Arbeit Macht Frei (works sets you free). In the spring of 2001 I stood at the gates of Auschwitz and read those infamous words. No history book or Stephen Spielberg movie could prepare me for what I would experience as I walked through the most horrific of the Nazi concentration camps. To this day words fail me as I recall standing where the firing squad executed countless innocents, walked through the lab where scientists conducted experiments on pregnant women and fetuses, and ran my hand over the posts where prisoners were ruthlessly tied and beaten. Those were just a prelude for the horrors that awaited others at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Walking down the train tracks to the expansion facility I was dumbfounded by the enormity of it. It was designed to be 40 square kilometers and house 200,000 prisoners, that’s twice the size of the Dallas Cowboys AT&T stadium (including parking). Over a million people would die there before the end of the war, a fact you cannot ignore when you step into the rooms outside the gas chambers and see tens of thousands shoes, glasses, and shaved human hair collected by the Nazi’s from their victims and left piled to this day as reminders of what occurred there; a reminder to the world of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks trying to collect my thoughts and put into words what is happening in the United States right now. The aura of Auschwitz stood out to me as I tried to decide what to think about the confederate statues being systematically removed from across the US. Do I support the preservation of American history? Yes. Do I support the removal of icons tied to hatred and oppression? Yes. So what’s the difference between Auschwitz and a statue of Robert E. Lee? And why after understanding the purpose of the statues, which has more to do with repressing civil rights than remembering the civil war, do I feel conflicted about it? I believe it’s because we as Americans have never come to terms with our dark history of racism.
Think about it for a minute. We have a sick fascination with the civil war. We romanticize the rise and fall of the confederacy like it’s a tragic saga of divided families rivaling that of Romeo & Juliet. We commemorate the heroes and mourn the losses like the lives lost on the battlefield were the most tragic part of the war, even going so far as to re-enact battles like cosplayers reliving their favorite movie scenes. The story we tell in our history books and monuments tell the toll it took to unite a nation divided by “states rights”, with the occasional footnote about the underground railroad. It intentionally distracts us from the fact that the Civil War was the climax of 300 years of American slavery that displaced an estimated 12 million Africans.
After nearly exterminating the Native Americans, America from North to South was built on the backs of slaves. It’s the same story as every great nation that has risen throughout history. Babylon, Persia, Rome, Great Britain all built on the necks of people weaker than their military might. The difference is that the greatest nation on earth, the epitome of democracy, equality, and human rights, was the last industrialized nation in the world to abolish slavery. And we did it kicking and screaming. We were not ashamed of ourselves like the Germans after World War II. We made no apologies or reconciliation like South Africa after apartheid. This is the reason why there’s such a large group of the country that 150 years later can’t seem to get over it.
I actually said those words out loud to someone I was talking with last week as they defended the statues. “It’s part of our history” they said. “But they lost the war” I replied. “they need to move on”. Tearing down statues that represent a fallen leadership is standard operating procedure. Xerxes did it when he conquered Greece. Mehmed did it when he conquered Constantinople. Lenin did it with the Bulsheviks in 1917 then had his statues torn down in the 1990’s. No one comes in and says “these guys did a great job of losing, let’s remember them”.
But it’s more than just the fact that the south lost the war. Let’s not forget what the south stood for: rebellion, division, racism, and oppression. For some reason we remember the first part, but not the second. This is the root of the racial tensions echoing in the US 150 years later. The civil war should not be forgotten. The lives lost should not be lost to history. They deserve to be memorialized and remembered. But let’s not forget the lives that were lost outside the battlefield. The ones that even the abolitionist North wouldn’t let fight for their own freedom. If you want to compare Auschwitz to the Civil War, then compare that hallowed ground to Gettysburg or better yet a Southern plantation that has been converted into a museum showing the horrors of slavery. But statues of civil war generals? Ask yourself would we allow statues of Saddam Hussein or Adolph Hitler to stand tall for history’s sake, even as a reminder of what we should not do?
Reminders of our past are important to our future, but which reminders are important is
the real question. Admitting what these statues actually represent is taking a long hard look at ourselves and taking ownership of our past mistakes. We cannot heal the racism in the United States until we reconcile with the remains of the Civil War. This goes to all Americans, liberal and conservative. This is more than marches, petitions, or even righteous anger for your darker toned brothers and sisters. This is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Until then, we are putting dirty bandages on a wound that needs antibiotics.