In the decades that followed WWII and the fall of the Third Reich, anti-Fascism became an intrinsic part of German culture: A German family does not name their child Adolf, for example, and there are no jokes made about the Holocaust, Hitler, or the Third Reich made in public – there is nothing funny.
Action too was taken by the German government to ensure that reverence was not lost: Prominent cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and more built monuments and museums to learn, teach, and honor this history. Far-right and Nazi groups like the Volkssozialistische Bewegung Deutschlands/Partei der Arbeit, Action Front of National Socialists/National Activists, Free German Workers’ Party, and the Nationalist Front have been banned from the streets – no public platform for this sort of rhetoric or belief-system is provided, supported, or allowed.
In the year 2000, the German government created a ten-billion mark – what would come to approx. five-billion euro today – fund to provide compensation for the crimes of the Nazis. Almost half of this amount came from prominent German companies including AEG, Bayer, Deutsche Bank, Daimler-Benz, Siemens, Volkswagen.
In this, I was able to compartmentalize what happened in Germany and label it “wrong” and “terrible” and “evil.” As a result, too was it easy to call it “addressed” and “over” and “done with” as well, while history in the United States remained (and remains still) so very difficult: That the Ku Klux Klan exists, its racism and that of other groups still tolerated in public, and the statues of Confederate generals and slave owners still stand over the streets where the descendants of slaves and their children shop and walk to school. This was, or at least I believed it was, clear: The German government had done what the United States’ had been unable to do. Germany had atoned for its sins, and the United States had not.
It is easy, then to look at Germany’s example – of addressing history and attempting to make amends – as something of a guiding light and a model for the world: German society has addressed its past to become a culture very conscious of the dangers of Fascism and how quickly it can take over, and a country far ahead in terms of ensuring it would never happen again.
But of course – it is never so simple as that.
A Word, and a Name
In 2017, the name of a popular urban lake in Minneapolis, Lake Calhoun, was restored to its original Dakota name of Bde Maka Ska – Lake White Earth in English. The former had come from John C. Calhoun, a well-known known defender of slavery in the South – the same Calhoun whose statue was removed in Charleston, South Carolina after forceful protest.
The idea of naming such a significant civic landmark after him no longer felt appropriate: Not only due to the role of the man, as a Southern slaveowner, but because the man himself – with his personal views in advocating for slavery as a “moral good,” as opposed to a necessary evil (as had grown to be the predominant thought in the 1840’s), while a vaguely notable political figure in United States history, was found to have no other redeeming qualities deserving of such a pedestal.
Many figures who shaped our world are now understood to have been flawed as such – found to have done things we can no longer overlook, let alone celebrate. What changes then, as we learn the difference between positive and negative as a community and society, is that we at some point can begin looking back at the way people built this world – not just the way they lived within it – and what remains of, and thrives in, this world they created; the ramifications of their actions.
This is the necessary difference between learning history – i.e. knowing and understanding it – and placing it on a pedestal: Not all of history is deserving of a trophy, and certainly not one so prominent as the former Lake Calhoun: There are very few people in the city of Minneapolis who are unfamiliar with this lake; it is a centralized gathering spot, and it is rather hard not to be aware, pass by, or visit in some capacity.
But too is it important to note, or more important to note, this fact as well: It ultimately matters less who the lake was named for – that it might be named for, or by, anyone of European descent is disrespectful to the fact that the lake already had a name, and a people living on the land around it. A people who, despite the best efforts of men like John C. Calhoun (et al.) are still living here today.
My partner Ranelle and I took a walk around the lake not long after we met. It was hot in summer. The beauty of the shore, the still-blue surface reflected the sunlight and the glass of the city, small sailboats traveling across. The sand was warm and we took off our shoes and put our feet in the water.
“It is” – as my high school history teacher Mr. A- taught me – “enhanced by this respect for, and deeper understanding of, history and tradition.”
In 2018, however, the name-change was challenged in court, and the new signs were vandalized. This seems somewhat strange, in a state named Minnesota (Dakota Sioux word for “sky tinted water”) and the headwaters of the Mississippi River (French rendering of the Anishinaabe word for “great river”), and cities like Mahtomedi (White Bear Lake), Bejou (Ojibwe for bobcat or lynx), Bena (partridge), and countless others which have caused no concern. Somehow, however, the idea of restoring indigenous names, and adding/expanding acknowledgment of this history and a newfound respect for it, did not sit well with those who would understand the world only through a singular, personal lens – this was a change for them, a bridge too far.
This is due, perhaps, to some fervent adherence to identity-through-place: As people root their identities in the places they live, when those places grow, shift, change around them they feel they are being forced to change as well.
Or perhaps it is larger than that – perhaps it is instead a feeling of being erased; that if some do not fight what they know, and for who they believe they are, they will disappear entirely, no longer dominant, and thus no longer worthy – i.e. if your identity comes from place, or, if your place is your identity, your self-worth and your sole basis for individuality, then this might seem to be the end of everything – without acknowledging, of course, that this sort of erasure is exactly what happened to the Indigenous tribes of North America, to the many diverse and dynamic cultures of Black Americans stolen from Africa, etc. etc.
And what can you say to someone who identifies themselves only through one story – their story alone – and no one else’s? Who understands the world only through the physical ground on which they walk, and who appreciates only their own (whether physical or imaginary) borders and walls, without a willingness to understand what might have been there before, or what might come after? How might we understand someone whose world is made up solely by their obstinate notions of autonomy, and their subsequent rejection of heteronomy, empathy, and – as a result – community?
A Greater Change
Those more-tolerant members of this nationalistic group might at least acknowledge that this land was originally home to Indigenous tribes. But the rallying cry of such types is then based in time and era: “Why would we” – they ask – “be the ones to pay for the crimes of our ancestors? It isn’t our fault.”
And society has consistently failed to provide a satisfactory answer to this, beyond that of, “Because it is the right thing to do,” which of course is true, but does not speak to the tangible good and progress that must come of it – evidence that might convince those more skeptical of this sharing of identity: The benefit of representation, of acknowledging the past, and making amends, is more abstract perhaps – a change in the mindset of society, a collective acknowledgment, and, simply, that Indigenous children and their parents might finally see a piece of themselves in a city that for 150 years did what it could to subjugate, and then ignore them.
In recent years, as the long overdue discussion of Indigenous rights has finally found a national stage, the answer has turned into something closer to, “Well if not now, then when?” to recognize that nothing of the sort has happened before, and illustrate how much work still needs to be done. But even those who might agree – those “liberals” who understand the atrocities that were enacted upon the Indigenous populations of this country, and agree that something must be done to rectify these moral wrongdoings of the past, especially as they still resonate today – will very quickly retreat back to the Right when they learn what truly must be done for justice to be served: Ask someone who owns land in northern Minnesota to return it to the descendants of those uprooted (and often worse) less-than two centuries ago, and they will quickly recoil…
Too have we seen this in the waning support for Black Lives Matter among the white middle-class, especially those in suburban areas, after recent unrest: The predominantly white groups who support entirely the mission of BLM until the moment a protest escalates, or until there is talk of truly addressing the issue through the defunding of the police, funding of social programs, structural change, etc. When responsibility means posting memes or buying literature, it is all well and good; happy to have Others draw water as long as it doesn’t impact even a little their own ability to –
The liberals of the United States today are thus only willing to help on the surface – rename a lake, say, or verbally acknowledge that we are on tribal lands. This is an important gesture, certainly, but only scratches the surface of the problem, and only just begins to recover that which was taken. Ask someone to give up something of theirs, or change even slightly the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to, or commit a portion of their wealth to pay into social programs that might help achieve equity, and ultimately justice in society, and the divide between those upset at the Lake Calhoun name-change and those who supported it grows suddenly much smaller.
What is the alternative? Surely there must be something beyond the surface-level changing of lake names and bridges and the removal of offensive sports mascots (as has been a prominent and important point of discussion lately as well – the Washington “Redskins” and Chicago “Blackhawks” and Atlanta “Braves” with their cartoonish misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples); there must be a path to true justice that can be achieved in society without tearing it to the ground and starting anew –
Might we look again to Germany’s example – the reparations paid to those families and the descendants of those families who were taken forcefully from their homes and in almost-all cases murdered in concentrations camps, in the Ghettos, or openly on the street (the evil we have identified) – and ask if monetary retribution would solve the problem in this case? We know already that this did not solve the problem in Germany per se – as the country is dealing with its own return of Far Right values and stringent nationalism – but certainly those members of Indigenous tribes, the descendants of slaves, and all of the Other groups wronged throughout history by US policy and its predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon culture are owed something.
As we know too, in this country especially: money talks. To take a bit (or more) from those who have benefitted disproportionately from this sort of policy and culture and its continuing legacy certainly seems appropriate.
But, and I will end this section here, we know too that this is not something that can be sincerely addressed from the top-down, but rather it must come from the bottom up – it is something that the people on the street, those who actually experience/have experienced this life day-to-day, and have been forced to carry such injustice, and this long history of injustice, with them – only they might be able to say what a satisfactory response would be in this situation, and what tangible, permanent change might look like.
Learning From the Past
Growing up, my family spent many of our summers in Germany – in mostly in Stuttgart where my father was raised and where my grandparents still lived, but also in Hamburg, and Munich with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Our winters were spent in the United States, on Charles Avenue in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, where the houses are built side-by-side in different colors and styles. With crooked windows, peaked roofs and chimneys like ours. Behind each house was a garage. Behind each garage was an alley where we collected the things other people left behind. Children’s balls and bikes packed away for the winter. Steam rose from the sewers and carried with it the stories left behind on the block.
As a child, we often visited Cologne, Germany and its grand cathedral (the Kölner Dom) on our way north to Hamburg on the train from Stuttgart. This is the third-largest cathedral in the world, impressive where it sits in the center of the city just outside of the train station: Construction began on the church in 1248, but, after pausing incomplete for nearly three centuries in 1560, was not completed until 1880. The cityscape around it is made almost entirely of modernist buildings from the post-war reconstruction – a brutalist mid-century, cement aesthetic vastly different from the impressive significance of the cathedral; the cathedral had somehow survived through it all.
We visited once the summer I turned thirteen. A girl my age was standing alone on the opposite end of the grand sanctuary in the light of stained-glass windows. A thousand pews sat between us. She was looking up at the colored glass and not the panel of medieval paintings on the wall beside her. She turned to look at me and the cathedral’s secrets faded suddenly into dust around us – the entire history of being and loving and learning passed between us instead. And this, I knew, was the reason the world keeps turning. She was much more interesting than what was to be learned on plaques and yellow paper behind glass. And as I was standing, nervous, holding my breath near a large display of pre-Germanic texts, she came and stood beside me. She stood close enough for me to smell her perfume, I remember the lingering scent of flowers, orange blossom, lilacs on a warm summer day…
The way I remember it: The cathedral was dark, stained glass windows letting in rays of colored light, gothic art adorning walls showing thin cracks in plaster. And her. Though I didn’t say anything – I didn’t know what to say – my tongue too large for my mouth. And if only I could have summoned the courage to talk to her then, I might have turned out a different person today. Though, maybe, as memories are usually rose-tinted in ways that aren’t always accurate, she does not look as I remember her. I like to think that perhaps she was someone I know now – Ranelle, years before.
I know, and perhaps I knew it then as well, that this will always resonate more strongly than the past or the future and the responsibility we have to them both. I knew nothing about her – what she might enjoy for music, or from where she had come – the Kölner Dom is the most-visited tourist attraction in the country, after all. Or whether or not she liked the same foods as me. – could I love someone who didn’t appreciate the things my mother made for me in the kitchen?
And the answer, of course, was always yes.
But what it truly was: The endless possibility and boundless potential of what might/could happen between us. What might happen next if I reached out my hand. This brief connection, there-and-then-gone, was more important than anything else that happened to me that day, on that visit, or (as far as I can remember) that year. How thin art and history and science and everything else in the world might seem against the color and capacity of this brief connection with a person I had never met.
The End of Communication
Though inside will always be different than out – our perceptions will always be different than those of our friends and neighbors and the strangers that we pass on the street. Even when they are similar, even when we agree. Our greatest strength as people – our individuality; our creativity, and our ability to think critically – is perhaps also our greatest weakness as well, as we far-too-often embrace the inverse: We are constantly searching for the similar, the familiar – what we know is comfortingly so – and we always manage to be disappointed when we fail to find it. What we want will always weigh more than what we have, and what we believe to be true will always weigh more than what is.
These feelings are exacerbated in times of stress, war, downturn and depression. Times when we are insecure in our views, and search ever more desperately for validation from others; for some sign that we aren’t crazy or wrong or wasting our lives. And, in doing so, we cling to even the remotest agreements with our views. We look to strength and power for safety rather than finding it in the dynamic nature of the world around us.
A demagogue’s supporters then – like those of Donald Trump, for a relevant and pressing example – will huddle together, ignoring their transformations and ignoring every bit of evidence of terrible and very dangerous leadership simply because he has given them some reason, a pass to go the way they believe they should be going, to be what they thought they were, and to live a certain way in a world they had always believed was theirs and theirs alone. And because he, like so many other such leaders before him, has convinced them that he alone has the answers they seek.
Many people laughed at the Nazis (at first) – they dismissed the continuing acts of violence and extreme antisemitism and hyper-nationalism simply as the thoughts and actions of a few over-the-top extremists – the fanatics, and fringe members of a group that could never come to represent the country as a whole – believing that most of the country was still broadminded, and honorable at least, and that the Nazi phase, a product of cruel, unjust treatment by other countries, would soon end. And, in Roosevelt’s America, that this phase would end with the long-overdue repayment of Germany’s monetary debts to foreign governments.
But it is dangerous – and I understand this now to be the most-important piece of all – to ignore such sentiments, to disregard the persistent appeal of Fascism, and why, throughout the 20th Century (and, given the current state of things in the United States, I worry that it will not end there) Fascism has remained so very popular and powerful: Fascism, for all of its faults – e.g. the destruction of individual freedoms, rights, choices, etc. – touts a return to law-and-order, to traditional, safe and familiar things, as opposed to the radical “progress” and inevitable change that has already left so many behind.
Whether or not it is radical, or just simply the moral way to address the ills of society and inequality wrought by Capitalism and systemic racism, is beside the point. It is perceived to be by a large section of society, and so they retreat, time and again, to the perceived comforts of, or at least the familiarity of, Fascism. This is again happening today.
We know then that it is dangerous, whether the rhetoric seems completely fantastic or not (or especially when it does), to not take this threat seriously; to assume that people are inherently “good” and will work for “goodness” in any context. As we know from history: What would make them so? Humanity has failed itself time and again. We know it is dangerous to reject those outside of any established cultural majority (e.g. white Christians in the United States) and how dangerous it is to force Others to defend themselves simply for being what they are – how dangerous it is to place focus on differences and to try and regulate, control, and ultimately stamp them out. The refusal to appreciate differences is thus as dangerous as an unwillingness to understand them. And too how dangerous it is to focus solely on nationality and define the self wholly through borders and geography – and more importantly, through only one specific interpretation of these borders and geography.
And too must we remember the importance of making necessary changes, and having necessary dialogs among ourselves: It is hard to admit fault or wrongdoing and take responsibility for the past, hard to look at society and see the ugly things hidden away in closets; the cracks, cobwebs, skeletons and ghosts that haunt the streets like spirits. It will always be easier to blame others – always easier to run, to hide, to ignore, or to fight their very existence.
“But,” Mr. A- taught me in high school, “unless we understand our roles as members of society – and understand ourselves beyond the way we simply cast our ballots/vote, the way we discuss politics (or don’t) online or in-person, the charities and businesses we give our dollars to (or don’t), and whatever side of the ‘spectrum’ we might end up on – we won’t be able to take responsibility…
“We won’t understand humility, we won’t move forward, and we won’t change for the better. It will remain someone else’s fault and problem, and the problem at its core will continue to fester and rot. And history – or, more accurately, morality, and the moral compass of society that dictates our contract with each-other – will once again be written by the victor.”
What is clear is that, if we aren’t careful, true Fascism will grow and take hold in this country – not Nazi thugs on the streets in their brown shirts perhaps, but our own, Americanized version of it, bloated and overwrought, with stars and eagles instead of a swastika bound by a thick circle that would keep anyone who isn’t anglicized, God-fearing, white and heterosexual at the bottom of an ever-deepening barrel.
We are dangerously close to Fascism because the sinking American middle-class, those who might fight side-by-side with “minority” groups and those most at-risk in this country have been thoroughly convinced that we are all more different than we are similar – too many have been convinced to cling to their notions of the “American dream” and all the individuality and selfishness that it promotes, and to blame Others when they do not get it instead of condemning those in power.
The general populations of this country, those who work hard! and watch as things grow more dire around them, should never be defending those with the most wealth, power and control (as they only gain more of it). And yet – here we are: The rejection of socialist values (those of community, of working together to achieve justice for all and true equality for all as a result) so complete that even Donald Trump appears to them a better, or safer, alternative. But the exploited will never benefit from a relationship with their exploiters, just as sheep will never benefit from a relationship with the wolf. And should the wolf convince the sheep that this is untrue – as we have seen, and are seeing today – it is only a matter of time before the sheep ends up in the wolf’s belly.
I never learned her name, the girl from the cathedral, she disappeared a moment later into the light of the stained-glass windows by the Virgin Mary and twelve apostles praying on their knees; past the images of angels on high, watching without culpability all that goes on in the world today. I wouldn’t recognize her if I saw her again – maybe it was Ranelle after all, long before we were to meet and spend our lives together; someone I was destined to encounter in life, only much later. Someone I was fated to know, just at a different time.
I know this is isn’t true, but I like to think it all the same.
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