History and Guilt

I just got done reading an article for one of my classes and found it incredibly thought provoking so I thought I would share it with you all.

Unfortunately I cannot link the article back to this blog post as it is something that was given to me through the university library. But I will include all the info here so if anyone wants to find it they can. I’ll try my best to find a working link but I want to get some of my thoughts down about the article.

Here is a working link to the article I mentioned. Please give it a read.

It is titled “History and Guilt” by Susan Neiman. The subheading reads: Can America face up to the terrible reality of slavery in the way that Germany has faced up to the Holocaust? That question alone really piqued my interest and the article had me captured from the first page. Susan Neiman is a philosopher who currently lives in Berlin. Here is a link to her website if anyone is interested.

Anyways, the article details not only Germany’s long struggle with how to face its Nazi past but also talks a great deal about Quentin Tarantino’s two films Inglorious Basterds (2009) and his newest film, Django Unchained (2012). Both of these films were incredibly controversial for different reasons but Django probably experienced more of it. This is partially due to Spike Lee’s refusal to view the film and his tweet: ‘American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.’ (Also HOW do people type and capitalize every single word! Huge pet peeve of mine.)

Tarantino agreed and said so at the Berlin premiere of the film. This might seem like an exaggeration but in reality is it? American slavery lasted much longer than the Holocaust and while it did not include the deliberate murder of over 5 million people it still left innumerable scars on our country’s history.

But rather than argue the differences between the Holocaust and slavery in America, Susan Neiman discusses the differences in reaction between the two nations.

In Germany there is a deep sense of shame. Older generations will not refer to their country as the “Fatherland” and it is only in the youngest of Germans that this sense of shame is beginning to fade. But they do not forget.

Neiman recounts how in 1999 Germany’s parliament voted to erect a Holocaust memorial. In stands in the middle of Berlin and reminds its people daily of the evils that man is capable of.

To contrast Neiman asks her readers to ‘imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall’.

Can you imagine? As children we all learned about Native Americans in school (at the time they were still called Indians in my school) but did we ever truly grasp the horrors that were committed against the various tribes that lived on American soil before it was even America? During the Trail of Tears movement in 1830 an estimated 4,000 Cherokee people died.

While many people will say that is nothing compared to the scale of the Holocaust just take a moment to evaluate that statement. To excuse the enslavement and genocide of two peoples by saying “well at least we weren’t as bad as the Germans” is just deplorable. Why does America have such a difficult time looking to the past while simultaneously encouraging other countries, like Germany, to do so?

If the Holocaust was taught to German school children the way that American children are taught about slavery and the Native Americans we would be appalled. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it? Then why does American continually ignore its own bloody history? Shouldn’t we look back so that we may also look forward?

Another point that Neiman brings up, one that I agree with, is that while some critics have strongly criticized the political correctness of a white director making such a provacative film about slavery it is important for Americans to confront this ancestral evil just as the Germans have. We don’t question the authenticity of a non-Jewish German’s memoirs about the Holocaust.

This is a sensitive issue for all parties involved and there is no easy answer. But I do know that the last thing to do is to run from these issues. Neiman brings up excellent points in her essay, which is beautifully written and formatted, and she challenges readers to become uncomfortable with their own history. I think that this is an important idea and one that we should be passing down to our children.

Unsurprisingly, these things did not come up in many critics reviews of Django. Instead most critics focused on the violence (which is uncomfortable but not unrealistic of the violence of slavery) and, as Neiman mentions, the repeated use of the word ‘nigger’ (again not unrealistically). But I think that these things are very important aspects of the film and without them it would not have made audiences uncomfortable. And instead of burying that feelings down under criticism of the film or the story people should look more deeply into why the film causes such an uncomfortable feeling.

I leave you with a quote from Tarantino about these ideas: ‘I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face. And it’s only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them.’