Posted by: nquest2xl | July 18, 2008

Changing Hearts and Minds Is Not Enough

“The idea that white America… gives a rat’s ass about doing what’s right,

flies in the face of more than a couple hundred years of experience.”

The following essay was written by a fellow traveler of mine, “Listener” – a German female anti-racist of whom I’d had the pleasure of posting/dialogging with for the past year or two on various blogs and boards. The header quote above comes from the Understanding the Importance of Self-Interest section of Tim Wise’s May 2006 commentary entitled, “Paleness as Pathology: The Future of Racism and Anti-Racism in America

The internet offers the possibility to connect with the world. I started connecting about 8 years ago in Germany where I live and since then I have also been reading American message boards and websites. The topic: racism and anti-racism.

I feel it is the responsibility of all white people worldwide to understand the urgency of a living in a world free of white supremacy. Eurocentrism and Western politics impact the entire world and, in a globalized world, combating white supremacy is no longer an issue of individual nations. White supremacy is a system which doesn’t exist only in America (or Germany, for that matter) but globally. Racism may come in many different faces and anti-racism in different forms, but one thing is without question: whites are, in a global context, on the top of a racial hierarchy whites created.

While it is not possible to make exact comparisons, one to one, between individual nations, whites can educate themselves by looking beyond their own national borders to learn from mistakes and successes of other nations. Whites can also benefit from listening to people from different nations affected by the system of global white supremacy.

I think it is the difference in history, and how history is taught, which has created one significant difference between Germany and the U.S.: Germany lost the war. The history of the Holocaust is at school taught in detail, with all the cruel details and never glorified. In Germany, we have what is known as “German collective guilt.” There isn’t as much of a tendency to hide behind individualism as there seems to be in America. (More on that later.)
It was a German collective that made the Holocaust possible. It was also the collective silence Germans that gave Hitler free reign. It wasn’t just Hitler or some group of “bad apples” (i.e. those individuals over there). There was a systemic nature to the Holocaust and the machinery of the system behind Hitler’s maniacal desire to exterminate an entire people functioned like clock work.

It takes a system to correct a system.

After WWII, Germany paid reparations and not because the majority of the Germans had a sudden spark of awareness or a sudden change of heart or mind. It was a political decision of West-Germany’s politicians that made reparations to the Jews happen and outside political pressure from other European and Western countries was a big part of the decision. In fact, my opinion is that the outside pressure was the only reason why West-Germany paid reparations. West-Germany’s politicians wanted West-Germany to be accepted as part of Europe again and paying reparations for the Jewish Holocaust was a way to gain that acceptance.

Politicians have a way of doing things that voters don’t agree with (and few Germans agreed with paying reparations; few were even concerned about it) but most people are conformists. The same way Germans adapted to a Nazi ruled Germany, they adapted to paying reparations. It wasn’t a new mind-set but outside pressure that led to new laws and the political commitment to pay reparations.

Something different happened in the US. The genocide and forced removal of Native American’s from their land and the kidnapping and subsequent enslavement of Black Africans are diminished in the the country’s tales of a great founding, good character and unparalleled progress. The way some people talk about American history, the holocausts against the red and the black were just speed bumps in the country’s triumphant march to democratic greatness.

A city on a hill.

There is no comparable sense of collective guilt among white Americans. Instead, the excuse is that slavery and Jim Crow was just a few “bad apples” (e.g. the idea that only a few white individuals owned slaves that often comes up in debates about reparations for African-Americans). It’s as if white Americans are unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture — the systemic, society wide nature of American slavery and its offspring, Jim Crow. Instead, from my experience, white Americans choose to conveniently reduce the whole history to the “bad” behavior of mere individuals (the KKK, slave-owners, etc.). But that’s where the differences end.

Like the post-war political pressure against Germany, the civil rights bills that marked the end of the racist Jim Crow system wasn’t the result of white Americans suddenly changing their hearts and minds. The laws changed as a direct result of the success of the Civil Rights Movement. So it was political pressure, in this case from the inside, that was the reason for the concessions America made by including non-whites in mainstream society.

Like in Germany, the laws changed, not the people.

Because of that history lesson, I feel the popular approach in anti-racist work to try to change white people’s “hearts and minds” is an illusionary goal. It tries to appeal to an empathy which whites, as a collective, prove isn’t there. It also diminishes racism to something on an individual level rather than institutional; it, therefore, neglects the true impact of racism and denies the political nature of racism.

Wars won’t stop with an appeal to humanity. Likewise, racism won’t stop with an appeal to someone’s conscience or empathy.

I think, “anti-racists” have to understand that ending racism and dismantling White Supremacy is a political struggle and not an emotional or moral one. That it is about changing and challenging politics and systems and not just “minds and hearts.”



  1. Listener, could you say more about the reaction to reparations in Germany among the German public.

  2. The German population, there was a poll, only 11% supported reparations. 44 % said ‘unnecessary’
    It’s a German link but there is the result of the poll:
    I don’t know how much it was actually discussed among Germans, I think the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) around 1955 helped that Germans could get ‘over it’ or so.
    Many of the older German population, who were adults during WWII didn’t talk very much about all related to WWII.
    My mother’s generation, being children during the war, they talk, if they talk, about their experiences during war. They are to a certain degree a ‘lost generation’, post-war Germany never truly recognized the impact on the German children.
    They then grew up with paying reparations as well as my generation.

  3. Thanks for the information. Please share anything you know about the way Germany handled/handles the whole reparations thing.

    I ran across something, somewhere that says that 66% of Germans (or at least those born after the war) want reparations to Jews/Israel to stop. Do you know anything about that and what kind of public debate is going on?

    Also, please feel free to say more about the “lost generation” and the impact the war and the Holocaust had on them.

    All this is really interesting…

  4. Great post.

    It seems like you can pressure a government through physical threat, or through shame. However, now that racism is subtle instead of explicit, and people are not ashamed of subtle racism, how do we pressure governments to change?

  5. Also, please feel free to say more about the “lost generation” and the impact the war and the Holocaust had on them.

    this is something I never truly thought about until I read that article

    Germany’s Lost Generation
    War Children Break the Silence

    The traces of World War II have faded but not disappeared for Germans. Many who were babies or children during the war still suffer from the trauma they experienced 60 years ago.In his speech commemorating the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp in April, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said remembering Germany’s past — National Socialism, war and genocide — was part of Germany’s identity and, at the same time, “a permanent moral responsibility.”

    Yet there is a significant part of this past that has been neglected. “It is surprising that the generation of children, who were born during the war and spent a large part of their childhood in the war, have until recently been remarkably silent about their biographies and appeared unaffected,” said Dr. Michael Ermann, head of the War Childhood Project at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University.

    “Their speechlessness found a counterpart in the little interest that the public showed for their fate,” Ermann told German radio Südwestrundfunk.

    It is only in recent years that historians, psychoanalysts and German society are taking a closer look at these kriegskinder or children of war. An international convention on the generation of war children is meeting in Frankfurt this week to discuss the damage that the war and its effects had on people’s souls.

    A robbed childhood

    Dr. Hartmut Radebold, a former professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kassel and the founder of Germany’s geriatric psychotherapy, said these children were subject to suffering in three major areas.

    “They faced violence, they had to deal with separation and loss of loved ones, and they had to come to terms with losing their homes, safety and security,” said Radebold.

    Psychiatrist Helga Spranger, one of the founding members of the war child association and herself a war child, described the lives of children during the war in The International Journal of Evacuee and War Child Studies.

    “Children were separated from their parents, orphaned, evacuated by force, displaced, kidnapped, shot at, bombed, wounded, mutilated, raped, expropriated, blackmailed, adopted by force, drafted at an early age and forced into labor,” Spranger wrote. “In short, they suffered from stress for months or years and were basically robbed of their childhood.”

    The horrors these children experienced continued to brew under the surface. “It costs endless energy to keep it inside for decades,” said Ermann.

    Haunted by memories

    In recent years, an increasing number of war children have suffered from agonizing health problems, as their trauma finally rises to the surface. According to Radebold, many are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “They are haunted by their memories and the terrors they experienced and are overwhelmed by them,” he said. Symptoms include jumpiness, restlessness, sleep disorders or withdrawal.

    There are also many images that are burned into their minds, which trigger their trauma, said Spranger. “Aside from the basic feelings of fear of death or abandonment, disgust and wishes of escaping, lasting horrifying impressions are hidden in the memories for a lifetime,” said Spranger, such as the smell of burned houses, animals and humans after firebombs, hearing sirens or the shooting of weapons.

    But despite their anguish, many war children have still been hesitant to talk. Sabine Bode, author of the book “Die vergessene Generation” or “The Lost Generation,” looked at the stories of these war children to trace how their experiences shaped their lives. She said her search for stories was tough.

    “Most of the people I spoke to fended off my questions with remarks like ‘others were much worse off than I was’ or ‘it didn’t hurt us’,” said Bode. “I rarely heard anyone complain about their fate. I have the impression that despite the frequently observed trait that Germans like to see themselves as victims, former war children of all people were in no way whiny about their past.”

    History is a clogged toilet

    There are several reasons why these stories are only coming to the surface now. Many experiences were “re-awakened” through the images of other more recent wars, such as in Kosovo or Iraq.

    That fact that these war children have reached retirement age also plays a role. “In old age, you can’t repress things as easily anymore,” said Bode. A profession also acts as a stabilizing factor for someone’s identity, said Radebold.

    “So when these war children retire, they have more time on their hands to think and with this time, come the memories,” he said. In certain cases, trauma can be reactivated.

    “This means that old memories are reawakened through a siren or an airplane that sounds similar to the ones during the war,” said Radebold.

    But Bode said that war children also needed a form of “permission” to open their souls. And this was given to them by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass. “He said, we also have to attend to Germans’ problems after the war,” said Bode.

    “History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising,” Grass wrote in his book “Crabwalk,” published in 2002.

    Learning to survive, but not to live

    A major problem for these children was that the protective factors against the traumatizing impact were missing, as adults were just as helpless against the war machinery as their children were. “The fathers were often at war and were the mothers even in a position to offer their children security?” said Radebold.

    Bode said her interview partners told her that after the war, life was about survival. “They said they lived by the motto ‘just forget everything and look ahead’,” she said. “There were enough deranged and sick adults to deal with that no one really paid attention to the children. They thought children are tough.”

    But this was not the case. “Many told me, ‘we learned to survive, but not how to live well’,” said Bode.

    Political support

    Most of Germany’s political leaders were war children. Chancellor Schröder never even met his father, who fell in the war. Former President Johannes Rau had to clear away rubble in his home town of Wuppertal after the war. Germany’s current president, Horst Köhler, spent years as a refugee and has said that his biography is the biography of Germany’s history.

    “These leaders tell the public that their experiences during and after the war had a great impact on them and perhaps this makes it easier for other war children to talk about their past,” said Radebold.

    It is impossible to generalize the experiences of this “lost generation,” though. Each child went through his or her own personal trauma, which has a greater or lesser impact on them today.

    “Wars always involve a chain of traumatic experiences,” said Bode. “But there’s one very central denominator: hunger. None of them can throw away bread.”

  6. Please share anything you know about the way Germany handled/handles the whole reparations thing.

    a few links:

    German Compensation for National Socialist Crimes

    40 Years Diplomatic Relations Between Germany & Israel

    and ‘The Policy of Wiedergutmachung’ [quite long read]

    I ran across something, somewhere that says that 66% of Germans (or at least those born after the war) want reparations to Jews/Israel to stop. Do you know anything about that and what kind of public debate is going on?

    there is no public debate. It’s all governments decisions not so announced.

    But yes I think, most Germans believe that we paid enough now and that we will pay forever.
    I have to search for a survey.

  7. Restructure, my understanding is that the political pressure Germany faced had a serious economic component to it and, how, via the Marshall Plan, quite a bit of the money marked for reparations was essentially foreign aid to Germany that may have been withheld if Germany didn’t agree to settle the Holocaust claims.

    There was international, Cold War pressure on the U.S., too. I think the kind of international “shame”, inherently, had economic implications for the U.S. There are books out on the subject and I’ll never forget reading an on-line history blurb about the Civil Rights Movement that summarized the White liberal response to the internal political pressure in the 60’s as one motivated not out of shame but out of wanting to avoid or stop civil unrests. So I guess that part fits the physical threat theory…

    I should add that the various boycotts and service disruptions caused by the disciplined and organized resistance of the civil rights movement exerted targeted economic pressure as well.

  8. Thanks, nquest2xl.

    I think in North America, reparations will help groups that were/are oppressed by the government, but there are still other types of racism left over, like microaggressions and unconscious biases. I’m thinking that these can be dealt with through laws that change education, such as providing Afrocentric education, etc.?

  9. We need a cultural revolution. Defining new values which aren’t built on competition but solidarity. Uprooting Eurocentrism.

    How Germany deals with history is revealing in that way that it is not about changing hearts and minds alone. Those who have the power or support, like Jewish people, are now more or less respected, but Germany doesn’t have a problem with her collective amnesia, when it comes to all other victims of the Holocaust, eg. Sinti and Roma or Black people
    Germany never truly deals with the entire history, there are so many parts ‘left out’ and ‘forgotten’.

    But also for example because of Black America and American critical whiteness studies, due to exchange of information this is now slowly developing in Germany (critical whiteness studies). I also think that Black America influences Black Germany and Black Germans who rise their voices also inspire other groups in Germany. So I think, anti-racism will also change in Germany

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