A few months ago, I watched an Internet video that explored the attitudes of Americans toward present-day Germany. Germany has a history of at least a thousand years, going back to the medieval Holy Roman Empire. However, movies and TV shows Americans are exposed to focus only on Nazi Germany. Indeed, the popular U.S. entertainment media focus even more narrowly on the years 1944-1945, when heroic American soldiers defeated German Nazis alternatively shown as evil, comic or stupid.
This particular video showed a modern young German woman visiting the U.S. and meeting a young man. The American man, whose education in German history is of the type described above, asked the German woman whether her grandfather had been a Nazi. The German woman put the young man in his place by asking whether his ancestors had been slave owners. And herein lies a tale.
Today in Germany, with the exception of neo-Nazis, nobody honors the Nazis. There are no Adolf Hitler Platz’s and no cities or buildings named for Hitler or other Nazi leaders. Herman Goering’s prediction to his jailers at Nuremberg that in 50 years there would be statues of Hitler throughout Germany did not come true.
Perhaps textbooks in modern Germany don’t explore the deeper roots of what made the Nazis and their crimes possible. That would require an understanding of the imperialism that gave birth to the Nazis and the capitalism that inevitably developed into imperialism. And since Germany remains a capitalist as well as an imperialist country—all of Germany has been ruled by capitalists since 1989—it is unlikely that German textbooks would explain the contradictions of capitalism that made Nazism possible in the first place. But at least the Nazis are pictured as the band of criminals they were.
But what about the U.S. slaveholders and their “slaveholders’ rebellion” of 1861-1865, as it was called by Karl Marx? That rebellion—which formed the Confederate States of America—is pretty much viewed around the world as at least the moral equivalent of the Third Reich. Not identical to the Third Reich but no less evil.
It is not only left-of-center progressives who see it that way. Today’s fascists also see it that way. At fascist meetings throughout the world, the swastika, or symbols that look like the swastika, are displayed side by side with the stripes and bars of the Confederacy, the flag of slavery.
Are the leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion in U.S. textbooks described as the band of criminals they were, like the Nazis are pictured in German textbooks? Not at all. The leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion are generally pictured as honorable leaders of a “lost cause”—and as great American patriots—though the emphasis has shifted over the years reflecting the flows and ebbs of the struggle for African American liberation.
For example, in the years immediately after the war ended, it was called the “war of the rebellion.” But soon after, it was renamed the Civil War, a polite and neutral term that makes no distinction between those who fought and in many cases died in the war against the slaveholders’ rebellion and those who fought on the side of the slave owners.