It would be absurd for the grandkids of Nazis to drive cars with swastika bumper stickers. Yet something similar happens in the US all the time
In Germany, you won’t hear debates about Nazi statues. As the moral philosopher Susan Neiman, author of Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, notes, there’s a good reason for that: there aren’t any Nazi statues. The program of denazification began almost immediately after the second world war, established as one of “Four Ds” (along with demilitarization, decentralization and democratization) outlined in the Potsdam agreement of 1945. An Allied order in 1946 declared illegal “any monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia which tends to preserve and keep alive the German military tradition, to revive militarism or to commemorate the Nazi Party”.
Looking to Germany for lessons on how to respond to historical crimes is incredibly valuable. As Neiman and others have argued, the process of denazification didn’t happen overnight. Many Germans resisted re-education. A 1952 poll showed two in five West Germans freely admitting they believed their nation would be better without Jews. It wasn’t enough to merely denazify. Germany, and Germans, had to be confronted with their horrors. A culture of remembrance (Erinnerungskultur) emerged to implicate citizens in, and engage them with, their terrible history. German police cadets, for example, are required to visit former death camps, in order to understand first-hand the atrocities of Nazi policing. In 1992, the artist Gunter Demnig began installing raised stones called Stolpersteine (or “stumbling blocks”) at the shops or last known residences of Nazism’s victims.
Changing public conceptions of historical memory is hard work. But the case of postwar Germany shows that a serious national self-reckoning is not only doable, but worth it. Perhaps, in time, the very idea of a truck ripping around the American south, proudly brandishing a Confederate bumper sticker, will seem so ludicrous as to be laughable.