• My Reparations

    August 2, 2020 // 4 Comments »


     
    My great grandfather was a slave. He died May 7, 1943 alongside most of his loved ones in the Sobibor concentration camp, about 120 miles from Warsaw. So I’ve been thinking a lot about reparations.
     
    One son and his family escaped  years earlier to America. Ernst and Julinka (pictured) arrived with no special skills, and proved to be imperfect people, with their marriage falling apart not long after arrival in New York. About the best we can say is they brought their five-year-old son with them. My father. He naturalized as a teen, making me the first native born American in the family and later, the first to get an advanced degree. Immigrants, we get the job done, right?

    Through a happenstance discussion with a former German diplomat, a change in German law dealing with loss of citizenship under Nazi persecution may mean I am a German citizen by birth, transmitted through my father. The adjudication process is complex and success not assured decades after the fact, but as the diplomat said, “We cannot undo the past. We cannot raise the dead. But we can offer you this, citizenship, something we hold dear.” A reparation.

     

    Nazi reparations, with well over $60 billion paid out, are the gold standard, and fall into three broad categories.

    The first leg of reparation was financial support to the Israel. By 1956 Germany was supplying over 87 percent of Israel’s state revenue.

    The second leg was direct payments. There are multiple programs, established through the ongoing NGO-like Claims Conference, to payments to elderly survivors, those needing medical care, payments to children swept up with their parents, payments to victims of medical experiments, claims for looted art, and more. The payments vary, but are modest, thousands of dollars. The amounts are unlikely to change many lives economically, but they are symbols. As one head of the Claims Conference said, “It has never been about the money. It was always about recognition.”

    These payments are directed at those who directly suffered.  Though payments continue for the life of the victim, they are not given to later generations (though in some cases surviving spouses continue to be paid.) So I have no claim to Holocaust money. Reparations went to the individuals harmed, not to the dead and not to the living generations removed. My extended family got nothing; they were all dead.

    The final leg of German reparations is what might be called atonement. Germany’s postwar Constitution outlawed hate symbols, specifically the swastika. In 1952 Germany officially apologized for Nazi crimes. The explicit story of WWII is taught in schools and memorials and museums expose the horrors of the Third Reich. Modern Germans know their history. And for me, the possibility of being extended German citizenship makes for a small part of all that.

    Another important element of the financial side of Nazi reparations is much of the money comes from direct perpetrators of the crimes. French and Swiss banks had held funds deposited by now dead Jews seeking to hide them from the Nazis. After the war the banks tried to keep the money but were forced to pay it into reparation accounts. Insurance companies that refused to pay beneficiaries on the specious ground that premiums were not kept current while policyholders were in concentration camps were made to contribute. Hundreds of German and Austrian companies that employed slave laborers paid up. It was an imperfect process; in 1999, class action lawsuits against slave users Deutsche Bank, Siemens, BMW, Volkswagen, and Opel failed, though the German government and industrial groups agreed separately to compensate former slaves for forced labor they performed during the war. Again the amounts were small, in the thousands of dollars.

     

    And so we come to America, where BLM and others are demanding reparations for slavery reaching back as far as 400 years. Unlike the Nazi system, as well as the reparations the U.S. paid to Japanese-American internees (payments went to survivors and a very limited number of descendants) and to victims of horrid syphilis experiments at Tuskegee University (payments went to survivors, spouses, and children), financial reparations are envisioned on a broad scale, as wide as paying something to the 37 million blacks in America, not a single one of which is closer than multiple generations to enslavement. The majority who believe they are descendants of slaves do so based on family lore; how many can documentarily connect back 400 years to a slave without a last name who was told he’d be called “George” after he waded ashore in Virginia?

    The scale of slavery reparations and the amount of time passed since enslavement also means unlike Germany, 100 percent of America’s reparations would be paid out of the general pool of Federal taxes collected from 21st century relatives of slave owners, recent immigrants, minority business owners, and ironically from descendents of slaves themselves. Does anything say “white supremacy” clearer than forcing modern blacks to pay for their own reparations? The money large or small otherwise has about as much meaning to those from whom it is taken as a spoonful of hot spit. Divided among so many descendants with vague connections to their distant enslaved relatives, it is like figuring how many inches of interstate highway your taxes paid for. Modern reparations are as separated from the reality of ownership and of being owned as 400 years will allow. If reparations are symbolic, these would be near meaningless.

    There isn’t space here to discuss the reparations inherent in the Civil Rights Acts and the Great Society, trillions spent on benefits to blacks, as well as existing racial preferences in federal contracting, affirmative action, job quotas, and educational admissions. There isn’t space here to talk about the massive practical problems of raising additional reparations money and creating a distribution system for payments. Nor is there room to enlarge the story as it needs to be and ask what amends are owed by Arab, African, and European slavers, shipping companies, and banks, never mind the European textile manufacturers who profited mightily off cheap cotton. Few are ready to talk about the slave trade of the Portuguese supported by American and European companies, which sent forced laborers into the cane fields of the Caribbean and South America to profit in part American sugar refiners and rum makers. Less than five percent of African slaves went to the U.S. Slavery was a massive interconnected global system.

    In reality any reparations for slavery will need to be of the atonal kind we see in Germany. Much of this is already hard on the ground. We have the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. America’s commitment to free speech makes it unlikely hate symbols, such as the Confederate flag and swastika, will ever be banned outright (the Supreme Court consistently refuses to create a “hate speech” carve out in the 1A) but clearly a cultural corner has been turned which will see those symbols have less and less place in mainstream society.

    An apology is overdue; just words of course, but words are sometimes all we have. President Reagan apologized to Japanese-American internees in 1988. Bill Clinton in 1997 apologized to the people affected by government medical experiments conducted at Tuskegee University in the 1930s. Though nine states, including Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, have formally apologized for slavery, during the Obama administration the House and Senate passed bipartisan resolutions of apology but failed to reconcile the two versions. Obama, a coward when courage called, chose not to apologize without that political support.

     

    So the question is: does BLM want to move forward or remain in the past? Financial reparations at this point accomplish nothing. They do not compensate the victims, they do not punish the slavers, they would be in any amount too little too late, an almost shallow act. The form reparations must take, atonement, is partially underway and will someday include a formal apology. The problem is that such actions are meant to — their actual purpose is to — provide closure, an endpoint to allow a new starting point. One never forgets the past, the dead are always with us and we build memorials and tell their stories to ensure that, but we accept some sort of ending to empower the living to shoulder the responsibility of going on.

    Will BLM do that, or is there still political fodder in ensuring slavery remains a scab to be picked as necessary, crisscrossing the same lines like a figure skater, to be blamed for everything from COVID deaths to low SAT scores, to forever remain a collar? Are they ready to stop being victims, responsibility of their fate outside their control? Reparations carries with it an agreement to heal; the line is not never forgive, it is never forget.

    It will be a long time before I hear whether I qualify for German citizenship. Nothing will replace an extended family I will never know, nothing will displace the dark spaces inside my complex father, but I am anxious to see what does change if I become a German citizen. So I’ve been thinking a lot about reparations.

      

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    Obama to Apologize to Afghanistan Again, and Again, and…

    February 28, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Yo Reggie, wassup? Michelle is out of town, you up for some hoops?

    Maybe later Mr. President. It looks like you may need to apologize again to Afghanistan. On Saturday, an Afghan employee of the Interior Ministry shot two U.S. officers inside the ministry’s Kabul headquarters, then walked out unmolested. On Sunday, a protester threw a grenade at a group of American troops, injuring six. It is all getting worse sir, not better.

    What? Didn’t I already apologize for the Koran bonfire thing? What more can I say? I even called that joker Karzai and said I’m sorry.

    Yes sir, that’s part of the problem. It seems that most Afghans do not like him or trust him. Since he won election through a rigged process the US silently endorsed, he isn’t as popular there as we like to think.

    Got it, kinda a Romney-like dude.

    I guess sir. Anyway sir, we’ve done some research, and it seems the Afghanis would like you yo apologize for a few more things before they’ll settle down. I’ve made a list:

    Sorry we invaded your country, occupied it and kept a war going there for almost twelve years. We used to call it a war of liberation but it seems what you’d mostly like is for us to leave.

    Sorry we’re too much of a bully to allow you to choose your own futures.

    Sorry that we’ve mucked things up so bad you now prefer the Taliban.

    Sorry that that war includes secret prisons, renditions and torture while we claim we are bringing democracy.

    Sorry we abused your people at the same prison we burned the Korans.

    Sorry about the Afghans who will never leave Guantanamo (alive).

    Really sorry about all those women, children, old people and wedding guests our drones keep wiping out going after al Qaeda number 3 every other week.

    Sorry that according to the UN, Afghan civilian deaths in our war have hit a five year high, though actually the deaths are probably higher than even those recorded.

    Sorry that over the course of 12 years the war has also spread into Pakistan.

    Sorry that it was us that actually armed the Taliban in the 1980’s, called them freedom fighters and invited them to the Reagan White House.

    Sorry our army is still squatting on your country, with over 90,000 troops still in-country.

    Sorry our Marines peed on your dead.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy