Many of those of us who are white citizens of US America have struggled with our involvement in and ongoing support for racism in our nation, especially a racism directed toward our Black sisters and brothers. We have engaged in protest rallies in support of Black Lives Matter. We have read any number of books and articles that have tried to place our systematic racism in larger contexts, historically, culturally, and socially. Those of us who are long-time members of the Christian church have discovered, or have been reminded of, our religious institution’s long-time boosterism for racism, even while we claimed that we were speaking against all of its manifestations. In short, we have been awakened to our deep enmeshment with systems that have made true equality in our land well nigh impossible. The brutal and public assaults by recognized law enforcement officers against Black (and Brown) citizens—the names have become familiar among us—have lead to the demand that we look squarely in our mirrors to ask ourselves just how we have contributed to this horrific carnage, and in what ways we might move toward reducing and finally eliminating our support of this 400-year scourge in US America. We have at least learned that addressing, let alone solving this dilemma is work that will take generations of concerted and faithful efforts on the part of millions. Those of us who are white bear a special responsibility for this work.
With regard to the ways we speak about our guilt or our culpability in the racism that I hope we now see much more clearly, I have been struck by the patterns of speech we white folk have used when confronted by the reality of our own racism. “I have black friends,” we say. “I would never demean any human being,” we add. “I just do not see color,” we whine. Each of these familiar sentences, among a host of others, merely reveals our white fragility, our unwillingness and inability to recognize the far deeper systematic structures that enshrined racism in our society and culture. In this brief essay, I want to explore a bit the relationship between guilt and culpability with regard to the intractable problem of racism in US America. I wish to address that issue using the rich analysis of this question offered by the German novelist, Thomas Mann, over 70 years ago, following the defeat of Nazi Germany by the allied forces in 1945.
Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, author of such novels as Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and Joseph and His Brothers, rich and complex portraits of German and European culture, both before and after the two great world wars, became an implacable opponent of Adolf Hitler, following the latter’s rise to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933. Mann’s angry rejections of nearly everything that Hitler espoused caused his German citizenship to be stripped away, and forced him into exile first into Switzerland, and finally into the US, where he became an American citizen in 1944. When Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker in 1945, and the war at last came to an end, Germany was forced to reckon with its involvement in the success of Hitler and his horrific policies, especially toward the Jews. The murder of the 6,000,000 Jews, if not many more, and the horrors of the extermination camps were a stain on all of humanity, but especially on Mann’s fellow Germans.
In an article, “Germany and the Germans,” Mann struggled with possible ways to express the pressing question of German guilt and culpability in the monstrous Nazi crimes. Against the loud voices of some at the time, including the British diplomat, Robert Vansittart, and the American secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Mann rejected the notion of indiscriminate punishment of the German people, saying, “there are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one, but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning. Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt, and ruin.” Because that is so, he continued, “it is quite impossible for one born there simply to renounce the wicked guilty Germany and to declare, ‘I am the good, the noble, the just Germany in the white robe; I leave it to you to exterminate the wicked one.’” All Germans bear a measure of guilt, because they are all heirs of a culture that gave birth to Hitler and all he represented.
Mann goes back to that enormously important German figure of Martin Luther to make the point. Luther’s achievements were without doubt monumental; he was, says Mann, “a gigantic incarnation of the German spirit.” He reconstituted the church in the Reformation, he “saved Christianity” from the depredations of a rotting Christendom, he created the German language, promoted freedom of research, of criticism, of philosophic speculation, advancing the cause of European democracy, even, Mann claims, “laying the foundations of modern psychology.” In all this and more, Luther represents the very best of Germany. However, it cannot be denied that within all of these vast achievements lay the seeds of their own undoing, the very starting point for all that is most wicked about Germany. In the end, Mann says, “Luther was a liberating hero, who finally knew nothing of liberty.” This can be readily seen in the monstrous way that Luther confronted the Great Peasant’s Revolt of 1524, when he announced to the German princes that they would surely enter heaven by butchering those rebellious commoners who dared threaten the established social order. In addition, Luther railed against the Jews of his day, repeating the long-maintained theological notion that the Jews were the killers of Christ and were thus damned forever.
For Mann, then, Nazism cannot be seen as a kind of historical accident; its fundamental traits may be traced back at least 500 years to the Protestant Reformation. The appalling invective of Hitler and Goebbels and Julius Streicher are rooted directly in the verbal and intellectual brutality of Luther’s reactions to the Peasant Revolt. By analogy, US American racism is not simply an aberration in our nation, not simply an outgrowth of southern slavery, something that ended with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. It has its foundations in the 400-year history of the demeaning actions against people of color that began at the same time that the nation was founded. Our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, among others, may be marked by soaring rhetoric about freedom and equality, but when black people were judged to be only 3/5 of a human and access to the freedoms that society claimed to offer to all were consistently denied to them, it is all too clear that our collective guilt as White US Americans is our inability to recognize and transcend the realities of our actions, while we trumpet the greatness of our promises, promises that have proven empty for too many of our fellow citizens.
When the monstrous concentration camps were revealed to the world, Mann knew well that only with the active support or at least the tacit assent of hundreds of thousands of Germans and their collaborators could these places of death have existed. He also knew that there were Germans who had shown courage to do what is right, often experiencing torture and death as a result. Those persons were not individually culpable for Nazi crimes. Yet, he makes the important point that it is quite possible to feel guilty even for something for which one bears no personal culpability. In other words, one may claim that if I had been alive in those days, I would have resisted. But of course one can hardly know that, and if truth be told the number of true resisters were few in the face of those who went along. In fact, only the accidental circumstances of historical time spared Mann and others from making the choice to resist or not. Mann himself candidly admits that his analysis of German history, its richness and its horrors, “hardly came out of an alien, cool, objective knowledge; it is all within me.” That is to say, Mann freely admits that he, too, is German, and is thus heir to the complex situations of Luther’s greatness and his evil actions.
And I think the same is true for us US Americans. We are heirs to the greatness of our past as well as to the weaknesses and monstrousness of that same past. US America has thrived and prospered partly as a result of its racism against millions of its citizens, many of whom still in 2021 suffer as a result of that convoluted past. We may not be directly and personally culpable for individual racist actions, but we are still guilty of aiding and abetting the ongoing racism by which some of us prosper while others suffer. Like Thomas Mann we need an honest confrontation with our national past if we are ever to move forward into a better future. To borrow a late and little lamented campaign slogan, if we are ever to make US America great again, we first must acknowledge that whatever greatness we have had has not been gained without the denial and silencing of too many of our fellow citizens. Let us continue to move toward that acknowledgment so that we may move forward together at last.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)