Ernst and Julinka (Van Buren) fled Germany for New York before WWII. Ernst’s father and extended family were killed in a concentration camp in Poland.(Courtesy Peter Van Buren)
My great grandfather was a slave. He died on May 7, 1943 alongside most of his loved ones in the Sobibor concentration camp, about 120 miles from Warsaw. I’ve been thinking a lot about reparations.
One son and his family escaped years earlier to America. Ernst and Julinka 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, I learned of a technical change in German law dealing with the loss of citizenship under Nazi persecution that may mean I am a German citizen by birth, transmitted through my father. The adjudication process is complex and success not assured, 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.
The first leg of reparation was early financial support to Israel, now ended. By 1956 Germany was supplying over 87 percent of Israel’s state revenue.
The second leg is direct payments to survivors. There are multiple programs, established through the ongoing NGO-like Claims Conference, for payments to elderly survivors, those needing medical care, payments to children taken from their parents, payments to victims of medical experiments, claims for looted art, and more. The payments vary, but are modest, thousands of dollars, symbolic not life-changing. 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). I have no claim to Holocaust money. Reparations went to the living individuals harmed, not to the generations removed. My extended family got nothing; they were all dead.
The final leg of German reparations is what might be called atonement. For me, the possibility of being extended German citizenship makes for a small part of all that. 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.
Another important element of Nazi reparations is much of the money comes from direct perpetrators of the crimes. French and Swiss banks had held funds deposited by murdered Jews. After the war the banks tried to keep the money, but were instead forced to pay it into reparation accounts. Life insurance companies which 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 uneven 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. The amounts were small, in the thousands of dollars.
And so we come to America, where BLM and others are demanding reparations for slavery. 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 most of the 37 million African Americans now living in America. 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?
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 general Federal taxes collected from, among others, descendants of slaves themselves. Does anything say “white supremacy” clearer than forcing modern African Americans to pay for their own reparations? For the rest of us fully unconnected to slavery, the money taken has about as much meaning as a spoonful of hot spit. Divided among so many, 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 four centuries 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, as well as existing racial preferences in federal contracting, affirmative action, job quotas, and educational admissions. Never mind 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, never mind the European textile manufacturers who profited mightily from cheap cotton. Few are ready to talk about the Portuguese slave trade 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 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, 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 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 people ready to stop being victims, responsibility of their fate outside their control? Reparations carries with it an agreement to heal; the line is never forget, not never forgive.
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.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.
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