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What the U.S. can learn from Germany about grappling with dark parts of its history

"Stolpersteine," or "stumbling stones," a decades-long project to remember Holocaust victims, are seen here in on the streets of Berlin.
Markus Schreiber
"Stolpersteine," or "stumbling stones," a decades-long project to remember Holocaust victims, are seen here in on the streets of Berlin.

Updated November 16, 2022 at 6:14 AM ET

Writer Clint Smith has spent a lot of time thinking about public memory in the U.S.

In recent years he's traveled to sites across the country — from memorials to cemeteries to prisons — to explore how they tell the story of their relationship to chattel slavery, an experience he details in his 2021 book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

And, in his conversations with people after the book was published, one place in particular kept coming up as an exemplar of being honest about its past harms: Germany.

So Smith set out to visit several sites that memorialize the Holocaust, to see what the U.S. might learn from Germany about grappling with its more shameful chapters. His travels inform "Monuments to the Unthinkable," this month's cover story in The Atlantic, for which he is a staff writer.

Smith was struck by both the big, intentional monuments and the smaller, everyday reminders of history, as he tells Morning Edition's Rachel Martin. He stood in the old gas chambers at the Dachau concentration camp, walked through Berlin's enormous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and examined countless inscriptions on small brass bricks installed on streets and sidewalks.

Those are "stolpersteine," or "stumbling stones," which were first created by artist Gunter Demnig — whose father was a German soldier in World War II — in the 1990s and now number roughly 90,000 across 30 European countries. They are placed in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims and bear their names, birthdays, deportation date and the date and location of their death.

"It kind of catches you off guard ... The gleam of the sun sort of shines off of it, and you go look, and you look at it and then you look up at the house that it's sitting in front of, and it's this profound sense of intimacy," Smith says. "There is a constant set of reminders throughout Germany of what was done there."

Importantly, Smith says, monuments and museums are not a panacea. The fact that Germany has them does not make it immune to those who would attempt to deny the past, he adds: The country is dealing with its own segment of right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi groups.

"And so it's not fully protected from that simply because it puts memorials down," he explains. "But I think there is still something to be said for how ubiquitous and and omnipresent they are in that space, and how, for so many millions of people, they wake up and are encountering, on large scales and on tiny, intimate, singular scales, reminders of what was done — and what was done not that long ago."

Clint Smith is a staff writer at <em>The Atlantic </em>and the author of <em>How the Word is Passed. </em>
Carletta Girma / The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of How the Word is Passed.

The differences between memorializing the Holocaust and U.S. slavery

Smith says memorializing slavery is a bit of a different story, in part because there are many more Black people in America than there are Jewish people in Germany today.

One Jewish woman in Berlin told him that Germany was able to make the Holocaust such a major part of public memory because Jewish people are more of a historical abstraction than an actual population.

Jewish people represent less than a quarter of a percent of the population — less than 200,000 people in a country of over 80 million, according to Smith. There are more Jewish people in the city of Boston than in all of Germany today, he says.

"Most Germans don't know Jewish people, don't have relationships with Jewish people," he adds, based on his conversations there.

In contrast, census data says Black Americans make up 13.6% of the population, and Smith describes them as a "massive social, political and cultural bloc." As he puts it, that makes memorializing chattel slavery or Jim Crow in the U.S. a more actionable, and more difficult, sort of undertaking.

"There are tens of millions of people here who are the descendants of those who this harm and violence over the course of generations was enacted on, who are experiencing the residue of that harm," he explains. "And so you can't simply build a monument and say sorry without also engaging in a real sort of intervention of resources and reparations, and something that is going to materially impact people's lives. And that is something people are much less willing to do."

White flowers sit on a concrete block at Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2021.
Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
White flowers sit on a concrete block at Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2021.

The power of constant and collective experiences

Smith also described some of the sites that moved him the most, including walking through the Berlin memorial, which he described as a haunting "ocean of memory" that will stay with him for a long time. Another was Dachau, the first concentration camp the Nazis built.

"I've been to many places that carry with them this sort of history of murder and slaughter and death. I've stood in execution chambers. I've stood on death row. I've stood in plantations. You know, I've [been in] these sites of intergenerational torture of and exploitation," he says. "But the feeling I had when I was standing in the gas chamber was sort of unlike anything that I've ever experienced in my life."

Smith thinks part of that feeling was due to the fact that he was sharing that space with some dozen other strangers who were all experiencing the same "startling, striking, unsettling thing happening within our bodies together."

A visitor walks through the entrance gate at the memorial site of the Dachau concentration camp. The inscription <em>Arbeit macht frei </em>means "Work Will Set You Free."
Christof Stache / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A visitor walks through the entrance gate at the memorial site of the Dachau concentration camp. The inscription Arbeit macht frei means "Work Will Set You Free."

Smith writes in his piece that "the first memorials to the Holocaust were the bodies in concentration camps." And he tells Morning Edition that Germans were slow to acknowledge and account for the tragedy in its immediate aftermath — it wasn't until decades later when their children and grandchildren started asking questions, studying this history and creating memorials.

One example of that is Demnig's stumbling stones. One woman in Berlin, upon learning that Smith is from New Orleans and a descendent of enslaved people, asked him if he could imagine what it would be like if there were stumbling stones in his hometown (which at one point was the largest slave market in the U.S.). The whole city would be covered in stones, she said.

"And it was such a striking moment for me because I was like, 'That's absolutely true,'" Smith says. "This is why, in part, the U.S. has been so unwilling to account for this part of its past in a way that is commensurate with the way that Germany has. Because it would be overwhelming for many people, you wouldn't be able to go anywhere without being reminded of what had happened there. And maybe that's what we need."

The importance of preserving history

Smith concludes in his piece that "it is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all."

And in the case of the Holocaust, there is a dwindling number of people who lived through it and can tell their stories firsthand.

After Smith returned from Germany, he spent time with a Holocaust survivor who lives about 10 minutes away from him, in Maryland. Their conversation reminded him that what people describe as history was really not that long ago.

We only have a few more years of Holocaust survivors being with us and able to share their memories, he says, and need to make sure we are collecting those stories and recognizing their value.

"Those stories give us a similar sense of intimacy to that history, give us a different sense of proximity to that history, in ways that we shouldn't take for granted," he adds.

This interview was conducted by Rachel Martin, produced by Kaity Kline and Claire Murashima, and edited by Simone Popperl.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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