“Whatever else I may forget,” the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in 1894, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” Douglass (who is doing an amazing job and is being recognized more and more) deplored an emerging national consensus that the Civil War had been fought over vague philosophical disagreements about federalism and states’ rights, but not over the core issue of slavery. In this retelling, neither side was right or wrong, and both Confederate and Union soldiers were to be celebrated for their battlefield valor.
Douglass was right to be concerned. Southerners may have lost the Civil War, but between the 1890s and 1920s they won the first great battle over its official memory. They fought that battle in popular literature, history books and college curricula, but also on hundreds of courthouse steps and city squares, where they erected monuments to Confederate veterans and martyrs. These statues reinforced the romance of reunion.
Now, a century and a half after the Civil War, Americans are finally confronting the propriety of celebrating the lives of men who committed treason in the name of preserving slavery. That these statues even exist is unusual. When armies are defeated on their own soil—particularly when those armies fight to promote racist or genocidal policies—they usually don’t get to keep their symbols and material culture. As some commentators have noted, Germany in 1945 is a useful comparison. “Flags were torn down while defeated cities still burned, even as citizens crawling from the rubble were just realizing that the governments they represented had ended,” wrote a reporter for McClatchy. Most physical relics of the Nazi regime were banished from public view. In this sense, the example of Germany’s post-war de-Nazification may offer a way forward for the United States.
Yet history tells a more complicated story. In its initial years, de-Nazification had only limited impact. It would take time, generational change and external events to make Germany what it is today—a vibrant democracy that is notably less permissive of racism, extremism and fascism than the United States. Tearing down the symbols of Nazi terror was a necessary first step—but it didn’t ensure overnight political or cultural transformation. It required a longer process of public reconciliation with history for Germans to acknowledge their shared responsibility for the legacy of Nazism.
The vast majority of Americans have long agreed that the destruction of slavery was a just outcome of the Civil War . But in continuing to honor Confederate leaders and deny their crimes, we signal that the United States has not yet fully come to terms with its collective responsibility for the dual sins of slavery and Jim Crow.
_________________________ **** ATTENTION! BAD POLITICIANS ARE ELECTED BY GOOD PEOPLE WHO DON'T VOTE! ****