The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. put its Silent Sams on pedestals. Germany honored not the defeated but the victims.

Two starkly contrasting approaches to remembering troubled histories

"Silent Sam" was felled last month from its perch at the University of North Carolina. The university is now considering a new home for it. (Reuters) (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
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Protests returned over the weekend to the University of North Carolina campus, where last month demonstrators pulled down a generic statue of a Confederate soldier. This was the venerable “Silent Sam,” erected in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Now the administration is considering moving the toppled monument to the university’s Wilson Library, which houses one of the finest archival collections of Southern historical documents, many relating to African American history.

When I was a graduate student at UNC, I noted the dissonance between this monument — placed with “a clear purpose in erecting a statue to white supremacy when blacks [were] getting rights,” a UNC history professor noted — and the memorial to the enslaved people who helped build the university. “Silent Sam,” a material ode to the valor of the Southern man, literally stood on a pedestal above passersby in one of the most prominent campus spaces. The “Unsung Founders Memorial,” without any mention of slavery, is essentially a low black stone table held up by small statues of African Americans. It is mostly overlooked, except by students who routinely use it as a lunch table. It even has stone stools around it. The contrast could not be starker.

Now, as a historian of the Nazi era, I am drawn to an even starker contrast, this one between how post-World War II Germany and the post-Civil War United States acknowledge their roles in institutions built upon human suffering. Put simply, in coming to terms with its past, Germany eventually elected to memorialize its victims, while the United States, particularly the South, chose to commemorate not the victims but the institution itself and the society that created it. The one society focuses on the victims, the other the defeated. The United States could learn from Germany’s example.

This is, of course, not to say that Nazi Germany and the Confederacy were the same, but we can safely claim that both the Nazi regime and the institution of chattel slavery rested upon deep and pervasive human suffering and death. Now consider the similar historical phenomena: Both Germany in World War II and the Confederacy in the Civil War were essentially white supremacist states bent on enslaving millions of other people based on racist ideologies. Both were unconditionally and catastrophically defeated. After the wars, both viewed their militaries as apolitical and not motivated by racist ideologies. Indeed, many in both societies viewed their veterans as having fought to defend their country and its values valiantly, resulting in the myths of Germany's “Clean Wehrmacht” and the South's “Lost Cause.” Debates over these myths have often made the physical memorialization of the entities the focus of right-wing extremism. (In Germany, an exposition detailing the crimes of the German Army was bombed in 1999 by neo-Nazis.)

The similarities in historical experience notwithstanding, the countries have approached their troubled histories in fundamentally different ways. In Germany, memorials to war dead are inconspicuous, if they exist at all. In the town where I researched my first book, a sentence about German World War II military dead was simply added onto an existing monument from the First World War. Other memorials convey loss, sadness and grief, none better than the official German memorial in Berlin to the dead of WWII, an enlargement of Kathe Kollwitz’s simple sculpture “Mother With Her Dead Son.” The piece sits beneath an oculus that exposes the statue to rain and snow. It is located in a former military guard house. Even the inscription indicates the unease with which Germans treat the war, mourning not only the military dead but civilian casualties and victims of Nazi oppression, including Jews.

Conversely, if a stranger ignorant of our own past were to visit the South, he might be forgiven for thinking the Confederates won, given the number and style of the monuments. In North Carolina alone, 72 of the state’s 100 counties have at least one Confederate monument, most built long after the war. Indeed, before 1890 only 11 had been constructed, but between 1890 and 1930, 83 were erected, including “Silent Sam.” And, like “Silent Sam,” the majority were placed on public land. There are over 1,700 such monuments to the Confederacy in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Much has been written on the timing of these monuments as an attempt to condone and reaffirm white supremacy, particularly during Jim Crow and the civil rights era.

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Yet, while these monuments abound, there are relatively few memorials to the enslaved people victimized by the Confederacy and the ideals it stood for. This is particularly striking given that the descendants of these individuals are numerous in the United States (compared to, for example, the number of Jews remaining in Germany). The memorials that do exist can be more than a little unsatisfying. The 1929 memorial to enslaved people at Mount Vernon calls them “faithful colored servants,” and the supposedly better 1983 memorial is “in memory of the Afro Americans who served as slaves.” Neither is eye-catching nor emotive, to say the least. Never mind the monument of a black “mammy” that was approved by the Senate in 1923 and intended to be placed on the Mall in Washington. This monument was to look eerily like the stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” image still used today as a brand logo. (Fortunately, the House allowed the bill to die quietly in committee after decidedly unquiet protests from both African Americans and Union veterans organizations.)

The memorial landscape in Germany, on the other hand, unlike that in the United States, is dominated by the victims. Public Holocaust memorials as well as memorials to those who resisted the regime are numerous and take thoughtful, meaningful forms that emphasize loss and absence. Indeed, in 2007, a memorial was unveiled in Stuttgart remembering those who deserted from the German Army, including 20,000 who were executed as a result. One of the more striking memorials to victims of all kinds in Germany are the “Stolpersteine,” or “stumbling blocks,” by the artist Gunter Demnig. These are simple bronze-topped cubes set among the cobblestones on the streets, listing the names and fates of Nazi victims. The bronze markers are located in front of the places they lived. Can one imagine what U.S. streets would look like if a similar project was done here, in the North and the South, with stumbling blocks indicating slave-owning households, slave markets and slave jails?

Much ink has already been spilled over the future of Confederate monuments. But, as UNC debates whether to reinstall “Silent Sam,” perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the German experience. One of the clearest is that the memorial landscape in Germany fully recognizes the fact that the war was lost and that there is nothing glorious to commemorate, even while remembering those who died fighting for it. Certainly, this did not occur overnight, nor is the process complete, but it also did not take over 150 years. The second is that Germany chose to memorialize the victims of its oppression (Jewish and non-Jewish), and this choice was often driven by non-Jews out of a sense of collective responsibility. Americans could embrace remembrance of slavery with similar conviction. This process is beginning with remembrance of lynching victims and honoring the civil rights movement, but slavery should be highlighted as well. Finally, Germany has also addressed the argument of “erasing the past” that is thrown up so frequently by supporters of keeping monuments.

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So while there are no swastikas or statues of Hitler to be found in Germany, one can visit the ruins of the Nazi party grounds in Nuremberg, site of the massive spectacles of Nazi rallies. They remain not as celebrations but as ruined reminder. Likewise, the pedestals upon which Confederate statues stand should remain. But, as the movement to address the memory of both slavery and white supremacy moves onto college campuses, it is important to take physical steps to solidify this new moment in our history. This means both removing divisive monuments to white supremacy and adding new memorials to the victims of that cause. “Silent Sam” is not silent; as long as he stood, he broadcast a very clear message of what values the community and, in this case, the university supported. He need not be destroyed, but rather removed to a location where his voice can be countered by history. His empty pedestal can now send a different message. And we would do well to begin installing our own stumbling blocks so that we never forget why “Silent Sam” stood for so long.