Opinion: Why erasing California’s anti-Semitic, racist history from public display is the wrong move
I am a German-American and Southern California native. While other kids watched Saturday morning cartoons, my German-born mother sent me to German school, where I learned how to build extremely long sentences with verbs placed at the end. I grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales — not the watered-down Disney versions — but the crazy originals in which Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their heels to fit into the glass slipper. I liked being a German-American kid in Southern California, and I am now a professor of German history at Cal State Fullerton. But when I learned that a German American organization had recently erected a sign in a part of Crescenta Valley Park welcoming visitors to “Hindenburg Park” in gothic German script, I couldn’t help but cringe.
This new marker isn’t something that should be celebrated.
The portion of Crescenta Valley Park in question used to be privately owned by the German American League from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. The organization named its land for former German President Paul von Hindenburg after his death in 1934. In the mid-1950s, Los Angeles County purchased the land and incorporated it into Crescenta Valley Park. The name “Hindenburg Park” then existed only unofficially among locals old enough to remember. In 1992, after a grassroots effort by a German American organization known as the Tricentennial Foundation, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors rededicated that part of the park as “Hindenburg Park.” Small markers referencing Hindenburg Park existed, but nothing as prominent as the new sign erected last month.
The Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, which has protested the sign, correctly points out that the name Hindenburg evokes painful memories of the Nazis’ Third Reich. The Tricentennial Foundation claims that it is merely preserving the site’s historical name, and they downplay Hindenburg’s connections to Nazism.
This is selective memory at best.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was not himself a Nazi, but his ideas and actions contributed to Hitler’s rise. A World War I hero and staunch monarchist, Hindenburg helped lead a conservative nationalist movement that worked to destabilize Germany’s young Weimar democracy. He is known among German historians for propagating the powerful “stab in the back” myth — an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that blamed Jews and democracy advocates for Germany’s defeat in World War I. The Nazis then used this conspiracy theory for their extreme purposes. Most tragically, Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as German chancellor in January 1933, part of an effort that gambled unwisely that the Nazi party could be made to behave as respectable conservative nationalists.
So what should Los Angeles County and its Parks and Recreation Department do about Hindenburg Park? I agree that that the new and uncritical “Willkommen zum Hindenburg Park” sign should go. County officials should also abandon the official “Hindenburg Park” name. Yet we should not, as some have suggested, remove all public reference to the history of Hindenburg Park. As painful as these memories can be, erasing Southern California’s 1930s infatuation with Hindenburg misses an opportunity to learn from Southern California’s own dark past.
When members of Southern California’s German community chose to name a park for Hindenburg after his death in 1934, they had many famous Germans to choose from — Beethoven the composer; Goethe the poet; or even Remarque, the bestselling author of the pacifist novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Instead, they chose a militaristic authoritarian who aimed to restore “German greatness.” These were the same values held by the pro-Nazi Bund movement, America’s own anti-Semitic fascist movement that rose in the 1930s — including here in Southern California. It was no coincidence that the Bund held rallies at Hindenburg Park in the mid-1930s.
The decision to name the park after Hindenburg was as misguided back in the 1930s as it is today. Yes, it was a product of its time, but the 1930s were problematic times, when a tendency to be swept away by pageantry, rallies and calls to restore national greatness led ordinary people to ignore the dangers of racial bigotry.
German Americans were not the only ones swept away by these attitudes. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the early 1990s, I stumbled across a collection of old Cal yearbooks in the library and pulled the 1936 volume off the shelf. Its pages were full of swastikas celebrating the new and exciting movement in Nazi Germany, host of the Olympic games that year. Racial exclusion, moreover, was not the monopoly of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Californians too lived in a world of anti-Semitism, restrictive racial covenants and redlining. While Americans fought bravely to defeat Nazi Germany, we cannot forget that Southern California has a long history of racism whose legacies persist today.
Rather than erase references to Hindenburg Park, we should turn this portion of Crescenta Valley Park into an open-air historical exhibition. Here, visitors could learn about the dangerous history of nationalism and racism — a history that is not just about faraway countries, but a California story too. Instead of sweeping the Hindenburg name under the rug, visitors could learn the dangerous history of the man, how the park name came to be and why it was rightfully abandoned.
If park officials are not sure how to do this, they can turn to present-day Germany for examples.
In cities like Berlin, pedestrians regularly encounter engraved cobblestones in front of homes, listing the names of the Jewish Holocaust victims who used to live there. Children play in parks with signs letting them know that a Nazi prison once stood nearby. Using public sites to openly address its history of racism is something Germany today does well. L.A. County should do the same.
Being a German American means understanding the positive and negative legacies of both my German and American pasts. Germany’s willingness to discuss openly and learn from past mistakes, rather than simply burying them, is one quality that makes me proud to embrace a German identity today. Let’s bring that same spirit to Crescenta Valley Park.
Cora Granata is a history professor Cal State Fullerton.
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