Ta-Nehisi Coates has written eloquently and persuasively about why America’s slaves helped build this nation and have paid a tragic price for their forced efforts, yet they have received nothing in return for their sweat, blood and tears.
So what does this have to do with Germany and Austria?
Having pleasure of just visiting these countries and speaking to those enlightened individuals who live in the two nations that were the setting of the Nazi’s holocaust, I have had my eyes opened. To cut to the chase, more than 70 years after the conclusion of WWII, the German people are still embarrassed and mortified about their involvement (or lack thereof) in the actions of Hitler and his diabolical concentration camps. So much so that, not once — but during three different grade levels — schools are focused on the history of Nazism that they allowed to occur.
I was told by our guide that when she was studying in America, she was amazed how many American flags were flown. This was startling to her because in Germany the flag is not ubiquitously waving. Patriotism to them means accepting their role in an unprecedented ethnic “cleansing” and making quite sure that future generations know the truth: the guilt lies within.
Contrast that to Austria — its neighbor. We Americans see “The Sound of Music” and assume that Austrians were like Captain Von Trapp: disgusted with the Nazi invasion of Austria. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Austria, I was informed by numerous sources — the Holocaust is never taught in schools. In addition, Austria’s involvement with the Nazis and their blatant cooperation with Hitler is a mere footnote (if mentioned at all) in school. They want to have no ownership of what Austria did to all those murdered and persecuted in Austrian concentration camps like Mauthausen.
But the irony does not stop there. Due to the Marshall Plan and President Truman’s leadership, America and Allied forces spent millions reconstructing the bombed out cities and propping up German and Austrian economies. Who received the bulk of that money? Austria. Yes, the nation that denies involvement and claims they were victims of Hitler were one of the biggest receivers of US aid.
Another twist, Mauthausen concentration camp, which I visited, was considerably “sterilized” (save for pictures) by the Austrians, whereas the brutal truth of German camps like Dachau was evident to my eyes. Having seen both camps, the simple visual horror of both juxtaposed is visceral.
So what does this have to do with American slavery and the need for reparations?
I hate to state what I believe I have made obvious, but for the sake of clarity: we have for the most part acted as Austria. Jim Crow laws undermined for many blacks the purpose of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960’s. I could go on and on: Red Lining, separate and unequal schools, institutional corporate bias — these are the legacy of slavery. Ghettoes, as I taught for years, were born of slavery, and drug dealing became one major avenue to economically escape poverty; only to lead to the mass incarceration of black men and the destruction of black family life.
Isn’t it about time, 400 years to be exact, since 1619 that we, who have prospered, take responsibility for the prosperity we have built as the “richest nation on earth?” One can debate the specifics of how and to what degree, but the why is not up for debate.
Unless, of course, like Austria, we claim that we were victims of the slave trade.