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Vergangenheitsbewältigung in America

This year represents the 25th anniversary of one of the great enduring memes of modern American culture and politics. In his thundering speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, former Nixon hatchet man and Adolf Hitler admirer-turned GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan darkly warned of a “cultural war” already underway, one he deemed a “struggle for the soul of America.” After Buchanan concluded by proclaiming that “block by block … we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country,” the late humorist Molly Ivins joked:

Many people did not care for Buchanan’s speech. It probably sounded better in the original German.

And so it was that Buchanan’s kulturekampf spawned a generation of tongue-in-cheek declarations that various right-wing policies, programs and politicians—including Donald Trump—“sounded better in the original German.” (For examples of such assessments of Mein Drumpf, see here, here and here.) In some cases, the translation was literal. As Scott Horton documented in Harper’s in 2007, long before the Bush administration began using “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a euphemism for its regime of detainee torture, the Gestapo in 1937 introduced the original German verschärfte Vernehmung (which means “enhanced interrogation techniques”) into its lexicon of savagery.

But all snark aside, recent developments in the United States show the urgent need for an Americanized version of a German term central to the understanding of Deutschland and Europe since 1945. Vergangenheitsbewältigung (pronunciation here), variously defined as “coming to terms with” or “overcoming” or simply “confronting” the past, describes the ongoing, painful process by which Germans grapple with the inescapable, horrific crimes committed by Adolf Hitler and the nation’s Nazi Third Reich.

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But while the symbols, likenesses, and ideology of the perpetrators of the conquest of Europe and Holocaust are beyond the pale in Germany, in the United States a much different approach guides Americans’ attitudes toward our original sin—and world-historic crime—of slavery and the Civil War fought to eradicate it. Here, many whitewash the obvious cause of that war, traffic in antebellum nostalgia, and venerate statues erected to the traitors who in the service of perpetual human bondage killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. So, when the president of the United States calls for protecting “our great statues/heritage” and his chief of staff—a four-star American general at that—calls Robert E. Lee “honorable” and chalks up his blood-drenched treachery to a mere “lack of compromise,” something about America’s present is very, very wrong, indeed.

That point was driven home to me during and after my recent trip to Berlin.

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