“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”
Nancy Pelosi, this week
The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.
When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.
It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.
I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.
The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.
The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.
I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.
Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance. Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myself—wanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.
Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.
I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:
In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.
There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:
Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).
Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.
There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.
I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.
There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.
Like your experience at Dachau, I visited Manzanar, the WW2 Japanese internment camp site quite some time ago. There weren’t formal exhibits but there were a few buildings, gardens, etc. to walk around to. After just a bit of wandering, I found myself getting angrier, and angrier. It was almost as if the anger was emanating from the ground. I ended up almost running back to my car.
If I had been treated that way, I don’t think I would have survived as I would have fought back, like a caged animal.
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Thanks for a perceptive comment, Steve. I think the first step in expanding human compassion is a personal encounter with the terrible things that mankind has done.
Seems to me that one valid objective is to help out kids learn COMPASSION and EMPATHY, and one of the best sources to learn them is, of course, history. The culture war assumption that “shame” is what is learned from honest history is ridiculous.
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Ridiculous. Good word.