September 25, 2017 Tom Berlin

Thoughts from Berlin

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

I returned last week from Berlin, Germany, where history is everywhere. You don’t have to be a scholar to know that Germany has a bit of a history issue, having initiated two world wars and a horrifying genocide. Many countries with that kind of baggage might try to bury it deep and pray it would not be mentioned in polite company. Instead, Germans have surfaced their history in the hope of not repeating it.

I took a tour of the downtown area that started at the majestic Brandenburg Gate, then moved a short distance to the plainly titled “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Nazi genocide claimed an estimated 6,000,000 Jews, as well as gypsies, homosexuals and adults and children with disabilities across Europe and Russia. The Holocaust Memorial, which tells this story, covers about a city block. Large concrete blocks are set in rows. The sizes vary so that the further you go, the deeper you sink into the exhibit. These blocks feel like they are towering over you at the center, and lean at odd angles, making you wonder if you will be crushed if the wind blows too hard. You don’t see the memorial as much as you are swallowed by it. A museum underneath the exhibit gives an overview of the whole gruesome story and shares the words of the dead as well as survivors.

Our tour continued a few hundred meters from this exhibit in a gravel parking lot. There is nothing here but a few trees, some weeds and cars. An unadorned sign explains that underneath the gravel is Hitler’s bunker, where he and Eva Braun were married and sealed their vows with a suicide pact as Nazi Germany collapsed around them. The Russian army attempted to destroy the bombproof bunker. Unfortunately, they used bombs, which is when they discovered the meaning of the word “bombproof” and the phrase “German engineering.” Fearing that current and future Nazis would turn the bunker into a shrine, Germany covered it with dirt and gravel and today unceremoniously parks cars on it. It is the least conspicuous space of historical significance I have ever seen.

A few blocks further, our tour guide showed us remnants of the Berlin wall, the location of Checkpoint Charlie and buildings used by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to create fear in their citizens so they would stop attempting to escape to west Berlin. When a country uses the word “escape” in place of “emigrate,” you know you have problems. The next day I was able to see a rebuilt section of the Berlin wall, complete with guard tower and the displayed remains of the Church of Reconciliation, which was destroyed by the GDR because it was both in the path of the wall and was a place where people worshipped God. There is a large park and a museum there with exhibits about this divided chapter in the life of the country and its the totalitarian regime. Everywhere the displays are in multiple languages. Germans make every attempt to let the world know what happened here.

I was in Berlin for meetings. Walking to that location, a friend pointed out the brass markers placed in the sidewalk outside of homes where Jewish citizens were taken and placed in concentration camps. Their names and details of their deaths, including the names of concentration camps where they were incarcerated and finally murdered, are listed. These plaques are very personal. I could quickly imagine the violence and confusion of the Gestapo raiding these homes and tearing families apart. Once you see one of these markers, your eye is drawn to them everywhere you go. We saw them not just in Berlin, but in Wittenberg as well.

The choice to increase the volume and interpretation of historical markers provides Germans a great deal of moral clarity. Genocide is bad. Victims should be remembered. Leaders who used power this way are acknowledged, but never lionized. Totalitarian rule and all its trappings are recognized but not romanticized or fictionalized. These markers are not just about individuals, but the acts of the German nation. They contain a message for today’s citizens: we did these terrible things. Your parents and grandparents committed these injustices and atrocities. Don’t forget these shattered lives. Don’t ever do this again.

There is a lot of talk about history where I live these days. Some want to remove Confederate memorials while others fear the loss of history. I like history. I grew up in Virginia reading about the strategic acumen of people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A perspective was nurtured in books and art that showed these men to be strong, courageous, resourceful and smarter than those they fought. I’ve been to the burial sites of Lee and Jackson and understand how attached white people can be to such statues and memorials. I also know how sanitized the history of the Confederacy is at such locations. Regularly ignored is the actual writing of people like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, who clearly stated that they were going to war to preserve slavery; or the implications of the Supreme Court “Dred Scott Decision” that ruled black people (slave and free) had no citizenship rights of any kind. Instead, we often hear that the Civil War was fought over vaguely generalized issues like “state’s rights” or an “unfair tariff.” Never mind that the root of these disagreements was about who was profiting from the “right” to own a human being from Africa as chattel. Such issues, to my experience, are seldom found near the statues of the heroes of the south.

 I agree with those who want more history rather than less. Think of the improvement that more interpretation could provide. There is no need to vilify these men. Just say things plainly. Explain their context. Let their own words speak for them. Confederate leaders fought for the right to own enslaved humans. Many, perhaps most of the Confederate officers, came from families who at some point owned human beings from Africa. We can still say that General Lee was a military genius. Had he accepted the first commission offered to him by the nation that educated him at West Point and to whose loyalty he had pledged his life, the war would have probably lasted all of six months. When he rode to Richmond to join a rebellion waged for the right to perpetuate an economic system based on the injustice of slavery, where black humans lost everything so that white humans could gain tremendous wealth that would be passed down for generations to their offspring, our nation was torn apart. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people died due to the Civil War and more than 1,000,000 were wounded. Lee understood the impact of his decision and seemed to mourn it. So should we. Let us also recall how General Lee told his men to go home when the war was over. He told young men to get an education. He did not join guerilla movements or white supremacy groups. He had seen enough terror in war. That might be a good piece of history to recall to our children before they grow up and carry Confederate flags and torches down the lawn at the University of Virginia.

Rather than just add clarity to the monuments that exist, I suggest we add new ones. Let’s put brass markers in the sidewalks and parking lots where slaves were bought and sold, where women were raped by their masters and where their children were stripped from their arms to be sold again, or where black citizens were publicly lynched by crowds of whites for decades after the civil war ended. We could be as thorough with our history as the Germans are with theirs. Let’s put markers across the south, and in every state in the north where black people were denied citizenship rights; where slave ships were built and crewed; and where the financing was provided to purchase slaves. That way white people can mutually recall our ancestral complicity in this injustice and brutality rather than blaming some for a brutal and unjust economic system perpetuated for generations by most. It will be difficult, because the vast majority of these slaves, after working every day of their lives to care for and generate wealth for white people, were valued so little that they died without the dignity of anyone remembering their names, marking their graves or sharing their stories. Even if we put blank markers in the ground, it would require us to stop for a moment and remember the value of these souls. I need these stumbling stones to remind myself of my context, my advantage as a white man whose family has been in the United States for more than 200 years. I do not know if any of my ancestors owned other humans. I do know that the economic system that slavery perpetuated was broadly and directly of benefit to my people.

Have no fear that our founding fathers will diminish in their stature with this new desire for historical context, as some have suggested. On the grounds of Mt. Vernon, George Washington is honored. He was a great general and statesman. We all know that. But we should also know the story told in the garden at Mt. Vernon that honors the lives of more than 300 slaves who lived in shanties and worked Washington’s plantation to generate wealth for the approximately 10 white members of the family who lived in the big house. This history, these lives and this national story must be remembered. Only when we pass through this garden can we pause to consider that Washington at least had the civility to free his slaves upon Martha’s death. As a Christian, I would like to know how long our first President pondered that decision. Did his reading of the scripture inspire it? Was it a conviction of his faith that made him take this step? It makes me consider what social injustice properly brings me self-reproach today, and what I might do to correct it in my lifetime rather than on my deathbed.

I agree with those who say we should not remove Confederate history. If anything, we need more of it, accurately told, and a new level of moral clarity from it. As a person who is white, I need to be reminded of the ways the muscle of slavery in our past still animates our national body today. This past to present link is what I saw in Germany.

When a society has such transparency, people know who to honor. I recall walking through the city of Jerusalem, talking with the guide who was explaining the centuries of its checkered past. He paused next to a cemetery and said, “You know, Oskar Schindler is buried over there.” “From the movie Schindler’s List?”, I asked. I did not want to miss the opportunity to see the resting place of a man who risked his life and spent his fortune keeping his Jewish employees from the death camps of the holocaust. When we came to Schindler’s grave, we saw that pebbles had been carefully placed on it, just like at the end of the movie. The guide said so many people stop to do this, it has to be cleared weekly. It was decades since his death, but people were still stopping there to honor this German industrialist and Nazi Party member who had the moral clarity to buy Jewish lives from corrupt Nazi officials and arrange for their transit to safety. Schindler was far from perfect, but in the critical moment he did the right thing and saved generations of Jewish lineages that flourish today. We can handle the both/and of the whole truth. People don’t need perfect heroes. But we do need to see clearly heroes who do the right thing at the right time, when everything is at stake.

I recall walking through another cemetery with a guide a few years later. Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia includes the graves of many who fought for the Confederacy, including an unusual pyramid shrine to Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg. The guide pointed out the tombs and markers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and famous confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. I was astonished to find pebbles laid upon these markers, something that I could only interpret as a sign of respect and appreciation for their service to the cause of a rebellion whose primary aim was to uphold slavery and tear apart our nation. I do not think we need to bulldoze the cemetery. But I do think we need to ask what vision of history is motivating people to lay those stones on those markers.

There is a tragic downside to the lack of moral clarity when the past is displayed but poorly interpreted in our country. When people are given all the facts, they can honor what is good and right. When none are provided, people will end up offering oblation to a sanitized and romanticized version of their past. In this case, it is probably the fictional ideal of the Old South, where slaves were well treated and were considered members of the extended family by their white masters. If I were to suggest that Adolf Hitler was doing Jewish people a favor, you would call me an idiot or a fool. Please do not suggest the same when I say that something is deeply wrong with our understanding of our national history when white people lay pebbles or stand in appreciation and honor at the markers of Confederate leaders. The problem is not too many historical markers, but too little information attached to them. We are not telling the whole truth. We aren’t getting down to brass tacks or bare facts.

Flying home from Germany, I wondered how Germans got to the point of this much honesty and this much humility. This is important to me as a Christian and as a pastor, because these are key virtues found in Jesus’ teaching in the Bible. The groundwork of transformation is honesty and repentance. Jesus never gave anyone new birth who could not acknowledge the sins of their old life. Germany seems to have experienced everyone’s pain so deeply that it is compelled to share the whole story with every future generation in the hope that this history will never, ever, repeat itself again.

If it is more history that you want, let me say, I’m with you. What a difference it would make if that was really the longing of white people in the United States of America. The more the better. But we must tell the unabridged account. Let’s remind ourselves of the terror of history that people who looked just like me brought to the lives of people of color generations ago, and still do today, so that a real transformation might take place.

Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

Comments (6)

  1. Margaret Barto

    I just recently learned of the plaques in Berlin. I like the plaques with the names of slaves on them. I fear many people have lost sight of those horrors committed by our white forefathers. Something like that would keep alive what took place and perhaps bring a better understanding of what still needs to be done

  2. Sue Lewis

    Tom, I wish this had been available while I served on Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Monuments and Public Spaces last year. City Council chose to not take our recommendations; rather they voted finally to remove both the Lee and Jackson statues, destination unknown. Several of us on the Commission really wanted to provide real contextualization in the current parks with the statues intact, along with additional memorials. Thank you for providing another look at the issues around memorials.

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