Germany is not your antiracist role model - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen aviva-berlin.de Juedisches Leben Mias column



AVIVA-BERLIN.de 3/22/5781 - Beitrag vom 14.08.2020


Germany is not your antiracist role model
Mia Szarvas

Too many in the American left look to Germany as a role model for reckoning with a violent history, saying that Germany has somehow "dealt" with its past. By making uneducated comparisons and false claims about the experience of persecuted minorities in Germany, those who could be our allies across the pond end up making the continuing fight for liberation more difficult by erasing our present realities.




Over the past few months, I´ve been watching anxiously as events unfold in my home, which I´m so far away from. As a movement sweeps the United States, I´ve often felt helpless watching events unfold from Germany. Black Lives Matter protesters are out on the streets, subjecting themselves to state sanctioned police violence, demanding that we do better, demanding that we do more, demanding that we as a nation, do what is right and live what is just, which for so long now, we have not. I have watched tearfully, hopefully, and desperately. Not knowing how I fit into this movement, how can I meaningfully participate from so far away? What does it mean to be watching friends rising up against racial injustice, police violence, and a fascism taking hold in the United States, from over here, from Germany?

Germany. Germany is familiar with fascism. Perhaps, it is the association most readily available, the first word that comes up in a game of free association, or maybe that´s just to me, a Jew. Closely following fascism would come other cliches - "efficient", "uptight", "orderly". For many in the American left, next would come "progressive", "socialist", and then, some feeling of awe, for the left holds Germany up as a country who has reckoned with its past and come out the other side - who has cleaned up its mess. Germany, many would say, has "done right" by its victims.

Most Americans who call themselves "liberal" know that a few decades ago, Germany committed one of the most heinous, cruel, and disgusting acts humanity has ever seen. Just a mere 75 years ago, the German people supported a fascist regime that systematically captured, persecuted, tortured, mutilated, and murdered groups of people the regime deemed as racially undesirable.

One of these groups were Jews, yes, and some of those Jews were my immediate family, yes. So it is a familial and personal trauma. The American left knows this. But, many in the left (myself included before moving to Germany), laud Germany as having successfully, rightfully, justly reckoned with its past. "They´ve really done it right", I was told, and I said, "they´ve really taken responsibility for their past", I believed, and naively moved to Germany without hesitation, expecting this to be true, expecting to feel free here, to feel seen, and not to be met with animosity or ignorance for my Jewish heritage. If you´ve read any of my other columns "Reflections on Being Jewish in Germany" at AVIVA-Berlin, you know that is not the reality I have encountered. But this piece is not about that. This is the first time I am writing to my American friends, my American family, and not my German ones.

The fight to remove antisemitic statues

As the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up momentum and become powerful enough to topple racist statues en masse, I´ve started to see a familiar vein of conversation in reaction to this which makes me uncomfortable, which I bid to stop. These statues must come down because they glorify people who held ideals that were not only harmful, but deadly, to so many Americans in their day, and which continue to affect Black Americans today. I absolutely agree that we should be celebrating those who have fought against injustice, not those that have exacted it. I absolutely agree that we need to remove these statues from our public spaces if we want to live up to our antiracist ideals. We must do this if we truly want to dismantle white supremacy, if we want to minimize the pain of those who are the descendents of survivors of White Supremacist terror, who still suffer this oppression. There are so many valuable arguments to be made for their removal, but one common argument should be removed from the conversation - it causes harm and works against its supposed antiracist goal. This argument is exemplified in this tweet by American television host Padma Lakshmi:

"Germany doesn´t have Nazi monuments to "remind" citizens of their history. Instead, they have memorials for the 6 million Jews and others who were murdered. The U.S. doesn´t need statues of confederate generals to "remind" us. We need monuments for Nat Turner & Harriet Tubman" (Lakshmi).

While I can see the analogy Lakshmi is trying to make comes from good intentions, unfortunately her argument is reductive, and extremely harmful.

Firstly, this claim gives the impression that Germany does not have any racist or harmful statues or monuments. This is, very unfortunately, not true. Many German churches sport antisemitic carvings on their facades and door. In an effort to remove one such carving, a Jewish man has petitioned the German courts to remove one such relief from a Church in Wittenberg, according to BBC.

"A Jewish man, Michael Düllmann, is seeking to have the sculpture removed.
The relief shows a rabbi lifting a sow´s tail and peering at its behind while other Jewish figures suckle on her teats. Pigs are considered unclean under Jewish law.
The image is on the wall of the Stadtkirche, where Protestant reformer Martin Luther preached.
Portrayals of Jews in obscene association with female pigs were used as a way of mocking them and their religion in the Middle Ages."

("Anti-Semitic sculpture to remain on German church").
However, despite the obvious offense and painful reminder of Germany´s long antisemitic history that culminated in genocide a generation ago, the Court ruled that the relief should remain on the Church:
"The court found that while the sculpture would be offensive if viewed in isolation, in the context in which it has been placed by the church it has lost its insulting character´, according to spokesman Henning Haberland."("Anti-Semitic sculpture to remain on German church").
This is not, by any means, the only antisemitic carving found on churches around Germany. In fact, the church at the central plaza of my very own city of Bremen, has a very well known and prominent antisemitic carving, which has been protected due to its "cultural legacy". Sound familiar, Americans?

Germany´s "other" genocide

Germany does not only have a history of persecution and genocide against Jews, or even exclusive to the Second World War. In fact, Germany has another genocidal legacy - in 1904 German colonial troops killed Herero and Nama ethnic groups in Namibia who rose up against their occupation of what Germany called "German South West Africa", as Serena Bilanceri, of Buten un Binnen reports (Bilanceri). A statue of an elephant in the city of Bremen, where I live, and where the colonist, Adolf Lüderitz, who "owned" this German colony lived, was erected in the 1930s to commemorate Germany´s colonial conquests. Unfortunately, instead of removing the statue, the Bremer community chose to rebrand it in the 1980s as an "anticolonialist statue", even going so far as to rename the park where it stands "Nelson Mandela Park", saying that the colonialist statue stands for the victims of Apartheid. They chose to focus on racial injustice in a formerly Dutch colony, rather than Bremen´s own colonial history in Namibia. I first learned of this insulting and harmful erasure of history at a protest I attended last year against the German government´s detention of underage African migrants in a camp just outside the city. This painful part of German history is not taught, rather it is willfully erased. Additionally, the fact that African migrants, among other refugees, are currently being detained in overcrowded ("Wie Geflüchtete die Corona-Zeit in Bremen erleben.") camps all over Germany, is widely unknown. According to Carolin Henkenberens of Buten un Binnen, at the camp "Lindenstraße" in Bremen, 200 of the 600 residents tested positive (Henkenberens) for Coronavirus before the local government decided to reduce numbers at the camp. The willful erasure of inconvenient history should also sound familiar to newly "woke" Americans. It should then be no surprise that all over Germany there are streets named after colonialists (Hamann), including Lüderitz, and schools named after protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) who "produced a tirade of anti-Semitic writings, arguing that synagogues and Jewish homes should be burned and Jews be expelled" ("Anti-Semitic sculpture to remain on German church"), including "The Jews and their Lies", which inspired Hitler.

Erasing the reality that statues which glorify not only Germany´s antisemitic history but also its colonial legacy continue to stand in this country, is not only ignorant, but harmful to the communities here in Germany who are fighting to have these monuments removed. It erases the experience of persecuted minorities here in Germany, it makes our fight harder.

Secondly, listing off the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe as if that is adequate to make up for the horror of the Holocaust is also shortsighted. The lack of respect that is demonstrated by visitors to the memorial is heartbreaking, and traumatizing. Every time I have visited I´ve been brought to near tears by the general public´s disrespectful behavior there. I would not wish anyone whose family has a legacy of such suffering to have it memorialized in such a place - to have children laughing, screaming, and taking smiling selfies at a genocide memorial. This is not the kind of solemnity and monument we should be aiming for, and personally, I don´t think this memorial is "reminding" citizens of their history in the way those of Lakshmi´s thinking wish. Surely a reminder of genocide should not provoke glee (Szarvas). The comparison this argument makes is offensive, because it glorifies what Germany has done, and erases the humiliation and pain that not only Jews, whom Lakshmi directly names, continue to suffer through in this country, but also the struggles of people of color in Germany, specifically Black Germans, who must deal with the city "rebranding" a monument that glorified Germany´s colonial exploits in Namibia as an anti-colonial statue by slapping Nelson Mandela´s name on it, among other offenses.

I agree with Lakshmi that we need monuments to American heroes Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, but I ask that this comparison to Germany´s post-war reckoning with the Holocaust be left out of it. The common rhetoric says that the Holocaust and American slavery aren´t comparable, so why in this case, are they comparable?

Germany also has antiracist work to do

I would be absolutely devastated to see any monument to these antiracist leaders disrespected in the way the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is. What Germany has done about its past should not be our aim. We need to do so, so much better. Germany has not actually reckoned with its past - it has run an effective PR campaign to the contrary, but the reality is minority groups in Germany continue to suffer. To glorify and exemplify Germany is to erase the discriminatory reality that people of color, Black people, LGBTQA+, Muslims and Jews face every day here in Deutschland. We need to hold Germany accountable as well, because all the minorities living in Germany, and especially Black Germans, deserve better. To glorify Germany as having effectively "dealt" with its past is not only to erase reality, but to remove any pressure from German society to continue the work of dismantling white supremacy and racism, work that is so far from done here. To glorify Germany as having "dealt" with its "problem" is to assume that such a history can ever really "go away".

Justice will not erase pain

The sad truth is, even if Germany had actually "dealt" with its history, even if no one in Germany was antisemitic (according to the Anti-Defamation League, 27% of the German population harbored antisemitic beliefs in 2014 ("ADL GLOBAL 100: Germany"), an, according to Laurenz Gehrke of Politico, antisemitic hate crimes rose 13% last year from 2018 (Gehrke)), even if Germans actually recognized the white supremacy living within their family legacies and within themselves at present, even if Germany actually decided to remove antisemitic statues from church walls, take down colonialist statues, and rename all their Martin Luther elementary schools, they could never erase the past. The pain would remain. Because even if we move towards an antiracist, just world, where we actually root out the prejudices in our hearts and minds, rectify our wrongs through reparations, and remove public installations which remind us of hatred, those who have suffered and whose families have suffered from this history will not simply forget. Their scars will not simply vanish, their tears will not simply dry up. Even if we do "everything right", we cannot expect those who have suffered from our terror to simply forgive and forget. No, we must accept and honor their pain, we must allow them to still be hurt, and angry, and distrusting, and we must still fight our best fight to do what is right. We must do this because it is just, and not because we want the reward of living in a world without a guilty conscience. Even if we make reparations, we do not get to wrap the suffering of others up in a tidy box, put a bow on it, and call it handled. No, we must continue to sit with the pain, and we must fight every day to stop inflicting it.

Stop comparing and get to work

Germany has not dealt with its past by taking down statues of Hitler and putting up a memorial to six million murdered Jews. Please, stop with the comparisons, and stop erasing my pain with them. To my American friends: stop glorifying a country which enacted multiple genocides last century, and still protects the cultural legacies of white supremacy that led to those genocides, in personal thoughts, and in public spaces. In fact, continuously glorifying a European country which literally branded itself as White Supremacist nation and tried to conquer the world to live out those ideals, does, in itself, contain an element of white supremacy. Let´s do better than Germany, and Germany, let´s do better. And let´s not expect everyone to hold hands and be merry after the statues do, finally, come down.

About: Mia Szarvas was born in Vermont to an Israeli father and Italian-American mother, raised in California, and currently lives in Bremen, Germany. Her grandmother, Marta, escaped from Poland in August of 1939 with her parents and sister, with whom she set up a new life in Palestine, while the family they left behind perished in the Holocaust. Mia has a degree in Political Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, and works in tech to create empowerment in unexpected places. She is curious about multiculturalism, languages, feminism, and how our intertwined histories inform the present.

Follow Mia´s art project "Humans Who Inspire" on Instagram @humanswhoinspire. Mia draws portraits of humans who inspire her as a meditation on the multitude of incredible humans working to make the world a better place. She also accepts requests and submissions.

Works Cited
"ADL GLOBAL 100: Germany." ADL GLOBAL 100, Anti-Defamation League, 2020, global100.adl.org

"Anti-Semitic Sculpture to Remain on German Church." BBC News, BBC, 4 Feb. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51380171

Bilanceri, Serena. "Forscherin: Bremen Muss Seine Kolonialgeschichte Besser Aufarbeiten." Buten Un Binnen, Radiobremen, 9 Aug. 2019, www.butenunbinnen.de

Gehrke, Laurenz. "Anti-Semitic Crimes up 13 Percent in Germany." POLITICO, POLITICO, 27 May 2020, www.politico.com

Hamann, Ulla. "Ungeliebte Straßennamen Mit NS- Und Kolonialer Vergangenheit." Buten Un Binnen, Radiobremen, 15 Mar. 2018, www.butenunbinnen.de

Henkenberens, Carolin. "Bremen: Etwa 200 Infizierte in Der Landeserstaufnahmestelle." WESER, WESER-KURIER, 23 May 2020, www.weser-kurier.de

Lakshmi, Padma (PadmaLakshmi). "Germany doesn´t have Nazi monuments to "remind" citizens of their history. Instead, they have memorials for the 6 million Jews and others who were murdered. The U.S. doesn´t need statues of confederate generals to "remind" us. We need monuments for Nat Turner & Harriet Tubman." 20 June, 2020, 6:01pm. Tweet. twitter.com/PadmaLakshmi

Szarvas, Mia. "Yom HaShoah Reflections by Mia Szarvas", AVIVA, Aviva Online Magazin für Frauen, 31 May 2019,

"Wie Geflüchtete die Corona-Zeit in Bremen erleben." KROSSE, Krosse, 12 May 2020, krosse.info/gefluechtete-corona-bremen

Read more by Mia Szarvas at AVIVA-Berlin:

AVIVA-Interview- + Fotoprojekt JETZT ERST RECHT / NOW MORE THAN EVER! STOP ANTISEMITISM!: Mia
In order to show perspectives and demands of Jewish people on anti-Semitism in Germany, the Jewish photographer and journalist, editor of AVIVA-Berlin, Sharon Adler has initiated her project JETZT ERST RECHT! / NOW MORE THAN EVER! which is supported by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. One of the participants is Mia Szarvas. Her slogan is: "JETZT ERST RECHT! / NOW MORE THAN EVER! - "It´s time to liberate the jewish experience from antisemitism".

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"Remembering is more than the opposite of forgetting: a reflection on my personal relationship with the Holocaust by looking at the lost Jewish Life in Lvov"

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"Let´s Get Uncomfortable …." Reflections on Being Jewish in Germany by Mia Szarvas

"I Answered All Your Question About Jews, so You Don´t Have To (And so I Don´t Have To)" - reflections by Mia Szarvas

"I Don´t Want Your Shame" - reflections by Mia Szarvas

Yom HaShoah - reflections by Mia Szarvas





Photo of Mia Szarvas by Elena Sloman


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