Two years ago I published a book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America. The book explores how different historical sites across the United States—including monuments, memorials, and museums—reckon with or fail to reckon with their relationship to the history of slavery. After the book came out, one of the main questions I got from readers asked where public memory was being engaged with more proactively and thoughtfully than what we so often see here in America. I would frequently invoke Germany, citing the work it had done to memorialize the Holocaust. But there came a point where I realized that I was citing the memorials in Germany without having spent any time with the memorials in Germany.
So I traveled to Germany to examine its landscape of memory for myself. I visited the homes from which Jewish families were taken, the train stations from which they were deported, the concentration camps where they were held, the crematoria where bodies were burned.
I had conversations with Jewish Germans as well as Americans living in Germany, in an effort to understand how we might place the way America memorializes slavery in conversation with the way Germany memorializes the Holocaust.
What I learned is that the story of German memorialization is complex, multifaceted, and still evolving. Just like the story of America’s.
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The following is a transcript of the episode:
Caitlin Dickerson: So what did you expect to find in Germany? I mean, were you essentially going to pick up lessons for the U.S.? Were you starting to become a little bit skeptical of Germany as this ideal for reckoning and atonement? I mean, what did you have in mind as you set out on this trip?
Clint Smith: I think in part, I went to Germany to put it in conversation with the process of memorialization here in the United States.
Dickerson: I’m Caitlin Dickerson. Today on Radio Atlantic, staff writer Clint Smith on the Holocaust, America’s legacy of slavery, and what it means to memorialize tragedy.
Smith: So it wasn’t necessarily to compare and contrast as much as it was an attempt to say, okay, “What’s happening in Germany, what’s happening in the United States? In what ways are these processes in conversation with one another?” America in so many places fails to properly memorialize and remember and account for its relationship to the history of slavery; what’s a place that does this well?
Dickerson: So where in Germany did you go to try to figure this out?
Smith: I went to a range of different places, including the House of the Wannsee Conference, which is this idyllic mansion outside of Berlin where the leaders of the Nazi party got together to outline and plan the contours of the Final Solution.
Clint: I’m here standing outside of the House of the Wannsee Conference. Already by the time they met here, people had been killed in mass murders—but this is where they would plan out how they would kill millions more. There’s a profound sort of juxtaposition between the scenery and the idyllic nature of it, and the terrible thing that was planned inside of it. Behind it is this lake with sailboats that are slowly passing by. The water sort of lapping against the shore. Can hear birds and wind chimes. It’s a strange thing. It’s a very strange thing.
Smith: If you could say your name and your position...
Deborah Hartmann: Okay. So my name is Deborah Hartmann.
Smith: And one of the people that I spoke to when I went to the House of the Wannsee Conference was Deborah Hartmann, who is the director of that museum. And one of the things we talked about in particular that I found really fascinating was the need to focus on not only the victims of the Holocaust, but also the perpetrators.
Hartmann: I think we have to learn something about the perspective of the perpetrators and not only about the perpetrators but also about the bystanders, and all those who were in a way involved. And this could be the neighbor who was not a member of the Nazi party, but who was just hanging around and had a nice view out of the window seeing neighbors being deported.
Smith: Which was so many people.
Hartmann: Yeah, of course.
Smith: It’s interesting, because I think part of what this place does, in some ways, is humanizes both the victims and the perpetrators.
Hartmann: Yes. And it is important, I think—because, of course, they were human beings as well. And, you know, in the afternoon, people who participated in the mass shootings wrote nice letters to their families at home.
Smith: They killed people in the morning, and wrote letters to their family and their children in the afternoon.
Hartmann: Exactly. And this is maybe what’s so difficult for us to understand. And to live with it.
Dickerson: She’s challenging, in a few different ways, the oversimplification of narratives around the Holocaust. And also: Humanizing the perpetrators is worth doing, because actually, human beings perpetrated this. It wasn’t fantastical characters of evil, but actual human beings.
Smith: Yeah; I think one of the things that she takes very seriously in her work is ensuring that we are not falling into the trap of reducing the people who are part of this history into two-dimensional caricatures of themselves.
Hartmann: And you know, then you suddenly see that the history is much more ambivalent, and it’s much more complicated. And today, I think that the Germans actually are very proud of what they have achieved in terms of confrontation, like with the past and coming to terms. But I think it becomes difficult when they feel—I don’t know, the term in English—maybe relieved. You understand what I mean?
Smith: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Hartmann: Because then it can turn into a very problematic direction.
Smith: This idea that “We’ve already done it.”
Hartmann: I mean, here you can see: Okay, this is still very challenging, I think, for Germans. Even in the fourth generation today. How can it be okay that my family was somehow involved in those atrocities?
Deidre Berger: I mean, there wasn’t really a confrontation until the ’60s, when the young generation started asking their parents what they did during the war.
Smith: Deidre Berger is an American woman who’s lived in Germany for many years. And both in America and in Germany, she has been deeply involved in Jewish organizations and Jewish advocacy groups, to ensure that Jewish people and Jewish history are accounted for. And the two of us got together on a chilly day in October at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in downtown Berlin.
Berger: And we had the Nuremberg trials in the late ’40s. There were the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the early/mid-1960s. And still, most perpetrators were never accused or tried or charged. And there was the attitude of “Let’s leave it behind us.”
This—this went right into the heart of families, and it tore families apart. And so they’d rather not talk about it. When I came to Germany in the mid-1980s, there was not much of a confrontation within families. So it took a very long time. A lot of the international climate was such that I think more of an understanding evolved, at least in the German political elite, of the importance of confronting the Holocaust, and also on the grassroots level.
So the 1960s is when the grassroots movement started in Germany to try and understand better what had happened in my town, what happened to the Jews. And there were quite a lot of good-minded Germans who pursued projects, who invited former members of their community who were Jewish, back to their towns. And out of this movement grew the idea that there needed to be a national monument. So it was a complicated conglomeration of interests that led to the establishment of this monument. I don’t know that there was one government who said, “You have to do this,” but it was an understanding in Germany that this was important to have a national symbol of recognition of German guilt for what had happened.
Dickerson: Clint, what does this monument—this symbol of recognition that she’s describing—actually look like?
Smith: So, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a 200,000-square-foot memorial at the heart of downtown Berlin. And when I say at the heart of downtown Berlin, I really mean it. It’s almost as if a massive memorial to slavery was placed in front of the White House. That’s sort of the first thing you notice. And it’s made up of more than 2,000 stone columns that are of different heights. And as you walk through the stone columns, it’s almost maze-like. And the ground beneath the columns rises and falls like waves, and so at different points within the space, you know, you have different amounts of light. So sometimes as your body moves down, it’ll get darker and darker.
And I think it’s a place that is meant to be haunting and overwhelming. But what’s also true is that it is a place that has become such an enmeshed part of the landscape. People are driving to work, people are walking their dogs, people are running. There are people who have obviously come there to engage with the space. And so I would see people who were crying and holding hands, sort of gently touching the stones as if it could sort of transport them back to this moment. There were also small children who were playing hide-and-seek—and so different people engage with the space in fundamentally different ways. And I think in some ways, that’s inevitable. But it’s also something that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
There are many people who’ve commented that the very name is too passive—the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. That it doesn’t talk about who did the murdering. There are those who say it’s too abstract. There are no names on the columns, but there are also those who believe that its size and its scale and its scope is unlike anything that any other country has ever done.
Smith: Do you remember when you first came here—when you first saw it and experienced it?
Berger: Yeah, when it was opened in 2005. I find it…very cold. And I’m not sure that I need this much concrete detail with all these stones to grasp the dimensions of this crime. But different people have different reactions. I think in the Jewish community, my reaction was fairly widespread. But on the other hand, I mean—I think there was a certain acceptance and degree of relief, almost, that there was a Holocaust monument that was finally erected in the heart of Berlin, very close to the German Parliament.
Smith: Oh, the German Parliament.
Berger: And that’s just on the other side, basically. And that was meaningful.
Smith: There’s nothing that Japan has built to account for Japanese imperialism of this scale. There’s nothing that the United States has built to account for a history of Indigenous genocide or chattel slavery. You know—this sort of thing at this size doesn’t exist anywhere [else]. And so different people fall on different ends of the spectrum about whether they think it is a space that is a net positive or not, whether it’s a place that does more good or more harm. And that was one of the things that I learned a lot from my conversation with Deidre Berger and others.
Berger: I’m not complaining, I think it is quite remarkable. Let’s keep in mind that in the center of a major city, a country acknowledges its guilt at genocide.
Dickerson: Berger talks about this desire already in the 1940s among some to move on and to forget. I’m interested in that impulse. I remember interviewing David Romo. He’s a historian of the U.S.-Mexico border and actually found that it was the U.S. Border Patrol that began using Zyklon B in its own gas chambers. That helped to inspire German scientists, who then brought them to Germany, turned up the potency of—of the solution and—and used it to kill Jewish people. He talked about amnesia and about forgetting as a response to shame—on both the sides of the perpetrators, but also the victims. It sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about just how dangerous that can be.
Smith: Yeah;, I think that we have seen the direct implications of that. I mean, here in the United States, there was a very intentional, proactive attempt to distort and push aside the story of chattel slavery and what the Civil War was fought over. The idea perpetuated by the widows and the sisters and the mothers—who lost their husbands, brothers, who lost their sons, their nephews—that grief animated a desire to tell a very different story of who these men were and what they had died for. Because they didn’t want to remember their loved ones as someone who died perpetuating evil. They wanted to remember them with love. They began to talk about how slavery wasn’t central to the Civil War. How even if slavery had been central to the Civil War, it wasn’t even that bad; it was a benign or even a civilizing institution. And even if someone wasn’t actively perpetuating and disseminating misrepresentations about the Civil War and slavery, what there was was silence about it. And it’s interesting, because in Germany, there was its own version of silence after the end of the war—and it took generations before these monuments would be built. And this silence was eradicated.
Dickerson: Clint, you saw a lot of memorials while you were in Germany. Which ones stuck out to you most?
Smith: I remember the first time I saw the Stolpersteine, which are the brass stones that are placed in front of the former residences, or places of worship or places of work, of people who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis.
It was started by a guy named Gunter Demnig in 1996, whose own father was a Nazi soldier. And in many ways, this art project that he began seems to be a part of his own contrition.
And so these brass stones, these 10-by-10-centimeter stones, are placed in front of these homes—and they have the birthday, the death date, the deportation date of the people who were taken from these homes. This is the largest decentralized memorial in the world. And you’ll be walking down the streets of Berlin, and there will be two stumbling stones. And then you walk a little further down, and in front of another home there will be four. And in front of another home there will be seven. In front of another home, there will be 12.
Smith: Where are you from originally in the States?
Jennifer Neal: Uh, short answer: We moved a lot.
Smith: Got it.
Neal: But I tell everybody I’m from Chicago, because that’s the last American city I lived in before I left.
Smith: I met up with Jennifer Neal, who is an author and a journalist who lives in Berlin, calls Chicago home, and is a Black woman who is thinking about how Germany memorializes its past and is comparing it to how the United States is remembering its own past. And one of the things we talked about was the Stolpersteine and how prevalent they are, and in so many ways how effective they are.
Neal: I love that memorial, because it doesn’t give anybody an excuse to forget. And if you are one of those people who lives in the building that was formerly occupied by that victim, you see that every single day. And I think it’s one of the most brilliant memorials anywhere.
Smith: Hmm. Do you think that we could do something like that in the States? You know, I can’t help but wonder what a version of that tied to slavery would look like.
Neal: I mean, I’d be extremely curious to see what that looked like. I think in general, the United States hasn’t done jack shit enough to atone for slavery. I mean, where to begin? I think that’s the real question. I would love to see something along the lines of the Stolpersteine done in the United States, but I wouldn’t want it to stop there. I would want to see memorials like that all over the South and the North as well, to commemorate how slaves escaped from the South and went and moved to the North. I would love to see memorials like that to commemorate the victims who were forcibly sterilized in the United States.
I would love to see memorials to the victims of white flight and the housing crisis in Chicago. I would love to see memorials to the Great Migration. I would love to see memorials of all sorts like that. Will that happen? That’s where the question mark is.
Smith: It’s almost like if we did it, it would be the entire street—you know, because it’s 250 years. I mean, in front of Monticello. Like, what would that do to somebody when they entered that place?
Neal: Well, yeah; that’s a really powerful idea, because I know that a lot of the plantations have been rebranded as, like, venues for weddings and parties. And there are still so many people who don’t seem to understand or know why the U.S. Civil War was fought to begin with. And these plantations don’t really seem to be advertising what happened there. I think it’s also part of the problem.
Smith: But not everybody’s a huge fan of the stumbling stones or how ubiquitous they are. And Deidre Berger has her own complicated feelings about them.
Berger: Why should we be stepping on the memories of the victims? If anyone it should be perpetrators, although I’m not one for revenge or vindication, I don’t think we should step on people, whatever kind of person they were. There should be plaques on the wall. Why aren’t they? Because most of the owners of buildings wouldn’t accept, even to this day, a plaque saying Here’s where a Jewish family lived. And that’s the truth. And that’s not what people talk about. There’s a lot of reverence sometimes for this project that I’ve encountered, and people who work on it—sort of “I’ve done my penance now.” There’s enormous projections with this project on dead Jews.
Would it work in the States? I just don’t know. I’m not sure that it would, because there’s not a feeling of penance in the same way—of responsibility, unfortunately. And the time span [since the Civil War] is much further. I mean why shouldn’t we? But it’s the reality.
Dickerson: So, Clint, you went to Germany to better understand how it remembers the Holocaust and to put these two very different sets of circumstances in conversation with one another. In the United States, because of the very specific way in which slaves had been extracted from their homes and then were further separated from family, people pretty much know, right—as much as you and I do—that we’re the descendants of enslaved people. And the story often ends there.
You don’t have people who can walk around and tell their relatives’ very specific story from the beginning. I wonder if that plays a role. And can you talk about some of the other differences between the ways that they remember this past?
Smith: Yeah. You know, the most obvious is that there are still people who are alive today who survived the Holocaust. Another big difference is that in Germany there just aren’t many Jewish people left. Less than 200,000 Jewish people in Germany—which is less than a quarter of a percent of the population. And that’s very different than in the United States, where there are 40 million Black people.
Dickerson: Right. And I wonder, you know, did you come away thinking that anything like what’s happened in Germany could happen in the United States? And what would that take?
Smith: I think in the United States, it’s a question of scale, right? I mean, there are people in different parts of the United States who are building memorials and museums that are meant to directly account for this history. You know, I think about the Witness Stone Project in Connecticut, that was started by a group of middle-school and high-school educators who, along with their students—having been inspired by the Stolpersteine in Germany—would put down similar stones in places where enslaved people lived. And they’ve been doing that project for several years. It is happening.
And I think what is true is what I think is true in Germany: that the most meaningful monuments don’t necessarily have to be state sanctioned. I think so often, the most important memorials and museums and monuments are the ones that are created in local communities. And it is ordinary people who will be the ones to help this country see its history with clear eyes and honesty, even when this country tries to look the other way.
Dickerson: I mean will you continue to invoke Germany in your talks, and will you continue to think of it as a type of model for remembering the past?
Smith: I will continue to invoke Germany, though with a level of nuance and an additional acknowledgment of its complexity than perhaps I did before. And my hope is to continue thinking about this question. I’ve kind of become obsessed with how people remember the past.
Dickerson: I even wonder if this nuance makes it feel more accessible to Americans. You know, it’s not the case that all of German society rallied around these memorials, that everybody agreed that it was the right way to go. There’s something that makes it feel more accessible as a source of inspiration, knowing that it was fraught work. It still is today. And yet, you know, it’s been done again and again.
Smith: Yeah, it makes it feel less distant; it makes it feel less unachievable. You know, we’re in a moment right now where reckoning looks different than it has at any other point in my lifetime. Which isn’t to say it has been linear or perfect, or without backlash. But even amid the backlash, I think [it] still reflects an opportunity and a moment that is ripe for these sorts of memorials and monuments to come about.
Dickerson: Thanks so much, Clint. I really appreciate this conversation.
Smith: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having it with me.
This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by A.C. Valdez and Theo Balcomb, with editing from Claudine Ebeid. Thanks to producer Ethan Brooks and our engineer, Rob Smierciak. I’m Caitlin Dickerson.