Weeks before Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, the destruction of its regime’s symbols had already begun. In Nuremberg in late April 1945, the U.S. Army blew up a giant swastika looming over the Nazi rally grounds where Adolf Hitler had spoken to hundreds of thousands of chanting soldiers and party members.
This was just one of many steps in removing the symbols of Nazi rule. About a year later, Directive 30 not only stopped adding any new “monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia” commemorating the Nazi party, but required removing and destroying existing ones by the the start of 1947.
Now, in the wake of protests against police violence toward Black people in America, public opinion has shifted rapidly, with strong support for the protests and large majorities considering “racism and discrimination a ‘big problem.’” Along with that, confederate monuments are coming down, some by protestors and others by order of elected officials.
One claim by opponents of removing the statues is that it will erase history, yet what happened in Germany shows this is far from the truth.
Not only are there Holocaust monuments and memorials to Holocaust victims all through Germany, but the federal government requires that students learn about the Holocaust in schools.This education focuses not only what the Nazi-controlled government did, but also asks students to reflect on individuals’ choices. A textbook used with 16-year-olds asks them to consider what different people of the time knew and did and how they were affected by Nazi systems of power. Students read documents from the time and sometimes visit sites where Jews were murdered.
America’s experience with remembering and teaching about slavery has been quite different, and needs to be improved.
If we analogize the raising of monuments to what happened in Germany, the difference in timing is striking.
In our country, the Confederacy, created to preserve slavery and white supremacy, was defeated in 1865. Under slavery, enslaved people could be legally raped, injured or killed, and have their loved ones separated from them.
During Reconstruction, the South was under military occupation. Black people could vote and Black people were elected to public office. There were schools, newspapers and organizations for and often run by Black people and a set of policies empowering Black people. Federal legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1875, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, guaranteed equal treatment of all citizens.
But in 1877 the military occupation ended (after the “ corrupt bargain” that made Rutherford B. Hayes the president) and in 1883 the Supreme Court ruled federal civil rights laws unconstitutional. Southern states then removed voting rights from Black people and imposed Jim Crow.
It is after this shift in power, around 1900, 35 years after the South lost the Civil War, and also during the civil rights era of the twentieth century that nearly all confederate statues were put up.
If we imagine what happened in the U.S. also occured in Germany, pro-Nazi statues and symbols would have first gone up again 35 years after the end of World War II, in 1980. Since the second wave of confederate statues went up around around 1955, 90 years after the end of the Civil War, in the German analogy those Nazi symbols haven’t been erected yet. They’d go up 15 years from now, in 2035.
That certainly wouldn’t look like just an expression of historical memory, particularly if simultaneously, as happened in the South when confederate statues were going up, one group ruled over others and those in power resisted efforts to secure equal rights.
For the United States, thoughtfully taking down statues is not enough. In addition to honoring abolitionists and civil rights activists in our public squares, we need to talk honestly about our brutal history of slavery and the continuation of systemic racism. As the Germans did, we should teach that history to students so they appreciate our history in all its complexity.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.