Yesterdary was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
One of the many horrific consequences of radical evil is that it functions to let everybody else off the hook for their depravity. Thus, for example, the narrative that the United States and the Soviet Union could do no wrong because they had defeated the Nazis. Not something the tortured or dead victims in Castillo's Guatemala, the Shah's Iran, etc. etc. etc. or the people of Eastern Europe during that period would have understood in the least.
But remembering can have another function completely at odds with this, making us aware of our own historical complicity with the radical evil as well as the fact that the perpetrators of radical evil are almost always not very different from any other human beings. Americans in particular must see the Shoah in light of a prolonged genocide against the native peoples of this land, over two hundred years of slavery, another hundred of disenfranchisement and extreme economic injustice instituted by widespread terrorism, and over fifty years of post-civil rights disenfranchising retrenchment after that.
But what does the holocaust have to do with any of this? Please consider the following passages from two recent books.
The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.
After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish, in Himmler’s words, “pearls of settlement,” utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. German settlements of fifteen to twenty thousand people each would be surrounded by German villages within a radius of ten kilometers. The German settlers would defend Europe itself at the Ural Mountains, against the Asiatic barbarism that would be forced back to the east. Strife at civilization’s edge would test the manhood of coming generations of German settlers. Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.
The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.
Or this bit from Ira Katznelson's, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time:
[Hitler] complained when the French stationed African troops in the Rhineland, warned about racial mixing, and denounced “negrified music.” His main direct sources of information about the South were a series of odd and skewed reports that were provided by a German resident of Florida who wrote about putative Jewish plans to mobilize American blacks to destroy the white race.
Like other Nazi leaders, Hitler was fascinated in 1937 by Vom Winde verweht, the German edition of Gone with the Wind. This melodramatic epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction was a best-seller. The film, not surprisingly, proved a big hit. Nervous as he awaited the dawn invasion of the USSR, a move that would start Operation Barbarossa, Joseph Goebbels spent the hours after midnight on June 22, 1941, watching a prerelease German version with a group of invited friends, perhaps not aware that one of the film’s stars, Leslie Howard, was a British Jew.
When Americans complained about Nazi anti-Semitism, party officials rejoined by citing southern racial practices, claiming a kinship. The Völkischer Beobachter, the oldest Nazi Party newspaper, routinely disparaged Africans and African-Americans. Like much of the German press, it frequently printed antiblack cartoons, reminded its readers that southern public accommodations were segregated, and delighted in reporting how blacks, like German Jews, could not sleep in Pullman cars and could not exercise the right to vote. Lynching was a favorite subject. Neues Volk celebrated southern lynching for protecting white women from unrestrained black desire.
The Völkischer Beobachter published many graphic stories that were intended to support lynching as a tool to shield white sexual purity. “The SS journal Schwarze Korps exclaimed that if lynching occurred in Germany as it did in the American South, the whole world would complain loudly.”
One of the ways we cover our complicity in this kind of evil is by patting ourselves on the back for legally dismantling de jure segregation in this country.
But "segregation" is a complete misnomer if meant to apply to the radical evil this country visited upon people of African decent, one that makes us ignorant of what really happened and continues to happen. The American South was de facto far less segregated than the anti-bellum non-slave owning states. Southern middle class whites were over ten times more likely than their Northern counterparts to have domestic help (always African American) raising their own children, and upper middle class and upper class Southern white males considered black mistresses part of their privilege. When people are raising your children and you are having children with them, it's not segregation! The North was usually more segregated de facto, and in many ways de jure as well.
The difference is that African Americans in the North had not the franchise taken by them by massive organized terrorism. Note that from the 1890s onward one African American was lynched every four days in the American South, and that these were public spectacles* of torture and murder that drew such large crowds that railways altered their schedules to bring people in and there was a thriving steady business in postcards of the victim. Often the corpse was hung in a segregated part of town for days on end to remind people what was waiting for them if they were not subservient enough. Also note that so-called "riots' of that eighty year period were exactly the kind of collective punishment that the Nazis relied upon to pacify countries.
Thus, even though Northern states were often de facto and (to a lesser extent than the South) de jure segregated, the lack of disenfrachisement and terrorism to enforce it resulted in an economic oppression not nearly as pronounced or vicious.
The reason this galls me is that so many people of good will assume that the overthrow of de jure segregation in the American South was the end of the story. It's a stupid, vicious thing to believe. Martin Luther King was killed while fighting for economic justice, and mass disenfranchisement to the purpose of economic oppression is in no ways something the United States has left behind.
*When I lived in Germany as a child, one of our neighbors told us of losing her then thirteen year old son when she tried to hide him from the last round of drafts into the German Army. He was hung from a street lamp and left hanging there for days as a warning to everyone else in the village. Primo Levi talks about this practice as it was carried out inside the camps. As far as collective punishment, consult the wikipedia page on Lidice. Then read the page on the East Saint Louis Riot, and note that, with lynchings, indiscriminate slaughter and destruction of towns and neighborhoods was a standard and very effective part of the arsenal to maintain white privelege in Jim Crow sout.]