Recently, a visitor to a southern plantation wrote a viral tweet complaining about a guide who forced her to spend her vacation hearing about slavery. Some tourists at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Mount Vernon, The Washington Post reported last week, are posting negative reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere because of the barest mention of the African Americans who were forced to work at the third president’s home, creating much of the wealth that made the glories of Monticello possible.
As an American Jew from the South who has lived in Berlin for decades, I’ve been asked whether Americans, in contemplating a plantation home, Confederate statue, or some other monument to our nation’s slave past, should emulate the way Germans treat Nazi memorials. To which I respond: There aren’t any. Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces, however many grandfathers fought or fell for them. Instead, it has a dizzying number and variety of monuments to the victims of its murderous racism.
There are no Nazi sites in Germany in the sense that there are plantation sites in the United States. The only equivalent sites that now exist in Germany are concentration camps.*On the site of Buchenwald, where as many as a quarter of a million inmates were held, a museum dispels any notion that the citizens of the nearby cultural capital Weimar were unaware of what was happening in their midst during World War II. The idea that tourists would visit such a place seeking smiling women in dirndls—much as some visit American plantations looking for ladies in hoop skirts—is obscene. Not even members of Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party would suggest glorifying that part of the past.
The deliberate national penance that most Germans now take for granted offers a striking contrast with the ways Americans have confronted our own national crimes.