Any discussion of monuments and cultural symbols tends to be highly emotional, regardless of which side of the controversy you’re on. Here in Chattanooga, the controversy features the statue of General A.P. Stewart at the county court house. For some, Stewart represents post-Civil War bridge building and the creation of the Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park. For others, his Confederate uniform and the monument’s funding by the Daughters of the Confederacy symbolizes slavery followed by Jim Crow laws.
My experience with historical monuments began thirty years ago when I was hired as the junior of three assistant directors in the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago office. It was August and when a reporter from The Chicago Tribune called, I was the only staff person not on vacation.
The reporter asked about Auschwitz, the infamous World War II Nazi death camp in Poland. Whose history should be enshrined at Auschwitz? A 26 ft. cross had been erected overlooking the camp in honor of the Pope’s visit. A convent was established on the grounds of Auschwitz. Fake news circulated that as many Poles as Jews had been exterminated. Emerging nationalism meant that the fact that 90% of Auschwitz deaths were Jews was slow to penetrate. Jewish protests over Auschwitz history and monuments were deeply resented as anti-Semitism rose.
Jews had begun questioning the Pope’s relative silence during the Holocaust. The emotions over Auschwitz were intense, even more so with the rise of Holocaust Denial. I met Holocaust Denier, David Irving, when he reserved a room at Tulsa’s public library under the fake name of the Native American Constitutional Party. Irving held up a letter and explained that Hitler had personally hand written it. Hitler wrote that he actually liked the Jews and had nothing to do with their deaths. He announced that Hitler wrote in an ancient form of German that only Irving could read. The audience, from chicken farmers to university professors, happily nodded in awe and agreement.
As revisionism ramps up so does the sense of ownership of historical monuments. When the agreement to relocate the Auschwitz convent fell apart, Jewish protests went to a new level. In frustration and anger, Rabbi Avi Weiss led several of his cohorts, dressed in concentration camp prison uniforms, over the convent walls of the convent to protest its presence. Beaten by the guards and denounced by Poland’s archbishop, Weiss became a symbol among Jews world-wide, including in Chicago. Protesters chained themselves to the fence surrounding the home of Cardinal Bernardin, head of Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese. And now, the reporter wanted me to respond.
The events at Auschwitz pressed all my buttons. How could they not? My father was a US military intelligence officer who had liberated the Nordhausen slave labor camp while assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. My father and his army colleagues didn't wait for Nordhausen to be one among many world War II monuments. They took villagers through the remains of concentration camps to head off denial and historical revisionism. He wrote in his letters that massive re-education had to be the solution for Germany’s recovery.
My response to the reporter was pure emotion. I made a public mess and thought I’d be fired. Fortunately, a Polish Jesuit priest took me under his wing. The Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski an original member of the Holocaust Memorial Museum Commission. A Vatican-trained diplomat, his mentorship gave me much-need skills and continued to do so over the decades.
Has the passage of time fixed everything? No, but the Catholic Church formally changed its philosophy towards Judaism at the Vatican II Council and encourages dialogue. Is historical revisionism over? No, David Irving is now conducting tours of Auschwitz. Yet, denial and revisionism are counteracted by ongoing Holocaust education, state commissions, museums, and documentaries.
There is an echo of Auschwitz’s post-war history in today’s controversies: the emotional protests, heated denials, revisionism, and rising nationalism. On one level, the fight is over who owns the history of slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction Era. On a deeper level, the clash is over nationalism, race, and religion. Once again, we see swastikas and Hitler-style salutes, along with chants of “Jews will not replace us”.
There is money behind denial and historical revisionism. I received a request to investigate a network of strange bedfellows behind an obscure Foundation. According to The Tennessean, the Foundation shunted contributions to the League of the South, which provides para-military training to white supremacists, claims slavery was irrelevant to the Civil War, and celebrates the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes the League as, “… a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by “European Americans” (read white)… it has become increasingly rabid, writing about potential violence, criticizing perceived Jewish power, and warning blacks that they would be defeated in any “race war.”
How do we respond when alt-right groups label the SPLC as a hate group and one of its leaders, Richard Spencer, claims to be an intellectual? My father wrote that the most effective response to Germany’s hate-charged culture was the re-education of leaders who could be salvaged and of young people. Volkswagen established a museum at its Wolfsburg headquarters dedicated to the history of forced labor during the Holocaust and takes executives to see the Auschwitz. The American Jewish Committee promotes Holocaust Education and hosts the Auschwitz Jewish Fellows.
Parallel to our focus on historical monuments, the campus is emerging as a major player in this culture war. I’ve spoken at Southern Adventist University to a group of scholars embarking on a European Holocaust Education tour. I’ve spoken at UTC’s Inclusion Excellence Conference on Historical Perspectives of Cultural Symbols. There are no bystanders and buying time doesn’t make hate disappear. History shows us that not speaking out only encourages hate. I take to heart Rabbi Hillel, paraphrasing his ancient quote, “If not me, then who? If not now, when?”