Twenty-eight years ago today, I stood by the Brandenburg Gate and watched as the first Germans in nearly three decades were allowed to cross from East to West Germany. I’ll never forget that moment, both for the joy I felt at the time and for the concerns that soon followed. Even as I celebrated the Wall coming down, I could not help but question if November 9 would now lose its other significance – the meaningful and tragic anniversary of so many dark days in German history: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848, the end of the German monarchy in 1918, the Hitler putsch attempt in 1923, and the Nazi anti-Semitic pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938.
Kristallnacht was the beginning of Germany’s darkest hour. On November 9, 1938, the Nazi government destroyed synagogues throughout the nation, murdered hundreds of Jews, and sent thousands more to concentration camps.
Human nature makes it difficult to reflect on such terrible events because we are conditioned to dislike the uncomfortable conversations and feelings of guilt brought on by discussing them. Most feel more comfortable avoiding the topic. Yet remembering these moments is the only way to avoid repeating them.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Germany’s leaders could have chosen to effectively replace the horrible stigma of the Nazi era with a joyful triumph of honoring freedom on November 9 in the national consciousness. Instead, the German Bundestag (parliament) voted to celebrate the country’s re-unification on October 3, in recognition that the full significance of November 9 should never be lost on the world. It was a remarkable act of humility, and of understanding and responsibility, aimed to harness the collective goodwill of re-unification toward healing even deeper wounds. It also served as a profound reminder that successes and failures do not cancel each other out. Rather, they endure side-by-side, each serving as a reminder of the other.
This powerful lesson of observing the brightest triumphs alongside the darkest failures is not just an integral part of the way we study history; it is also valid and relevant today. In our time, the values of freedom and respect that bind our societies together are clashing with the political, social, and economic forces that are pulling us apart. In response, we must come to terms with both the failures and triumphs that led us here.
A great nation is built on a foundation of liberty, democracy, diversity and ingenuity. Most nations have a complex history of racial and cultural tensions, whose public institutions are straining to keep up with our most pressing issues. Accepting these truths side-by-side – and not as contradictions that cancel each other out – empower us to use our strengths in order to address our weaknesses.
That’s why we must be intentional in our remembrance and recitation of our history. Public officials who downplay the role of slavery in our nation’s history, or attempt to re-frame the Civil War as a struggle of culture and heritage, don’t merely misinform. In denying our nation a consensus over our darkest hours, they weaken the opportunity for the present generation to address the underlying issues which still plague us today. The desired end result would not be to re-litigate blame for past sins, but rather to assess how each person in this country can help us move forward in a direction that prevents further divide. Uncomfortable as it is, owning our past is a powerful tool in shaping our future.
This is exactly what Germany’s leaders understood when they decided to never forget. By arming today’s citizens with the knowledge of past horrors, Germany is better equipped to combat those conditions with positive and unifying change.
By embracing our shared history, reinforcing common values, and remembering accompanying disgraces and flaws, we can move forward in a direction that brings us closer together – and binds us to our better ideals.
Alan H. Fleischmann is the founder and CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for leaders, CEOs and their C-suite.