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Blogpage D. (12/29/16) Story #1: WE DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS HAPPENING

This is the story of how I became an anti-racist. There are a lot of titles I can think of for this story. One of them might be “From Anti-Semitism to Anti-Racism”. Dealing with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Germany became the pathway and the doorway to my involvement, engagement and lifelong dedication to the work of anti-racism in the United States. I think I would not have become aware of the depth of racism internalized within myself and within my own country if I hadn’t first become confronted by the vicious history of anti-Semitism within myself and within my ancestral people in Germany.

I am white, German-American and Christian. For the first two and a half decades of my life these identity markers signified something to be proud of. Obstinate denial on my part (what we now call Internalized Racial Superiority) kept me unaware of the evil associated with these three labels. When I did finally become conscious of what we German people did to the Jews, what we white people did and are still doing to people of color in America, and what we Christians did to support and promote these evils on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I was completely blown away – particularly when I also became aware of my personal connection to them. Bottom line, I had to face a lot of naive pretenses about life before I could begin to live.

Here’s how it happened. In 1960, following graduation from seminary, I began post-graduate studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany. I was naïve, pious, ignorant and totally unconcerned and uninvolved in struggles for justice. Yet at Tübingen I became fascinated by the history of the Holocaust. At that point it was “their” history and still not “my” history. The Germans and their history was a separate reality that I could objectively study. Even as I gradually became emotionally involved, I was still able to proceed as an outsider, studying the effects of wrong-doing that others had carried out.

Studying the Holocaust at Tübingen led to an intense period of traveling around Germany, visiting concentration camps and other historical sites, as well as participating in seminars about the Holocaust in various parts of Germany. I became quite knowledgeable about the facts of the Holocaust, and became almost obsessively driven by the desire to know more. My energy was focused not so much on the motives and actions of Nazi leadership, but rather on the motives and actions of the German people. Where, I wanted to know, were the voices of the common people? How did they express their objections and opposition to the butchery? I asked the question again and again, and the bizarre answer I received again and again: “We didn’t know it was happening”.

It was not a believable response. I could only counter: six million people were being slaughtered all around you, and you never noticed? How could that happen? Six million Jews! An intentionally calculated attempt to exterminate an entire people! The galling, arrogant assumption of Aryan supremacy, and the promotion within the church of theological arguments in defense of such an assumption, giving rise to a national plan and an actual attempt to implement a plan of extermination. And they didn’t know it was happening?

With growing anger, and with a passion and arrogance only thinly masking my inability to deal with my own emotions, I confronted each and every German I could: “What do you mean you didn’t know it was happening?” “You’ve got to be lying”! “It is impossible for you not to have known.” Unsurprisingly, my unrelenting accusations and merciless judgement had the inevitable result of driving away participants in these conversations, and making true dialogue almost impossible. At the end of every conversation, I stood abandoned and alone. But I pressed on.

Then one day, my world of self-protective arrogance was challenged by a brave German who was willing to stand up to my attacks. I was participating in a Holocaust seminar at an Evangelische Akadamie (a church conference center) in Loccum, near Hanover Germany. As the seminar progressed, I soon found opportunity to unleash what had become my standard verbal attack: “What do you mean you didn’t know it was happening?” And then I sat back waiting for the defensive answers that inevitably followed. What happened instead was a young student from Hanover University stood up and quietly, almost gently asked me: Could you please compare what happened in Germany to what is now happening around racial issues in the United States? How is what Germany did to the Jews different from what the American people are doing to Black people? Can you tell us about your understanding of the events in Little Rock; and about the American people’s response to the sit-ins and the freedom riders?

I was instantly paralyzed. I heard his questions, but I simply could not correlate them to the present conversation. I stood there dumbly. I had no response. And so, he went on to expand his questions -  still in a gentle inquiring way, at least compared to my arrogant judgment of the Germans. He used the word “genocide” to describe what America had done to Native Americans, and he described as “white racist supremacy” the current acts of segregation and oppression against Black people, and he emphasized the violent response of American police to the non-violent protests against segregation. And he asked me again if I could compare these events in America to the genocide of the Holocaust in Germany. His questions – and my complete inability to respond to them – would change my life.

My initial response of dumb silence was followed by stuttering and lame defenses, filled with denial. As further discussion ensued, with embarrassing clarity about myself, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about Little Rock, and that I had only a vague awareness of the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina or the freedom riders in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, all of which were current events at the time, all of which were being reported weekly in Time Magazine which I read every week while I was overseas, and all of which had been happening over an extended period of time while I was finishing my studies at seminary. And yet I had almost no awareness of their existence, little sense of their meaning and certainly no realization that they had any meaning for my life. I can even now still hear me uttering the very words about myself that I had heard from the Germans about the Holocaust: “I didn’t know it was happening.”

A year later I was back in the United States, immersing myself in the American reality of racism, unlearning lies I had believed as truths, becoming transformed by the dramatic and traumatic realization of how much of my education had been filled with untruth and misunderstanding. Gradually I began to realize that the German Holocaust and America’s genocidal racism were not two separate histories, but each a part of a single, shamefully vicious perpetuation of the lie of white supremacy. As I became increasingly aware of how deeply the lies that supported white supremacy were internalized and buried in my consciousness early in life, and perpetuated by the systemic structures of white power and privilege, I gradually, step by step, committed myself to a mission and ministry of anti-racism.

More than 50 years have passed since that confrontation in Germany. It has taken decades to cut through my layers of self-protection, to develop an understanding of my responsibility as a white person to go home to work for change in the white community and to go back to my church and work for its transformation. Understanding comes slowly and organizing for societal and systemic change seems to take forever. At the same time, so much has changed, but there is still so much change that needs to take place. And I have so much more to share in the stories that follow this one.