faced directly. Prioritizing the perspectives of those who were marginalized is essential if we are to gain a better understanding of American history and avoid repeating previous historical disasters.

Furthermore, U.S. churches could follow in the footsteps of German churches and encourage theological messages of repentance, encouraging parishioners to engage in difficult conversations with those who suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. 

Remedies for past wrongs. In the United States, some politicians have reintroduced the topic of reparations into the political conversation. In 2019, the Congressional representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from the 13th Congressional District in Texas, proposed a commission to study and develop reparations proposals. This proposal was presented to the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in the House of Representatives with 154 cosponsors. 

The financial value of reparations for slavery could be difficult to calculate, but a more accurate approach could look at those who had directly suffered in states that imposed Jim Crow. At the very least, coming to terms with our past means allowing a commission like this to be created to allow experts in history and economics to determine what reparations could look like. 

U.S. churches could follow in the footsteps of German churches and encourage theological messages of repentance.

Such a commission would also open a dialogue to confront other past injustices. Committing to governmental efforts such as H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—or creating a commission dedicated to acknowledging the violence against Native Americans during the westward expansion of the United States, the nation could take serious steps toward coming to terms with our own history. 

For former President Donald J. Trump, to acknowledge the mistakes of the past was a sign of weakness. Instead, he created a commission that released “The 1776 Report,” an attempt to emphasize only the positive elements of American history and reject the darker portions. As Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Angela Merkel have shown us, however, facing the past takes great strength and courage and the prioritizing of truth over ignorance. 

Willy Brandt’s act of kneeling at the Warsaw monument received mixed reviews. Some argued that by doing what no German chancellor had done before him, Brandt displayed unmatched moral character. Others argued that it was a political stunt. Regardless, the courage to acknowledge these deaths and continually apologize for other German-led atrocities paved the way for a major improvement in German relations with Eastern European nations as well as Israel.  It also fundamentally changed the way Germans think about their own history. 

How we talk about 2020 presidential election could be the first step in an American effort to come to terms with—and be honest about—our past. President Trump’s efforts to reject the past and his refusal to acknowledge defeat could continue to hamstring any efforts to raise critical questions about American history. If  President Biden truly believes that “the very soul of America is at stake,” then the answer to our soul-searching must begin with his administration’s initiation of a national conversation about our nation’s tragic past. And all of us must begin by engaging in difficult but rewarding dialogues within our own communities.

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