By Robert Mann
Last summer, while in Germany for the first time in 30 years, I was surprised to see Berliners hadn’t demanded a new name for one of their city’s prominent thoroughfares — Karl-Marx-Allee. The grand boulevard flows east from Berlin’s center, guarded on both sides by massive Soviet-era housing complexes, now private apartments.
This magnificent street and scattered fragments of the Berlin Wall are among the few reminders of the city’s communist past. Once, East Berlin was the city’s Soviet sector, an open-air prison surrounded by the world’s most notorious wall. (I walked those grim, deserted avenues one afternoon in July 1986.) Today, you will find leafy streets and hip neighborhoods that feature charming restaurants and inviting cafes.
And, yet, like many cities in the American South, reminders of a violent, oppressive era remain in Germany’s public places. In some cases, such as the avenue named after communism’s intellectual father — known as Stalinallee between 1949 and 1961 — German citizens are sometimes hesitant to banish figures from their past.
In the German city of Trier, where Marx was born in 1818, residents are debating whether to accept a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of their most famous son, a gift from China. “Karl Marx is one of the most important citizens of this city, and we should not hide him,” the city’s mayor argues.
For now, I guess, images of Marx can stay. Not so for Stalin and Hitler, although Germans do not want the public to forget them. They work hard to ensure their fellow citizens not only remember the country’s Nazi history but also understand what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.
And it’s that German way of historical preservation and interpretation that might offer American Southerners a useful model for dealing with our racist past.
The emotional debates over removing Confederate statues and memorials are often presented as a binary choice between destroying or remembering history. I know I’m tempted to suggest we pull down these monuments, haul them into the Gulf of Mexico and drop them to the murky bottom. That would be a mistake, however, just as leaving them alone is an affront to anyone dedicated to equality and human rights.
What we need is a middle way that doesn’t require banishing them to some obscure corner of our cities but uses them, instead, to educate.
Opponents of removing these statues in New Orleans and other places argue that discarding them is wrong. “If Americans continue to back down to the relentless attempts to erase our history — essentially everything that falls outside of the constantly shifting and increasingly narrow band of ideas acceptable to the modern intellectual left — there will not be merely fewer statues of Robert E. Lee and old Confederates,” journalist Jarrett Stepman argued in Breitbart last year. “There will be little of this country’s history and ideas left to protect, reflect on, and uphold.”
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