Pride or Prejudice? What the South can learn from Germany

July 14, 2015
The Confederate battle flag is permanently removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds during a ceremony in Columbia

The Confederate battle flag is permanently removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds during a ceremony in Columbia, South Carolina July, 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek

As a child raised in the South, my family and I occasionally spent the Fourth of July at Stone Mountain — a giant quartz rock in Northeast Atlanta carved with a three-acre mural of three Confederate heroes. At the time I never thought much about the absurdity of watching colored laser lights dance across carvings of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee while listening to the bluegrass classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” all to celebrate Independence Day.

In the 1980s it was unimaginable that there would be anything like the current backlash against the Confederate flag. If not quite ubiquitous, Confederate flags were a common enough sighting on porches, bumper stickers and even bikinis, and the Georgia state flag back then featured the Confederate battle flag. Growing up in Georgia, especially as a child of Indian immigrants, I learned that it’s possible to hold contradictory ideas in your head at once — that people can feel affection for a South that tried to break away from the country for which they feel fervently patriotic.

By contrast, Germany, where I now live, entertains no such subtlety. Immediately after World War Two the government confronted its crimes by banning the public the use and distribution of all Nazi symbols. Displaying a swastika and performing the Hitler salute became illegal and disappeared from public life. The Bavarian government, which owns the copyright to Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf until the end of this year, banned its publication. In the 1990s, when right-wing groups instead took up the Imperial War Flag as their banner, many German states swiftly stamped out its spread the way they knew best — with more regulations against its public display.

It’s impossible to compare the atrocities of the Holocaust and destruction left by World War Two with those of slavery and the American Civil War. Such horrors have no peers and leave their own particular stain.

But it has taken a century and a half for many in the Southern United States to finally acknowledge the influence that the Confederate flag has on its society. When South Carolina lowered the flag at its statehouse on Friday, Governor Nikki Haley tweeted “It’s a new day in South Carolina” and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ended its 15-year economic boycott of the state.

In Germany, meanwhile, the power of symbols has long since been recognized. Even privately displaying any sign of right-wing ideology such as a swastika makes people here social outcasts. It’s such a sensitive topic that a company would have public support if it fired an employee who keeps a Nazi flag in his home.

“Symbols do matter,” Adam Kerpel-Fronius, a Berlin-based historian at the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, told me over the phone. “They change how people relate to an ideology.” He points to Hungary, where no such bans on Nazi propaganda exist, as an example of what happens when there is no clear line between what is and is not acceptable. In Hungary the current right-wing government is resurrecting symbols of its Nazi-sympathizing past in the name of patriotism, and people openly display stickers showing a Hungarian map with borders that existed before the country lost most of its territory in 1920.

“What are these people trying to say?” said Kerpel-Fronius, who is originally from Hungary. “Does this mean they want Hungary to wage war on its neighbors?”

Even if they’re not advocating for war, the signal such stickers send is nonetheless pernicious. Nazis understood the power of symbols to stoke anti-Semitism, and the German rejection of those symbols was just as much a rejection of Nazi ideas. Germans believe that banning Nazi symbols will help prevent violent, racist dogma from taking hold again.

In their place, Germany built widespread memorials to the victims of its dark past. Every time I leave my apartment building I see two “Stolpersteine,” or small gold square plaques embedded in the sidewalk to commemorate Holocaust victims.

The discussion over flags and memorials, however, often obscures larger problems — and sweeps the issue of racism from public life. “Sure, they show that the government is on the side of victims and is putting the wrongdoers in the cupboard,” says Simone Rafael at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which supports projects to fight neo-Nazism. “But it doesn’t do anything to address fundamental racism.”

As evidence Rafael points to recent violence against refugees in some parts of Germany, and a study last year showing that while 2.4 percent of Germans believe in extreme right-wing ideology, about 18 percent are biased against Muslims.

While most Germans have no qualms about openly condemning public displays of bigotry, the private conversation about race tends to be more muddled. For example, the word “race” is taboo in the German language because of the way Nazi propaganda manipulated the term. Yet I recently met someone who referred instead to my “phenotype” and told me that I don’t look American.

And a few years ago, after a breakup, I was having dinner with a German friend and her boyfriend from a small German town. His well-intentioned advice to me: stick to dating other expats because I would have trouble finding a German man who would be comfortable bringing someone who looks like me home to his family.

These experiences show that banishing hateful symbols from public view helps to sustain sensitivity and awareness around the horrors they represent, but getting rid of a flag is hardly a cure-all.

Joe Wilkinson, a Republican Georgia state representative from a Northern Atlanta district, is under no illusion that removing Confederate flag displays would have prevented the South Carolina church shooting. Wilkinson, whose sons attended the same high school as my brother and I, calls himself an “unreconstructed rebel” and refers to the Civil War as the War Between the States. He told me that “I will never turn my back on the Confederacy.”

Still, in 2001 he voted to have the Confederate battle flag removed from Georgia’s state flag. Though the current Georgia state flag is a less obvious homage to the Confederacy, it’s not nearly as charged as the battle flag it replaced. “The fact of the matter is that the battle flag was hijacked and became a symbol of segregation,” said Wilkinson. “It’s now being used for the wrong reasons that I don’t agree with, then or now.”

As a child of immigrants with no family connection to Southern history, seeing the flag everywhere inured me to its impact. Even Governor Haley, another Indian-American woman, said that she only recently realized the pain that the flag caused so many people. For me, it wasn’t until I left Georgia after high school that it occurred to me how wrong it was to have a Confederate battle flag flying on top of the state capital.

 

 

21 comments

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African americans have divergent evolutionary histories, and were evolved for tribal life, not for the civilizations and capitalism of whites and Asians.

Posted by summerofgeorge | Report as abusive

Germans are more accepting of censorship than are Americans.

Posted by chaemeleo | Report as abusive

The previous comment proves your point, that prejudices run deeper than the symbols they manifest. It also betrays the sad fact that social legislation to right past wrongs has limited effectiveness.

Posted by jmasdenver | Report as abusive

As an American whose town has been overrun with MEXICANS who fly MEXICAN FLAGS as a way of saying “YANKEE, GO HOME!” and knowing that Mexicans have always been the enemy of the American people since they murdered American immigrants in Texas 1836, I try to see all sides. But one thing I do know: the Confederate Flag is American and the Mexican flag is not!

Posted by ciceroalamo | Report as abusive

Incorrect comparison. Confederate flags are all about the Great American Civil War, while Nazis svaskikas are about crimes against humanity. A Big difference.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

It is utterly absurd to compare the Confederate flag to the flag of Nazi Germany. The political philosophies they stand for are diametric opposites.

Posted by natewf | Report as abusive

The Nazi flag — eliminate those not of aryan race for a superior race
The Confederate flag — keep blacks enslaved as they are not equal to whites… they are inferior to the white race

Yep, I see no similarities there.

Posted by augustsun | Report as abusive

So, this East Indian freelance writer, Renuka Rayasam, pretends to tell US Southerners about Lincoln’s tax war, aka the War Between the States ??? … Three words for you, Renuka: Morrill Tariff Act.

Posted by Heimdallr | Report as abusive

So, this East Indian freelance writer, Renuka Rayasam, pretends to tell US Southerners about Lincoln’s tax war, aka the War Between the States ??? … Three words for you, Renuka: Morrill Tariff Act.

Posted by Heimdallr | Report as abusive

Conferate flag is unamerican. The confederacy was an enemy of the United States, and lost a war to the United States. There is no confederacy now. Burn that ugly racist flag.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The flag of losers for over 150 years.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The confederate flag was the flag of slavery and as such is anti liberty and anti freedom. It is essentially the flag of the kings of the southern US and stands for enslavement of all. Had slavery stood, you would have two paths in life determined by birth happenstance. You would be a king or you would be a slave. Most of us would be slaves, even more than we are now (note that we are slaves, but only because so many people are brainwashed to be followers and consumers. The north fought the war for freedom and liberty for all. It’s not unusual that there are some people who prefer servitude to a master rather than having to live with the consequences of their own decisions, and that, is who waves the confederate flag, the kings and the minions who prefer a master to freedom.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

Secession Statement of Mississippi. 1860. Yeah, they were really concerned about taxes. And stuff. You people down in dick-see need to learn google.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The Morrill Tariff Act saved America. The south was not in favor, because the southern politicians were ok with trying to be a raw materials resource colony like Peru or Haiti. In other words, the poverty-forever-plan (unless you owned slaves, which most southern politicians did). So the South was on a doomed path, and picked the wrong fight with a superpower.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

When Europeans sailed their tall ships to Africa in the 1500’s they left behind libraries, universities, cathedrals and science to find a bunch of people living in huts chucking spears at each other and offering captured war prisoners as slaves. Yet the media says we all came “out of Africa”. Pretty obvious we didn’t I don’t have a flat nose, big lips nor curly hair, nor brown eyes. You may be descended from them though.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome, you represent the conservative racist platform very well. Not only are you better than black people, but you don’t need science in your way either. Physical anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, forensic scientists suddenly become…. “media” to the trailer park fok snooze hoards.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Klan flag. Klan states.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

What shall we do about the Lincoln Memorial now?

The following is a sampling of Lincoln’s racist and white supremacist beliefs (“CW” stands for Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, followed by the volume and page numbers):

“Free them [black slaves] and make them politically and socially our equal? My own feelings will not admit of this . . . . We can not then make them equals.” (CW, 2, 256). “There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races.” (CW, 2, 405). “What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races.” (CW, 2, 521). “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races . . . . I, as well as Judge [Stephen] Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.” (CW, 2, 16).

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . . I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.” (CW, 3, 145-146). “I will to the very last stand by the law of this state [i.e., Illinois], which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.” (CW, 3, 146). “Senator Douglas remarked . . . that . . . this government was made for the white people and not for Negroes. Why, in point of fact, I think so too.” (CW, 2, 281).

And yet we hold up Lincoln as some paragon of virtue, even to this day. If someone brings up these quotes, you’re called a “Lincoln Hater”. Why? Because these people have been programmed to adore Lincoln from grade school, and they don’t like when they are presented with new information that forces them to consider possibly changing their minds. In a strange case of projection, they would rather accuse people who bring up Lincoln’s comments of being racists rather than to consider whether Lincoln himself was a racist. Lincoln’s legacy must be preserved at all costs, to them.

Posted by fazsha1 | Report as abusive

“The Bavarian government, which owns the copyright to Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf until the end of this year, banned its publication.” ??? It’s be easily available in Canada for many years. In all kinds of forms, translations and sequel works. Perhaps the copyright holder just didn’t allow distribution in Germany?

Posted by takeapill | Report as abusive

How about the south receiving the land and mineral rights bought by northerners at below fire sale price during reconstruction? Place the income in a trust or something to help everyone living in these states. Germany got its land and resources back already, why not the south?

Posted by Slammy | Report as abusive

“How about the south receiving the land and mineral rights bought by northerners at below fire sale price during reconstruction?”

How about we burn Atlanta again, and watch you people cry in your grits for ANOTHER 150 years. Quit starting wars with America, and we’ll quit winning them.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive