Born as a white girl in the segregated South, I’ve spent most of my adulthood as a Jewish woman in Berlin. This double perspective has fueled my resolve to explore America’s fraught relationship with its history. It is easy to point to the differences between the Holocaust and the enslavement and abuse of millions of Africans. When examining possible responses to these crimes, however, striking similarities emerge. This became especially clear during the congressional debate on HR 40, federal legislation that would set up a commission to consider what reparations are owed to African Americans today.
The Holocaust did not always serve as the gold standard for crimes against human rights. Americans may imagine that Germans opened their eyes in shame and remorse as soon as the guns stopped firing after World War II, but little could be further from the truth. For more than a generation, most Germans considered themselves the war’s worst victims. In the 1950s, far more West Germans were opposed to paying reparations to Jewish victims than white Americans are opposed to reparations for black Americans today.
As German and Israeli governments began to negotiate over reparations, many Jews demonstrated against accepting them with arguments like those recently used by black opponents of reparations: No price should be put on our ancestors’ suffering. And even though the crimes committed in Germany had occurred just a decade earlier, considerable issues demanded moral and legal untangling before the two governments could agree on who was entitled to reparations, and what form they should take. Given the variety of reparations that were finally agreed upon, historians disagree about exact figures, but most estimate that as of 1990, when Germany reunified, West Germany had paid about 80 billion marks ($40 billion) in compensation to Jewish victims, while East Germany paid about 90 billion marks ($45 billion) in war reparations to the Soviet Union.
The questions of who is owed what now lie before us as we struggle to confront America’s original sin. The historic hearings in the House in June laid out powerful arguments in favor of reparations that should dispel the tired dismissal voiced by Sen. Mitch McConnell and his compatriots. As Katrina Browne, whose family traded in slaves, told Congress, “It is good for the soul of a person, a people and a nation to set things right.”
Chattel slavery was abolished 150 years ago, but it was replaced by forms of subjection that were often worse. Thanks to the work of recent historians, the 100-year hole in white America’s memory can now be filled with details about convict leasing, peonage and lynching, as well as subtler forms of state-imposed discrimination that prevented slave descendants from realizing the rights constitutional amendments had granted. If the worst abuses took place in the South, other historians have shown us how much of the nation’s overall wealth was built on the unpaid labor of men and women who were often tortured to work harder. Both the persistence and the profitability of institutions born from slavery make our moral debt clear.
Germany’s decision to pay reparations for the Holocaust was, according to then-president of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, a novel departure in political history. Goldmann, who was largely responsible for the success of the negotiations, wrote that “the German people, freely and of their own accord acknowledged their guilt for past events and assumed responsibility for them. This suddenly opened an entirely new dimension in politics.”
Since then, supporters of reparations have referred to the German case as precedent. Unsurprisingly, opponents of reparations have focused on the differences between this case and all others. Among the crucial differences between post-World War II Germany and post-Civil War America, one stands out. After losing the war, Germany was occupied by military forces. In East Germany, this meant Soviet troops simply commandeered goods and services as partial replacement for the swath of destruction German armies had wreaked on the Eastern Front. In West Germany, Allied pressure was indirect, but then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer would never have offered reparations had he not hoped to gain favor with U.S. authorities.
Or is the difference only a matter of timing? The South was occupied by outside troops too, and during the 12 years of occupation, 4 million former slaves saw enormous progress. In 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with 20 newly minted freedmen, most of them ministers, to ask what they wanted for their people. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 granting “not more than 40 acres of tillable ground” to each family. Soon the Freedmen’s Bureau controlled 1 million acres set aside for that purpose.
When federal troops were withdrawn from the South in the Compromise of 1877, Southerners reclaimed the rights and reparations granted under Reconstruction with violence and vengeance. William A. Percy, a Mississippi planter’s son, proudly described the process: “That work required vote-buying, the stuffing of ballot-boxes, chicanery, intimidation. Heart-breaking business and degrading, but in the end successful. At terrific cost white supremacy was established.” They even had the temerity to call that redemption.
Germany’s efforts to face up to its murderously racist history are now often seen as exemplary, but they didn’t happen as a matter of course. Time, effort and nearly endless debate were needed before Germans were willing to confront the crimes of their fathers. Nor do Germany’s reparations provide foolproof immunity against racism: There is no shortage of fools, and every effort must be ongoing. The attempt to engage with the parts of American history that we have for so long avoided in fear and shame has penetrated the halls of Congress. Even overdue good news is still good news. The House leadership promises a floor vote. The Republican Senate will have to be shamed into action.
We must urge Congress to pass HR 40 so that our engagement with the past will deepen, and bear fruit.
Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Germany. Her latest book, “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” will be published in August.