With fall, our students will come back and with them conversations about the confederate flag.
Some topics? Why some of them want to show it on their trucks (rarely on a Prius) or hats. That the flag is a symbol of heritage (an odd claim in Upstate New York); “our” history, or their white, pride. Many claim they have black friends, but rarely do they ask themselves how these friends would feel about the flag. During these encounters my mind produces unbidden memories of other conversations.
“Not all Nazis were bad, some were fine people, very fine people.” As a chaplain in my native Germany I heard a lot of confessions. During these the elderly opened to me the deep recesses of their hearts. Some of the “very fine people” were the fathers, husbands, sisters, or brothers in arms of the nice church lady or gentleman who sat in the confessional with me.
Some of them had themselves served in the war under the swastika banner. It was emblazoned on their uniforms and to varying degrees on their hearts. And it haunted their souls. The same swastika that marked their patriotism covered the faces of the millions who were shot, gassed, raped, or dismembered in the Holocaust and the images of the emaciated bodies of those who survived and of the skin made into lampshades of those who didn’t.
But if not all Nazis were bad, then perhaps, neither were the sacrifices, suffering, and investment in a system that massacred in the name of love of country. Perhaps the uncles, aunts, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers who died or nearly died or who returned crippled in one way or another didn’t suffer for the defense of the indefensible. Perhaps, their acts of courage and ultimate commitment were indeed heroic and praiseworthy — never mind that their lives were enmeshed in nightmarish immorality.
I understand the claim that “not all Nazi’s were bad,” as a plight of mind confronting this moral abyss. Acknowledging that one cannot be both a Nazi and a good person implies that – at least at one point – one has lived a life of existential and complete moral failure. And that this failure invalidates claims to virtues like valor, love, or patriotism. Yes, some husbands or uncles fighting under the swastika did great soldierly feats in the battles of the Bulge or in Stalingrad. But their pains and deaths were for naught.
This realization however that “we sacrificed the best for the worst” short-circuits memory. Some Nazis must have been fine people because the alternative would be unbearable: Recognizing the total immorality of the fatherland in the service of which so many died. The denial of this total immorality however comes at a price. It requires denying the humanity of the Jews and of the many other victims of the Nazi terror. If not all Nazis were bad, then not all Jews were human.
And this brings me back to my American students. If it is possible to be a fine American and to memorialize the valor or sacrifice of the Confederate soldiers, then their battles were not enmeshed in nightmarish immorality. This denial of immorality requires however the denial of the humanity of those who were killed, maimed, dismembered, tortured, raped, and enslaved by the slaving state for which the Confederate soldiers fought – the African children, the men and women stolen from their homes and their children and children’s children on whose backs this nation enriched itself.
In the confessional I witnessed the moral plight of a generation that had participated in the Nazi horrors and of men and women who grappled with so much senseless death and a nation’s overwhelming moral failure. If you lost your son in one of Hitler’s battles defending the regime and country for which the Swastika stood, how do you mourn him and your own life?
For that generation of Germans, I can understand the motive to say that some Nazis were fine people. But I am perplexed when I talk with students. What could motivate a young American, say of Croatian heritage, or one from Central New York to celebrate a flag devised for a regime of utmost horror? It turns out the witness of many fine Americans could motivate them.
They may feel motivated by Southern Democrats who like Ben Jones in 2015 wrote that the Confederate Flag “is a symbol of family members who fought for what they thought was right in their time, and whose valor became legendary in military history.” So perhaps my students want to celebrate a history of valor of great-grand-parents handed down in their families?
Yet, my mother whose beloved older brother died wearing the Nazi uniform would never have thought of flying that flag in order to remember his military sacrifice. Too deep was her sense of the complete moral failure of her country. Miles fails to differentiate between biographical memory and public memorization. The losses and moral devastation of the second World War are part of my biographical memory.
The pain of my parent’s generation was handed down to me. It was present in many encounters I had in Germany,Israel, Poland, France or many other countries ravaged by my birth country. Public memorialization flattens the pain and makes into cartoons the moral complexities of those whose lives we put on pedestals.
If not by Jones then my students may feel motivated by comments published by Yale’s President Peter Salovey in 2016. One of Yale’s residential colleges was named after Calhoun, an ardent defender of white supremacy and intellectual enabler of the Confederacy. Yale was under pressure to rename the college but in 2016 its president wrote doing so “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”
Yet, we would bristle if German cities had retained their Adolf-Hitler Streets or Nazi monuments with the same argument. Yale did end up renaming the college later on. Yale’s failure was to overlook the distinction between public memorialization and historic preservation. We name important buildings after people whose life-work we honor. We can preserve our shameful history without honoring the perpetrators.
Thus, it seems that my students are indeed in the company of very fine people who think that the heritage of the Confederacy can be kept alive by somehow bleaching the pain out of it, by sanitizing it from the horrors of slavery and white supremacy.
Jones points out that symbols only have meaning within particular contexts. This echos the insight of Aleida Assmann, the scholar of cultural memory. Symbols have meaning in functional contexts, i.e., in the manners in which they are used in our public lives. German war memorials, for example, come to life every year at the day of national mourning, that now includes memorializations of the victims of the Holocaust. Others were removed, blown up, or were left to rot without any social function anymore.
Only symbols, however, that have fallen out of use and have withstood the decay of time can be appropriated for a new meaning. Thus the symbols of the Confederacy could adopt the sanitized meaning of “valor” or “historical object lesson” only if we assumed that they now existed in a context where their original function was gone: rallying the troops of odious White Supremacy. This assumption is clearly absurd.
Most monuments to the Confederacy were built in the 1900s, during times when White Supremacy was being solidified again. The rituals surrounding these monuments celebrated expressly the racist violence of the Confederate slaver regime. They marked a violence that was performed over and over again in lynchings and myriad other abuses. This violence included a legal system admired by the German Nazis and one that survived well after the German Nazi regime was defeated.
Embedded in all this is a crazed belief that the “superior race” is under mortal threat and requires defense. The same belief that motivated “white race” defenders everywhere from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who flew the Confederate Battle flag over the state capitol in 1963 to defend the state’s racist laws, to Dylann Roof the American terrorist who in 2015 killed nine African Americans in the sacred space of bible study.
The Confederate monuments and flags function in an active context with a deep history. We can only sanitize them if we engage in a particular form of forgetting and memory. Doing so requires having a very short memory (forgetting the use of Confederate symbols during the civil rights era and current White terrorism) and a very long memory (recalling one’s great-grand-ancestors in the battle trenches while forgetting what they fought for).
Most importantly, this sanitizing requires the complete obliteration of memory of those who were and are enslaved, killed, raped, lynched, burned, bombed, and maimed under the various regimes of White Supremacy.
Being able to forget their humanity reflects a particular privilege. It is the privilege of those who can afford to feel exempt from the bloody effects of slavery and White Supremacy, including the effects of their moral bankruptcy. It is the privilege of remaining unwilling to mourn: This is the unwillingness to mourn the constant stream of human lives lost; of dreams, cultures obliterated.
What would it be like to live in a country that mourned these lives? A country that paid tribute and retribution? In such a country the debate would not be about “preserving history” or “celebrating Confederate valor.” Rather, in such a country we would need to face the questions of how to mourn collectively our nation’s founding horrors of slavery and genocide. How to mourn collectively the ongoing horrors of White Supremacy.
Mourning these men and women and children, the fathers, sisters, mothers, uncles, brothers, aunts, grandparents, cousins will honor their humanity. In such a country, we would desire to honor them and we would desire to atone for their suffering. In such a country, we would long to create a more just social, political, and economic world where White Supremacy would not be perpetuated pervasively through the prison-industrial complex, policing, health care, and any other social system. In such a country, we would ardently want to develop the courage necessary to confront the profound moral corruption at the heart of our Union.
Clearly, we don’t live in such a country. The Union as a state that rejects White Supremacy; that accounts for its own moral failure in past and present; as a state that truly and equally honors all human lives such that Black lives do matter for it; this Union is out of reach. What we have looks more like the heritage some of us want to celebrate unashamedly.
Perhaps, then, my students are right. This is our heritage as those who can claim whiteness or are claimed by it. Ours is a country drenched in the blood of white supremacy. Until we mourn, repent, and atone in mind, heart, and deed we remain draped in the Stars and Bars.
Ludger Viefhues-Bailey is Professor of Philosophy, Gender, and Culture at LeMoyne College. His work integrates philosophical modes of analysis with those pertaining to gender and cultural studies. He is the author of Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Beyond the Philosopher’s Fear. A Cavellian Reading of Gender, Origin, and Religion in Modern Skepticism (Ashgate, 2007). Currently he is working on a book entitled No Separation. How Religion Makes the Secular Nation State.