Vergangenheitsbewältigung

a good German word

Stelae, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany
Vergangenheitsbewältigung. There’s usually a good German word for everything, even if I can’t pronounce it. It means the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past”). The term describes “processes that, since the later 20th century, have become key in the study of post-1945 German literature, society, and culture.”

In other words, vergangenheitsbewältigung explains How Berlin Has Faced Its Nazi Past. And now, about 30 months after this article was written, vergangenheitsbewältigung has come to America. And it’s damn messy.

The United States should have decided, thoughtfully and systematically, how to dismantle the symbols of its racist past. But no. The years-long clamor to remove Confederate statues was met with the need to establish committees to discuss it. Post George Floyd, they’re coming down swiftly.

Other vestiges of our imperfect history are being torn down. Sometimes, it’s the government, but at least as often, it’s being done by protesters. Likewise, symbols that some have perceived as offensive have been pre-emptively been removed by companies, who suddenly recognize the “problem” with that logo.

What is the procedure?

Inevitably, there are people complaining, “We should have a system to address these things!” And naturally, they were correct. But right now, we have a tsunami of reformers, removing or changing items, some of which weren’t bugging you. Or me. (They’re reviewing the Cream of Wheat guy? I LOVE that dude. Not every logo with a black person is offensive.)

When you plug up the dam for so damn long, it’s going to be chaotic when it finally ruptures the wall. Or you can see this as a pendulum that had been frozen in place. It’ll have a lot of energy as it swings strongly in the other direction. Eventually, there will be more of an equilibrium. But while white America seems to have ended its centuries-long snooze, one is motivated to address as many issues as possible.

Of course, some of these changes are symbolic. But many have economic incentives. One I particularly love that involves both economic and criminal justice reform, made by the University of Florida. “Ending the use of unpaid inmate labor is a very important step in de-incentivizing our current incarceration system which has been set up to recreate the racist slave labor our country was built on.”

And maybe we ARE having our vergangenheitsbewältigung moment. The article ends: “To secure that future for all Americans, we must honestly confront our past.”

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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