I spent a few days in Berlin last week.1 One of things you notice as a visitor to Berlin is the remembrance of the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi regime. There’s the Jewish Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Topographie Des Terrors, which is an excellent (and free) exhibition detailing how the Nazi terror machine worked.
At the massive train yard at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, they have a dedicated exhibition on how the German rail system was used to transport Jews to concentration camps, including a freight car used in the transports that you could walk into and try to imagine, in some small way, you and your children cheek to jowl with 80 other people, on the way to be murdered. A powerful experience.
Outside a train station, there was a sign listing concentration camps: “places of horror which we must never forget”.
Just as important, the language they used on the displays in these places was clear and direct, at least in the English translations. It was almost never mealy-mouthed language like “this person died at Treblinka”…like they’d succumbed to natural causes or something. Instead it was “this person was murdered at Treblinka”, which is much stronger and explicitly places blame on the Nazis for these deaths.
As the exhibition at the Topographie Des Terrors made clear, the German response to the Holocaust and Nazi regime wasn’t perfect, but in general, it’s very clear that a) this happened here, and b) it was terrible and must never happen again.
With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.
In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.
These things happened in our history in part because powerful people needed an enemy to rally everyone against. It’s an old but effective tactic: blacks, Indians, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Irish, Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese — they are here to take your jobs, steal your money, rape your women! It’s what slaveowners did to make their forced labor camps socially acceptable to polite Southern society, it’s what the Nazis did to make murdering Jews acceptable to the German people, it’s what the US government and settlers did to commit genocide against Native Americans, and it’s what Donald Trump is doing now. The monuments, exhibitions, and museums I saw in Berlin last week formed a powerful rejoinder to this type of fascism. I think the US really needs to grapple with its history in this regard…or it’ll just keep happening again.
Update: An earlier version of this post stated that one of the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting was a Holocaust survivor. She was not. (thx, vanessa)