Pride or Prejudice? What the South can learn from Germany
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.