Whether American can reap similar benefits from its Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung moment is a more complicated matter. Germany’s negative image owed largely to its increasingly distant Nazi past. America’s global standing plummeted over fresh misadventures like George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, pursued despite vigorous opposition from many countries and without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Back in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, America enjoyed enormous global approval as the victor in the Cold War, even with all those Confederate monuments still standing.
Nevertheless, the eyes of the world are inescapably on the fractious political and cultural battle raging within America on how to deal with stains of the past. When Richmond ordered the removal of Confederate statues on city land, it was a story in the New Delhi Times. When Trump tweeted that U.S. military bases named for Confederate leaders were “part of a Great American Heritage,” it was a story on France24. For Trump to get his way surely would cost the United States something in the court of world public opinion. If Germany can work off its soiled past, jurors might wonder, why can’t America? Is this yet another thing, like health care, a middling United States is no good at? Peoples living in autocratic societies like Russia and China, neither of which has shown much inclination to face the crimes of the Stalinist and Maoist eras, respectively, might think more highly of America for following the German path—the path of liberal, democratic societies, strong enough to look back at the past with an unblinking admission of the wrongs.
Perhaps the answer to whether Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung will be of lasting benefit to America—to its soul, to its police practices, and to its global standing—will come in the treatment of our founding fathers. The trio of Virginians—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—are under persistent attack as slave owners. Take down the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, Lucian K. Truscott IV, a sixth-generation direct descendant of Jefferson urged in a recent opinion piece in the Times, and replace this monument, he suggested, with one of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became a conductor along the Underground Railroad. To see Tubman “in place of a white man who enslaved hundreds of men and women is not erasing history,” Truscott said. “It’s telling the real history of America.”
Jefferson, as we have known for years, was not only a plantation slave owner but also the father of children by one of his slaves. Yet he remains, eternally, the leading author of the Declaration of Independence as well as the writer of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the precursor to the protections for religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Without those protections, a product of Enlightenment thinking, the young republic might have plunged into sectarian warfare. To honor Jefferson’s achievements is also to tell “the real history of America.” A reckoning that devolves into an orgy of guilt over our origins sounds like a good formula for an unmoored nation. It is one thing to reexamine the roots of the nation. It is another to sever them altogether.
Paul Starobin is the author most recently of A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age (PublicAffairs: 2020).