Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the Founder and Executive Director of Humanity in Action. “The Presence of the Past: Confronting the Nazi State and Jim Crow ” was written in 2011. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.
Well into the second decade of the 21st Century, both the United States and Germany struggle with the consequences of previous state sponsored racist beliefs and behaviors. Neither the end of the Nazi state in 1945 nor the elimination of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s and 1970s has fully eradicated the lethal circuits of discrimination and violence.
One out of five Germans holds anti-Semitic views, encouraged by extreme right wing organizations and internet sites. (1)
A report, issued in January 2012 by a panel of experts appointed by the Bundestag, states that one out of five Germans holds anti-Semitic views, encouraged by extreme right wing organizations and internet sites. (1) Mein Kampf is still barred from publication in Germany for fear that it will find popular support. Germans do not use the word “race” in any discourse and avoid the word “racism” in normal and even scholarly discussions despite the fact that Germany now experiences serious religious, cultural and ethnic tensions among its increasingly diverse population.
In the US, vitriolic partisan discussions are indisputably infused with racial tensions
In the US, vitriolic partisan discussions are indisputably infused with racial tensions through code words and viral animosity towards the first black President. Questioning the legality of the Obama Presidency can only be attributed to an irrational belief that a black man should not be President and does not deserve the respect and legitimacy of the office.
Indisputably a host of serious economic, cultural, religious and ethnic issues, especially those aimed at Hispanics and Muslims, continue to agitate large parts of the American public and impact elections. But there is little question that the hot wires of racism have intensified the movement of the Republican Party towards deeply conservative, angry and even radical positions vis-à-vis the centrist inclinations of the vast majority of Americans.
Examining and juxtaposing the racist policies of the segregated Jim Crow South and the Third Reich is one way to illuminate the current political landscapes that trouble both societies.
In both the United States and Germany these attitudes embody the residue of deep-rooted histories of racism and discrimination. Examining and juxtaposing the racist policies of the segregated Jim Crow South and the Third Reich is one way to illuminate the current political landscapes that trouble both societies. At first glance, comparing might seem excessive and distorted in regard both to the intentions of the oppressors and the suffering and losses of the victims. The differences between the two are sharp and stark. Over at least eight decades after the Civil War, the South oppressed its black population while Germany expelled and then annihilated its Jewish population as well as millions under Nazi occupation. Over the span of just one decade, anti-Semitism evolved from zealous denunciations, propaganda and prejudice to systematic mass murder through starvation, executions and extermination camps. The South, however, depended on generations of racist customs and learned behaviors—preceded by centuries of slavery—that were based in its legal systems and grounded in violence.
Germany was thoroughly defeated by military conquest and occupation. Jim Crow bowed to federal, state and local legislation, conforming to decisions of the Supreme Court, the federal judiciary and national legislation backed by military force of the federal government. The German Jewish population was eviscerated. The slow, tangled retreat from Jim Crow—both peaceful and violent—took place in America’s heterogeneous society through heroic civil resistance, political and legal confrontations.
Despite these profound differences, it is instructive to bring together—into one focus—two distinct but complementary racist systems that reigned on two Western continents for 14 tumultuous years. On one side of the Atlantic, segregation bound the black population in abject legal, economic, political, social and cultural subjugation; on the other side, anti-Jewish laws and policies provided a raison d’être of the resurgent German people and militant state. Sympathetic in belief and practice throughout the 1930s, the two systems demonized racial groups (Jews as well as Gypsies in Europe and Native Americans in the US), extolled the eugenics movement, lionized male superiority and military culture, sanctified the domestication and political passivity of white and Aryan women and employed terror and violence to crush resistance to the systems.
The triumphant international crusade for democracy and freedom stopped at Southern borders where Jim Crow continued to thrive.
The bonds of racist affinity broke when Germany declared war on America in December 1941, followed by the mobilization of American manpower, highly dependent upon Southern men, and the democratic crusade against the Fascists. Four years later, the Allies destroyed and demonized the German racial state and its hold over the countries it had conquered. But the triumphant international crusade for democracy and freedom stopped at Southern borders where Jim Crow continued to thrive. Nor did the crusade significantly diminish racial discrimination in the rest of the US. It took another two decades for the civil rights campaign to discredit nationwide prejudice and undermine and overpower the South’s racial system—a second emancipation based upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence and American Constitution.
The racist state came first in the American South. The victory of the Union forces in1865 led to the official federally inspired eradication of slavery. By the turn of the century, however, the oppression of blacks had mutated into legally mandated segregation of whites and blacks and the full development of the Jim Crow state. It enabled Southern whites simultaneously to subjugate blacks, recover from wartime defeat and Reconstruction, and reconcile with the North. Segregation, a continuing investment in the repression of blacks, was based upon exclusion, impotence and the devaluation of black life. The noxious system of Jim Crow was inextricably embedded in the recesses of political, legal, economic, social, religious and cultural life in the South, implicating everyone who lived in the region. Without the complicity of almost the entire white South—through every level of the society—the system could not have survived decade after decade.
While Jim Crow’s convoluted legal permutations were confined to the South, prejudice against blacks was endemic beyond its borders to the north and west.
No longer an expansionist force based on slavery, in the post-Civil War years the rest of the country and the federal government permitted the South to sustain itself as a regional racist atrocity. While Jim Crow’s convoluted legal permutations were confined to the South, prejudice against blacks was endemic beyond its borders to the north and west. Regions outside the South supported the new racial system though political compromise to stabilize the federal government and the two party system. Equally important were nationally shared habits of discrimination against blacks, pervasive prejudice, underpinnings of violence and willful ignorance about the punishing depths of Jim Crow.
Ironically, national acquiescence enabled Jim Crow to defy and betray America’s hallowed basic founding creed of equality and liberty for its citizens—a creed that justified American expansion and power century after century. Throughout the late nineteenth century and first three decades of the twentieth, the American South was the single most significant area in Western Europe and North America to challenge the international trend towards liberal societies based on Enlightenment ideals of equal rights and democratic practices irrespective of race or ethnicity. Despite the flow of liberalism, the South found significant support for its racist beliefs from influential social scientists, scientists and authors on both side of the Atlantic. They advocated the pseudo-scientific dogmas of the eugenics movement that promoted racial hierarchies, separation and purification.
Preying upon popular fears, politicians frequently thrust the ideas of racial categorization, especially with long-developed anti-Semitic strains, into political platforms and electoral campaigns. American ideologues of racial categorization achieved major victories in the 1920s, when they prevailed upon the Congress to reduce drastically the number of Slavic, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. (Chinese and Japanese immigrants had been barred from entry since the late nineteenth century.)
While prejudice and discrimination against many ethnic and religious groups was rampant in America and some European countries, only the American South and Germany—and ultimately countries under German occupation—constructed racial states that inflicted terror and deadly damage on their enemies.
No American legislative victories, however, compared to the stunning rise in 1933 of the fascist German state and racist leader, popularly elected and accepted by established German leaders. While prejudice and discrimination against many ethnic and religious groups was rampant in America and some European countries, only the American South and Germany—and ultimately countries under German occupation—constructed racial states that inflicted terror and deadly damage on their enemies.
Both racist systems depended upon the critical docility, acquiescence and political impotence of women: designated as saints of the home, domestic heroes to husbands, children, society and the state.
From the perspective of doctrinaire Southern racists, Hitler’s victories affirmed the validity and viability of a violence-based system of segregation and subordination. On his part, Hitler both taunted America’s so-called democracy and seized upon the American South as a positive reference for his racist regime. He was right. There were striking similarities between the two societies in the 1930s, especially in regard to the roles of men and women. Both idealized and enforced male dominance, military prowess and violence against their enemies: in the Third Reich, Aryan warriors as pagan gods and, in the South, white males as Confederate heroes as part of the “honor” culture. Both racist systems depended upon the critical docility, acquiescence and political impotence of women: designated as saints of the home, domestic heroes to husbands, children, society and the state. Germany and the South extolled the sexual purity of white—and in the German sphere—white Aryan women. Both targeted and exaggerated the threat of predatory men—blacks in the South and Jews in Germany—to justify intimidation and violence against the racial enemies.
Governments in the South and Germany depended on the service of women to the racial states. Their support fueled and reinforced fears and hatreds. Although allowed to vote, white women had no place in active political life and elective office. Nonetheless, they did not need political power to benefit in non-political ways from their idealized status in service to the racial state. (It is important to note, however, that many white women in the South led campaigns to oppose lynching.) Cate Haste’s description of the position of women in Nazi Germany is equally applicable to women in the South. Women gained from “the esteem they could expect in their prescribed role as wives and mothers—the bearers of children to build the future Reich, the carriers of Nazi German culture into the next generation, and the source of eternally patient suffering and enduring love.” (2) In the national theatre of Nazi propaganda, festive ceremonies were held to reward women for bearing children for the Third Reich.
In both societies physical intimidation, imprisonment and violent death were potent weapons to build and sustain the racial states. While women rarely engaged in physical brutality, they could hardly ignore the savage underpinning of the racial state that enabled them—no matter what their social and economic standing—to be superior to blacks in the South and Jews in Germany. A toxic mixture of dread and anxiety fueled the acclaimed divisions between superior and inferior groups in both societies. From generation to generation, based on intense memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southerners were terrified of black rebellion and revenge – revenge that they often feared would take the form of rape. They feared the loss of authority, privilege and cheap labor, particularly in parts of the lower South where blacks outnumbered whites. In Germany hatred and fear were founded on popular projections, writ into law after 1933, of a world wide Jewish conspiracy and pollution of the Aryan race. Jews were considered vermin, parasites on a society trying to perfect itself into a pure Aryan state with a superior type of human being.
In Germany, Jews were identified as dangerous, manipulative aliens, while blacks, regarded as inferior, were hardly a threat to the Third Reich.
Beyond the similarities, the dynamics of segregation and separation also reveal crucial differences in the political, military, economic and social histories of the two racial states. One was expansive, the other static. To the German fascist mind in the 1930s, racial threats justified war, the expropriation of Jewish wealth on a massive scale and genocide. For the Southern mind, the racial society reinforced containment and the post-Reconstruction status quo. Categorizing and separating races was essential in both societies but the demonized races were not identical. In Germany, Jews were identified as dangerous, manipulative aliens, while blacks, regarded as inferior, were hardly a threat to the Third Reich. In the South, Jews were included as part of the entitled white society. although they faced some discrimination and prejudice. In Germany, racist beliefs were personified and internalized through a charismatic leader, penetrating all aspects of private and public life. The South, with generations of inherited racial beliefs taught within the families and schools, had no such need of an iconic, quasi-religious figure or even a small coterie of leaders to sustain segregation. It was simply assumed to be a permanent part of the natural God-ordained order of things. Anti-Jewish laws were applicable in all parts of Germany; in America, the draconian Jim Crow system prevailed only in the South, while other parts of America resorted to less severe forms of discrimination.
In Germany, law upon law divided Jews from other Germans, stripping away citizenship, wealth, educational opportunities, professional positions and social associations. Proximity to Jews was abhorred. Jewish men were depicted as lecherous and infected. Marriage and all sexual and personal relationships between Aryans and Jews were strictly forbidden. German women under 35 years of age could not work in Jewish homes. Nazi ideology foreclosed all contact with Jews except to inflict harm and plunder Jewish wealth. National Socialism pursued the purification of the Aryan race by assaulting and annihilating its own German Jewish population and, later, Jews in occupied countries. Ultimately, the urge to expel and exterminate Jews was economically self-defeating for the Nazis, as they could not bring themselves to benefit, on a broad scale, from contact with Jews and the exploitation of Jewish labor.
The white South was heavily dependent on a large supply of black agricultural, industrial and domestic labor and, to a significant extent, on practices that were, in the words of historian Douglas Blackmon, only “slavery by another name.”
Cultural, political and economic needs, developed and reinforced over centuries in the South, dictated radically different forms of racial separation from those in Germany. The white South was heavily dependent on a large supply of black agricultural, industrial and domestic labor and, to a significant extent, on practices that were, in the words of historian Douglas Blackmon, only “slavery by another name.” There was nothing to steal from blacks except their labor and the largely theoretical possibility they might develop equity and assets of their own. Opportunities to own property, establish businesses, participate in government and enjoy upward mobility were for whites only. They were the sole owners and exploiters of the vast, rich resources of the American continent and its growing population. The system of exploitation was most potent in the South, but de facto economic and social discrimination practiced throughout the country severely restricted black social mobility.
The intricate web of exclusion and segregation, enforced by punitive laws and social mores, penetrated all levels of Southern life: separate schools, separate facilities, separate claims of law. But the separation had a peculiar aspect: the need for black labor created a servant class of black men, women and children who formed an integral part of white households. Interaction was close. Intimacy was the result. Familiar affection between blacks and whites frequently developed. White women and children often developed deep emotional bonds and dependency on blacks but always within the context of white superiority and the inescapable mechanisms that imposed obedience and humiliation on blacks. While racist ideology, drawn from religious and scientific interpretations, presented blacks as genetically and Biblically inferior, they were not regarded as diseased. That particular form of Southern intimacy could not have borne that burden. There was, however, another form of intimacy that thrived: despite draconian anti-miscegenation laws, white men frequently had sexual relations with black women. The taboo, however, was rigidly, even murderously, enforced between white women and black men.
When Germany declared war on America in December 1941, Hitler unwittingly set in motion the ultimate unraveling of the two racial states.
Whatever the nature of sympathetic similarities and differences, the unspoken alliance of state-supported despotic practices only lasted from 1933 to 1941. Brethren in racist beliefs, the South and Nazi Germany became self-defeating partners in racial crimes. Their fates intertwined first in the heyday of their punishing racist regimes and, finally, in their demise. When Germany declared war on America in December 1941, Hitler unwittingly set in motion the ultimate unraveling of the two racial states. The United States started a military and ideological battle to return democracy to Europe. The rhetoric and propaganda of sacred ideals infused America’s idealistic crusade in Europe—even in the South and even to the detriment of the Southern racial system.
With the outbreak of war, according to Douglas Blackmon, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt instinctively knew the second-class citizenship and violence imposed upon African-Americans would be exploited by the enemies of the United States.” (3) Taking the offensive, Roosevelt and his attorney general moved to eradicate neo-slavery, the most extreme practice of exploitation in the Southern system. Through United States attorneys, the federal government, for the first time since Reconstruction, attacked the peonage system. “It was a strange irony,” Blackmon wrote, “that after seventy-four years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.” (4)
While America was liberating Europe, the Federal government did not free its own black population from legal disenfranchisement and segregation.
“It was a strange irony,” Blackmon wrote, “that after seventy-four years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.” (4)
But there were severe limits to what the President and Federal government were willing or able to do in opposing Jim Crow. While slavery was out, the essential practices of Jim Crow lived on during the war despite the concerns of President Roosevelt and others in his administration. While America was liberating Europe, the Federal government did not free its own black population from legal disenfranchisement and segregation. Despite the anti-racist rhetoric of freedom and democracy, under intense pressure from the white South President Roosevelt agreed to abide by entrenched segregation in the South and throughout the military at home and abroad. The need for Southern white males in the military trumped America’s ideology of liberation in Europe. The power of Southern Democrats, essential to implement Roosevelt’s wartime plans, effectively blocked any legislative efforts in the Congress to weaken Jim Crow. Despite intense efforts, blacks were forced to fight in segregated military units. (Blacks were even ineligible to fly planes for the Army Air Corps. The policy changed in 1941 when black pilots formed a special squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen who later provided indispensable support for attacks on Italy and Germany.) As much as black leaders tried to link their cause with America’s democratic war against Germany, neither they nor black soldiers could gain equal treatment in return for loyalty, sacrifice and value to the country.
Even after the Allied victory in 1945—a victory strongly dependent on the ideology of liberation—the status quo in the racist South seemed relatively safe and intact. Southern blacks went back to living in the despotic world of Jim Crow as well as crippling discrimination and hostility in the North. The black population was still mainly based in the South, although vast numbers had moved to find jobs in the industrial North and Mid-West in the ‘30s and during the war. In fact, discrimination persisted and even intensified nationwide when black veterans were denied the generous federal benefits to education, housing and medical care that were bestowed upon white veterans.
The continuation of racial separation in the South was in sharp contrast to America’s response to the reconstruction of the German state.
In 1948, President Truman presented the country with the stark disparity between American ideals and the reality of race in America, especially in the South. In the country that became home to the United Nations, driven by America’s idealistic war and post-war aims, the President tried to act. He asked Congress to enact civil rights legislation to break the hold of Jim Crow: to end wanton killings by lynching; erase state laws and local practices that kept blacks from voting; and prevent discrimination and segregation in work and travel. No American President had ever taken such a bold initiative. “Not all groups are free to live and work,” Truman wrote, “where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship…. The Federal Government has a clear duty to see that the Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws are not denied or abridged anywhere in the Union.” (5) The Southern-dominated Congress blocked his proposals.
The continuation of racial separation in the South was in sharp contrast to America’s response to the reconstruction of the German state and the birth of international legal accords and institutions including the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Genocide. The triumphant Allied countries imposed democracy upon West Germany and forced it to assume severe measures of responsibility for mass atrocities throughout the lands the Nazis had occupied and, most particularly, for genocide against European Jewry. Starting with the Nuremberg Trials German perpetrators of genocide were brought to account for committing crimes against humanity.
In 1945 as the Allies deliberated over bringing Nazi leaders to trial an underlying connection between the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany emerged. The justification for prosecuting German leaders was carefully and explicitly worked out. They were to be tried for committing atrocities against the Jews as part of the expansive European war. Robert Jackson, the chief American participant in the deliberation of the Allies, made clear that nations did not have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, especially in regard to minorities. The German war against the Jews, however, extended beyond its boarders. “The reason,” Jackson stated, “that this program of extermination of Jews and destruction of the rights of minorities becomes an international concern is this: it was part of a plan for making an illegal war.”
“We think it is justifiable that we interfere or attempt to bring retribution to individuals or to states only because the concentration camps and the deportations were in pursuance of a common plan or enterprise of making an unjust or illegal war in which we became involved.” (6)
Jackson protectively separated the Southern racial system from the Nazi state: “Ordinarily we do not consider that the acts of a government towards its own citizens warrant our interference. We have some regrettable circumstances at times in our own country in which minorities are unfairly treated. We think it is justifiable that we interfere or attempt to bring retribution to individuals or to states only because the concentration camps and the deportations were in pursuance of a common plan or enterprise of making an unjust or illegal war in which we became involved.” (6)
Over several decades, trials, restitution payments and reeducation policies were required of the West German government. Meeting the demands of the Western Allied countries, the new German government quickly and thoroughly denounced eugenics, racial theories, anti-Semitism and the cult of the leader. The international community in the West continued to watch Germany vigilantly, although America often wavered and surreptitiously allowed many Nazis to escape prosecution in an effort to fight the Cold War. The compensatory actions of the Federal Republic, notwithstanding, most Germans sought to pass over the Nazi period and thoroughly immerse themselves in rebuilding the country’s economic structure and democratic practices. It was only in the 1960s that younger generations in Germany boldly confronted their national history of genocide and prevailed over the silence of their parents.
It was only in the 1960s that younger generations in Germany boldly confronted their national history of genocide and prevailed over the silence of their parents.
The 1960s were the critical turning point for the South as well. A massive movement of unrelenting protest, led by black Americans, forced the federal government finally to employ its power to destroy Jim Crow. The pressure had been building irresistibly over two decades. “Thousands of African American men,” Blackmon wrote, “who returned as fighting men, unwilling to capitulate again to the docile state of helplessness that preceded the war, abandoned the South altogether or joined in the agitation that would become the civil rights movement.” (7) That movement required the unraveling of Jim Crow and the radical reworking of Southern society—the dismantling of the traditional racial culture of established relationships, official laws, prevailing habits and deep-seated attitudes of fear and hierarchy. The change had to take place in the epicenter of a mixed society but the pressures for change were overwhelming.
They came from within and without—from inside America’s closed world of Jim Crow and outside from the broad currents of international events. Despite the fact that discrimination against blacks was national in scope, it was Jim Crow—the racial system—that challenged the validity of American power and its democratic leadership. (Only, South Africa and Rhodesia served as kindred racial states in the 1950s and early 1960s.) Under scrutiny from the rest of the world in the contest for allies in the Cold War, America could no longer separate a race ridden-South from the rest of the country.
From the end of the war until the triumph of the Civil Rights movement, the white population had resisted the pressures to abandon its white privileges and superiority based on homegrown legality and violence. The first significant break came through President Truman’s leadership when he ordered an end to segregation in the army in 1947. Enforcement was painfully slow. Year after year, opponents of Jim Crow worked laboriously through the courts to force the federal judiciary to invalidate segregation in its most glaring forms. Brown v. Board of Education was the first great victory in 1954. But it was not until the 1960s that the full force of protests by courageous black individuals, such as Martin Luther King and John Lewis, groups and movements—state by state, city by city, school by school, street by street, and bridge by bridge—destroyed the official edifice of Jim Crow. Only then did America begin to realize the promise of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution passed in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Nazi racial state remains the subject of international scrutiny and condemnation.
The slow, tangled retreat from Jim Crow—both peaceful and violent—took place in America’s heterogeneous society through heroic civil resistance, political and legal confrontations. In Germany, in the absence of a Jewish population, the post-war country’s recovery from its racist past occurred within a homogenous population. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the defeat of National Socialism, West Germany, starting first with occupation, was condemned through scorn and heavy moral and financial debts. Post Jim Crow, the Southern political system was radically changed but powerful strains of racial discrimination persisted in the interstices of the South and country as a whole.
“Never again,” the slogan of moral and political redemption is not just for Germany, but also for Europe as a whole.
The Nazi racial state remains the subject of international scrutiny and condemnation. In Europe and the US, National Socialism continues to be the supreme example of the violation of human rights and the dangers of racism and xenophobia. In the Western world, Germany under Hitler still provides the extreme and most abhorrent example of criminality and racial destruction on a massive scale. The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” and the funeral site of Auschwitz-Birkenau are part of the cultural and historical canon of responsibility in the Western world. “Never again,” the slogan of moral and political redemption is not just for Germany, but also for Europe as a whole.
As the conclusion of his epic work on post-war Europe, Tony Judt affirmed: “The Holocaust today is much more than just another undeniable fact about a past that Europeans can no longer choose to ignore. As Europe prepares to leave World War Two behind—as the last memorials are inaugurated, the last surviving combatants and victims honored—the recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.” (8) It is a European obligation. Nonetheless, Germany’s war and ultimate defeat have placed the country in a category of its own.
No nations including America have forced the South (or the broader population) to repudiate thoroughly its racist past, reeducate its populations on racial issues and acknowledge in real or symbolic ways the financial and cultural impoverishment of blacks subjected to slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing discrimination and prejudice.
America, too, is in a category of its own, but one characterized by certain exceptions and evasions. No such burden for “restored humanity” is placed on America and particularly the American South. There is no question that significant and long-awaited progress has been made since the Civil Rights movement through the expansion of a black middle class, acceptance of blacks in the highest judicial, corporate and political ranks, culminating with the election of President Barak Obama. But no nations including America have forced the South (or the broader population) to repudiate thoroughly its racist past, reeducate its populations on racial issues and acknowledge in real or symbolic ways the financial and cultural impoverishment of blacks subjected to slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing discrimination and prejudice. However broadly read and honored, no works of literature such as Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, the biography W. E. B. Du Bois, by David Levering Lewis or historical studies such as Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch, have captured the imagination or hearts of a vast public to provide one means of reconciliation with the past.
The universal human rights discourse attempts to understand terms such as collaborators, bystanders, perpetrators, indifference, passivity, complicity, genocide, mass atrocities and persecution on racial, ethnic and religious grounds. But American slavery and segregation are frequently exempt from this discussion. The specific vocabulary is not usually applied and often rejected outright. What explains the vast difference in regard to terminology and accountability? One must ask whether there is a strain of American exceptionalism and superiority—based on pervasive myths of equality and opportunity—that discourages America from connecting its history of racism and repudiating that past with that of another racist state.
The question needs to be addressed as part of a renewed international dialogue to confront ongoing dangers of racial, ethnic and religious tensions animosities and the underground persistence of racist beliefs. Europe faces challenges through the unanticipated emergence of diverse populations and mutations of anti-Semitism, while America continues to face the insidious persistence of prejudice against its black and immigrant populations –especially immigrants of color. Once again, immigrants on both continents are being thrown into a corrosive no-man’s land of not belonging and subject to the vituperative language of extremist politicians and their supporters.
The histories of the German and Southern racial systems set side-by-side present warnings. They shared complementary beliefs and policies, although the German system lasted hardly a generation; the American survived through centuries of slavery and segregation through policies, behaviors and beliefs that deeply infused the culture of the region. One system ended relatively quickly in shattering defeat and the suicide of its leader; the other, despite military failure, years of occupation, and three egalitarian amendments to the Constitution, persisted for nearly a century after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and only gradually yielded to unrelenting insistence on civil rights for blacks and all Americans.
In 2011, one hundred and fifty years after secession and the start of the Civil War, many Southern states celebrated the date with balls and festivities.
The German government regards its years of outright racial wars with inexorable guilt, while the white South, with the sympathetic support of the Republican Party, often celebrates its Confederate and pre-civil rights past with heroic pride and nostalgia. In 2011, one hundred and fifty years after secession and the start of the Civil War, many Southern states celebrated the date with balls and festivities. In distinct contrast, it is unimaginable that any reputable German political or social leaders could honor and commemorate the passage of the Nuremberg Laws and the erection of a German racist state.
The consequences of accountability and reconciliation with a grievous past continue to influence contemporary events and attitudes in Germany and America. Whatever the differences and similarities, there should be no escape from the fact that these two racial states affected the 20th Century in disastrous ways. Confronting the histories and legacies of the racial abyss—legacies that underlie current discourse and behavior—remains imperative for both societies, especially for their younger generations, in the 21st Century as well.
• • •
Goldstein, Judith S. “The Presence of the Past: Confronting the Nazi State and Jim Crow.” In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 32-42. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.
- Haste, Cate, Nazi Women, p.9.
- Blackmon, Douglas, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War until World War II, p.377.
- Ibid, p.382.
- McCullough, David, Truman, p. 587.
- Huhle, Rainer, Ed. Human Rights and History: A Challenge for Education, (EVZ Foundation), pp. 56-57.
- Blackmon, p.381.
- Judt, Tony, Postwar, p.804.