Nearly thirty years after Germany rolled over Poland and conducted some of the worst damage of the Holocaust, the German chancellor, Willy Brandt, visited a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. Politicians, dignitaries and journalists stood by as he placed a wreath at the memorial and then, apparently spontaneously, he dropped to his knees.
It was 1970, and 41% of Germans polled were against what Brandt did. They found it humiliating, and many were outraged. Most of the rest of the world thought it was the right thing to do. When he was asked in interview why he did it, he said that just before he did it, he thought, "Just laying a wreath is not enough."
Of most German politicians who had lived through World War II, it could be said that Brandt had the least reason to apologize. He had fled Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution, was later stripped of his German citizenship, became a Norwegian citizen for a time, and worked against the war in various capacities. He was always opposed to Nazism and the war. And yet, or perhaps because of this, he felt the need to make a bodily apology, not for anything he had done, but for what his country had done.
There are thoughts on both sides of the question as to whether there is value in apologizing for oppressive actions committed by our ancestors. There is a meme going around that says, "White people, no one is asking you to apologize for your ancestors. We are asking you to dismantle the systems they built and you maintain and benefit from." To my thinking, apologizing does not preclude action; in fact, it is one step of an action. An apology signals that we are aware that things must change. It is a message of empathy. It can be a recognition that we are all connected, all in this together. It says, Because my people caused and continue to cause damage, often horrific damage, I have a great responsibility to do something to redress the system.
I don't know if Brandt's 1970 action was indirectly or even directly, responsible for changes in Germany's systemic racism that was at the root of the Holocaust, but later in the 70s German schools began teaching about the Holocaust. However, it wasn't until 1992 that education about the Holocaust became a federal law.
Some cultures honor the ancestors more than others do. In those cultures the connection with the ancestors creates strong, living ties. Perhaps if we felt our relatedness to the ones who went before us, the ones who committed both literal and cultural genocide, we wouldn't question whether we should apologize.
But action must follow apology; otherwise, an apology becomes an easy way out. As pervasive as racism is, it isn't easy to figure out what I can do to dismantle the system that benefits me and oppresses others. In fact, it feels overwhelming and almost hopeless. Then I think about how overwhelming it feels every day to those who live with a knee on their necks.
In my book club of two, we recently read The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. I'd known that the only way I, as an individual, can be part of dismantling the systems is to choose one area where work is being done and then join others who are doing it, but I didn't know where to start. Each of five chapters in The Sum of Us showed me clear, actionable and effective choices: labor movements, voting rights, abolishment of the Electoral College, neighborhood redlining, and ecological racism. I highly recommend this clear-headed, hopeful book. My essay, "The Obligation," published in Dove Tales by Writing for Peace, also shows paths to action.
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