One day, I want to do an intensive research project comparing the Reconstruction era of the United States to the “denazification” era in Germany. Both fascinate me to no end. Both of these eras represent a willingness of a country to try to change their ways. But one worked, and one didn’t. Why?
I didn’t know about denazification until recently, although the idea of it makes complete sense to me. If a nation is trying to recover from having such a tyrannical dictator, it would make sense that they would try to erase all evidence of his existence and law. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to forget versus what it means to remember. Nietzsche says that it is good for “man” to be able to forget, or else they are doomed to constantly suffer. I guess for Germany, it was important to memorialize the horrors that the Jews, the Romani, and other persecuted groups went through during Hitler’s reign of terror. But for the sake of the whole nation, daily evidence that the country and its citizens would actually be in favor of the persecution of these minorities needed to be erased.
What did that look like? Street names were changed instantly if they were named after Nazi leaders. Buildings where Nazi activity would happen were shut down. Swastikas were removed from all locations. And it became a crime to deny that the Holocaust happened.
This reminds me of conversations my peers in higher education are having today about the costs and benefits of the politics of renaming. In places like Yale or Princeton, students are attempting to change the names of buildings because the people the buildings are named after were racist and imperialist. For some people, it makes no sense to them that every day they should enter a building named after Woodrow Wilson when they know that if they were living in the time period that Woodrow Wilson was president, he would have actively tried to strip them of their rights as Americans. The counter to that argument from other activists is that the act of changing the names erases the painful legacy that this nation has. I see that argument as looking towards a long-term effect. Yes, it might make the students who go to the university for now very happy that the buildings have changed, but then how would future generations have discussions about the painful and intricately tied issues of racism and labor in higher education? Is it worth attempting to forget and deny that someone like Woodrow Wilson made significant contributions to higher education because he is racist? And how does that shape how future generations even discuss his legacy?
In Germany, the first option was taken. But it was taken because the majority of the people decided that it was an option worth taking, to absolve themselves of guilt, to right wrongs they have done, to attempt to create a more equitable society. That’s what I would like to believe was the case.
In the U.S., it was a different story. 1865, slavery was abolished. Lincoln is instituting his Reconstruction plan, to allow former slaves to fully become integrated into this nation. Black people in the South are obtaining government positions, and it seems that there might actually be a beneficial change for Black people everywhere. Maybe they will finally be 5/5ths of a person. But Lincoln dies. His vice president Andrew Johnson comes into power. Johnson is an idiot, only chosen for the ticket because his “Southern White Democrat” identity would balance Lincoln’s Republican identity. But Johnson has a vendetta against the white planter class of the South, since he grew up poor and his parents had to work for the planter class. With Johnson in power, he hopes to gain revenge. But the planter class appeases him, allows him to feel as if he is joining their good ol’ boys club. As long as Johnson gives them what they want, the planter class will give Johnson what he wants. What does the planter class want? To maintain the “natural order” in the South, with Black people at the bottom.
It’s really sad, to put it simply. Johnson let the planter class control the South, and that eventually led to the end of Reconstruction and the beginnings of Jim Crow laws. Black people were not elected into positions of power in the South again until this current century. Black people faced violent terrorism by the hands of the KKK, and any attempts of Black people to create progress and political change for themselves in a segregated society eventually led to destruction and murder.
Is it that the U.S. did not want to forget? More specifically, is it that wealthy white people did not want to forget the power that they had held? Obviously, not everyone in this nation was in agreement that they should feel guilty about how they had treated Black people in this country. Not everyone was in agreement that the nation needed to forget what tragedies have occurred. At the same time, the wealthy planter class did not want to memorialize or constantly remember their actions either. They chose a third option: maintain a status quo. Don’t question it. Nothing will change, unless it is profitable to us.
Lerone Bennett Jr., in his book The Shaping of Black America claims that the Reconstruction era was one of the most, if not the most important era in U.S. history because it had the potential to completely reshape this nation. If the country was reconstructed, and the changes did occur, what would that mean for the future of this country? Would Native peoples be able to claim their land again? Would the borders of this nation be as big as they are? What would immigration policies look like? All of these ideas are simply conjectures for a future that will never be, but it allows me to look at bigger questions about who is and who isn’t allowed to forget and remember, and why that is the case.
Whenever it is 9/11, a lot of my peers post statuses saying “Never forget.” I was 6 when 9/11 happened, my younger sister was 1. When someone tells me to “never forget,” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be remembering. I guess I’m supposed to remember whatever I was told about the events that happened, through books, through mainstream news, all of those things. If I lived with a family who believed in conspiracy theories about 9/11, would that change what I am supposed to “never forget?” Nietzsche talks about memory in terms of its role in creating community values and forcibly proscribing ideas about the self in relation to others. I “need” to “remember” 9/11 in very specific ways in this nation because if I don’t, I will not be looked upon favorably. Nietzsche argues that an “active forgetfulness” allows one’s self to not constantly be linked to a state of historical trauma. If in Germany denazification had not happened, but the people would have to continue to live their lives, would Jews and Romani and other groups have to be constantly reminded of their oppressor and of their oppression. Would they have to constantly walk down the street and see the names of the Nazi officers who killed their families and neighborhoods? Germany decided that was not the route it was going to go.
But then, in the U.S., in fact, in many nations during the slave trade, Black people were brought over, and there was an attempt by slave masters to destroy the cultures that the slaves were bringing over from Africa. There is a legacy in this country of forgetfulness, that’s why sites like Ancestry.com and the like are so popular: it allows Black people to start to figure out where they are from, because there was so much of a forced forgetfulness that there is nothing to remember. At the same time, in the U.S., after centuries of slavery, Reconstruction proved to be a time in which wrongs would be righted, and the nation could choose to move past its sordid history and create a new order. But for the people in power, that was not profitable. Black people in power creating memorials to slavery and changing the landscape did not serve the planter class. So it was shut down.
I become very melancholic when thinking about Reconstruction. All I know of it is what I’ve read, I do not know what it was like for a Black male my age to be living in that time period in which there was hope that after all of the horrors of chattel slavery, he could one day be seen as equal. I think about how instead, the devastation of white supremacy forced him to constantly remember that he will never be equal. Because that was the point of inciting fear within Black people through the terrorism of groups such as the KKK. So that Black people will permanently remember their lower place. They better not forget, or else they’ll get killed. Is this the type of forgetfulness that Nietzsche was talking about? Or is that type of forgetfulness only reserved for humans that are allowed by the powers that be to have their humanity recognized?