Slavery, the Nazis and the KKK: We can't face the past, and it's poisoning our future

Faulkner's maxim is truer than ever -- and while the whole world struggles with history, America's denial is toxic

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 7, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Reuters/Stephane Mahe/Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Stephane Mahe/Salon)

No quotation from American literature, with the possible exception of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “boats against the current” passage, is repeated as often or carries as much resonance as William Faulkner’s most famous line: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Startlingly enough, both quotations make virtually the same point; Fitzgerald’s boats, a flotilla of isolated human souls riding the current of time, are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” was published 26 years after “The Great Gatsby,” and it’s entirely possible the echo is deliberate.) Even as we move forward from generation to generation and from birth to death, we cannot escape history, whether on the personal and emotional level or the larger cultural and social level.

Both of those eminent American writers understood, in their different ways, that their country was at war with its own past. Both men were shaped to a large degree by the bigotry and prejudice of their times – both held views we would today consider frankly racist – while on the page they struggled as hard as they could to transcend those limitations, and write themselves into the future. They wrote about a nation profoundly shaped by history -- by a 200-year pattern of immigration, migration and resettlement; by successive waves of religious revival; by slavery and the extermination or forcible removal of the native peoples; by the causes and effects of a bloody internecine war that ended 150 years ago and to which most 21st-century Americans have no ancestral connection.

They also wrote about a nation that is endlessly eager to erase its own past and start over, like John Wayne’s Ringo Kid at the end of “Stagecoach” or Fitzgerald’s James Gatz, the dirt-poor North Dakota farm boy who dreams of better things. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about this: Much of the entrepreneurial zeal, endless inventiveness and “Yankee ingenuity” that transformed America from a backward agrarian society into the world’s leading industrial power over the first few decades of the 19th century stemmed from that impulse, unleashed upon a continent rich in natural resources. If half our cultural birthright is a troubling history whose consequences we feel everywhere around us and whose big questions remain unresolved, the other half is Henry Ford assuring us that history is bunk and we are free to reinvent ourselves however we like.

So much of America’s intractable political insanity and intense cultural division, circa 2015, is rooted in a dispute over the nature and meaning of the past that I’m tempted to pronounce that all of it is. That isn't entirely fair, of course, but even the most urgent political issues of the day -- including the mass incarceration of men of color and the right's long war to defund all aspects of the federal government except the military, the intelligence agencies and the secret police -- represent old conflicts decanted into new containers. As the latest Anonymous hack has revealed, the Ku Klux Klan, a remnant of the same terrorist organization that undermined Southern Reconstruction and subjugated supposedly free African-Americans to white hegemony for a full century, still has 5,000 members in 41 states. But even the Anonymous hackers agree that today's Klan is something of a historical relic, like Civil War nostalgia on the dark side. Power in America today no longer relies on guys in white hoods.

Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House one spring day in 1865, bringing an end to the noble Southern cause that his great adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, described as "one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." But despite appearances the Confederacy had not been defeated, and today's Republican Party represents its values almost perfectly. For reasons that are both obvious and deeply perverse, people in small Northeastern towns celebrate the Rebel flag their own ancestors shed blood to defeat. Eight hundred thousand died in that war and slavery came to an end, at least as a legal institution under that name. But with the defeat of Reconstruction it was transformed into a long-term system of white supremacy whose persistent effects, and whose very existence, must be repeatedly denied or minimized or greeted with a puzzled shrug.

Why are black people still overwhelmingly poor and poorly educated? Why are they far more likely to live in substandard housing in poorly served neighborhoods, far more likely to be victims of crime and to be shot by police? One of our two political parties, the one that has been increasingly dominated over the last three decades by the great-great-grandchildren of the Confederacy, is pretty much built on the premise that those problems can only be black people’s fault -- or, in the more beneficent view, can be blamed on diabolical white liberals who led the innocent black folk astray with “free stuff.” They certainly can’t have anything to do with the fact that African-Americans were enslaved until 150 years ago, had few or no political rights until 50 years ago, and throughout their history on this continent have been redlined and ghettoized and marginalized and covenant-excluded and financially exploited by an endless array of swindlers and usurers and predatory lenders.

Those things, we are constantly and nervously assured by red-faced men on television as they project their own fears and anxieties onto Black Lives Matter protesters or Quentin Tarantino or whomever else, are in the past. In the discourse of the American right, the past can only be one of two things: A) a story of glorious patriotism and heroism, or B) something that did not happen or does not matter. We don’t need to summon Faulkner in order to observe that police brutality and the shootings of unarmed black men are not in the past, and neither is our society’s worsening economic inequality, which includes a shocking racial disparity. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, the median white household in 2011 held just over $111,000 in total wealth. For the median black household, that number was barely $7,000 – 16 times less, or 8 cents in black wealth for every white dollar. (For Latino families it was nearly as bad, about $8,400.) If that difference is attributable to some deficiency in black people or African-American culture, rather than the undead hand of the past squeezing the life out of our society, then whatever is wrong with them must be really, really bad.

I wanted to speak to Philippe Sands about all this, because the question of historical responsibility is precisely his area of expertise. Sands is an international human-rights lawyer who has investigated and prosecuted crimes against humanity at the World Court, and is also a principal subject of the fascinating new documentary “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.” He is the child of Jewish refugees who fled Hitler before the Holocaust, and the film is about his increasingly personal relationship with two men whose fathers were prominent Nazi officials. I suspected he might have something to say about the past not being past, and about how it shapes us and how we should try to understand it.

If we agree, as Sands emphatically does agree, that his friends Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter are not responsible for the crimes committed by their fathers, or that I (just for instance) am not responsible for my direct ancestors who owned slave plantations in the Caribbean and owned slave ships in France, then why aren’t we free to lock the closet door of history, wash our hands and walk away? Mistakes were made! At some distant point! Not my fault! Niklas Frank represents one approach to this problem: His father was the notorious Hans Frank, "the Butcher of Poland," a close adviser and friend of Adolf Hitler's who served as the governor-general of occupied Poland, where he supervised the mass murder of roughly 4 million people. Niklas despises his father for what he did, which is reasonable enough, but also seems consumed by that loathing to an exaggerated and extreme extent. He always carries with him a photograph of his father's corpse, taken after he was hanged in Nuremberg as a war criminal.

At the other end of the spectrum is Horst von Wächter, a genial and sweet-tempered man who is interested in art and mysticism, and does not hate his father at all. Sands clearly feels great affection for Horst (who was named after Horst Wessel, an early martyr of the Nazi movement) and spends much of the film trying to convince him to face the truth about his father. Otto von Wächter was not a mass murderer on Hans Frank's scale, but that's a difficult standard to match. Still, he was in charge of the infamous Krakow Ghetto, and served as the governor of Galicia (then a Polish province) when several massacres of Jews were carried out -- including the one, it turns out, when many of Philippe Sands' relatives were marched into a field near their village and shot. Horst makes regretful noises about all this, but continues to dodge and evade the evidence of where his beloved father was and what he did. It finally becomes clear that nothing will dissuade him from the delusion that Otto was a benevolent man compelled to follow orders, who did his best in difficult circumstances.

Why, I wondered, did Sands keep pushing? What did he hope to accomplish? “That's a really, really core question, isn't it?" Sands responds. "What was I looking for from Horst, and what did I want? I make very clear, and it is absolutely my position, that Horst himself bears no responsibility for the actions of his father, for the sins of his father. He was his own person. He was a child. What I was looking for was an acknowledgment of the facts. And I think the reason that I was looking for an acknowledgment of the facts is that I understand the failure to acknowledge the facts as, in some way, an apology for what happened. And from there it’s a thin line between apology and acceptance, between acceptance and complicity, between complicity and active engagement. I suppose it’s that sense that if we don’t recognize the facts for what they are, we make it possible, or more likely, that those kinds of facts may repeat themselves.

“I think that’s the unstated driving force that is at work behind me. And this question is universal. This story reaches beyond, say, the Jewish community or the Germans and the Austrians. A Cambodian student of mine watched this film and was incredibly affected by it, thinking about his own country under the Khmer Rouge. I had an Argentine student who lives in Buenos Aires today, with parents and grandparents who had different roles and responsibilities under the dictatorship, some acknowledging it and some not. I think it’s a universal theme, and the answer to your question is a very complex assessment and reflection. For me, it goes back to the need to acknowledge that the community of which we are a part, for reasons of blood and history, has engaged in difficult or problematic things. We need to have an honesty about that.”

When I shift the topic to the Confederacy and American history, Sands seizes on it instantly. While he was raised in England, his wife and children are Americans. “When that issue comes up around the breakfast table, about the Confederate flag, it’s a matter of incredibly active debate,” he says. “Our kids will say to us, ‘How can it be that 150 years on, there’s still a dispute about all of this and some people want to show that flag while other people don’t want them to?’ For me, I wonder what the difference is, in general terms, between that and what we see in the Ukraine [in the film] with a group of characters gathering, you know, in Nazi uniforms for a re-enactment, or a burial of Ukrainian and German war heroes? What is the difference between that and a re-enactment of the Civil War? It’s a desire for a particular community to find connection and legitimacy with the past. And in finding connection and legitimacy, the danger is that you reinforce the conditions that continue to work their unhappy consequences.

“And we have to understand, equally, that this is not just historical material. I’ve been very involved in the last years on the issue of torture, for example. And I think that the amnesia in the United States about engaging with the fact that the country turned to torture once again after September the 11th -- I think it’s going to have enormous consequences going forward. Even though it may not be perceived as having consequences within the United States, outside of the United States it was a huge moment for those who hold the United States to a higher standard because it is the world leader on human rights. It becomes too bloody easy to wheel it out and say, ‘Look, if they can do torture, then I can do torture.’”

If the past is not really past – the past of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation,” the past of Auschwitz and the Krakow ghetto, the past of American slavery and its endless repercussions – then it is still with us, and still shaping our behavior. As Sands makes clear, willful historical amnesia can be found in all parts of the world, but America has developed it into a poisonous and intoxicating high art. Our powerful national identity is rooted in the mythological notion that we are different and exceptional, free of the depressing chains of the past that hold other nations back from greatness. At this point in our history that belief is literally driving us insane. Sands talks sadly about his friend Horst, the child of Nazis who does not want to know what really happened, and who drifts ever closer to denying that it happened at all. “Things unsaid have long-term consequences," says Sands. "You think by pushing things under the carpet that you sort them out and they go away. But you’re doing the opposite, and they only get worse.”

"What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy" is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. It opens Nov. 13 in Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Washington; and Nov. 20 in Denver and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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