Post-war Germany set a precedent by offering compensation to the victims of the Nazis. The reparations process and Reparation initially did not go at all heartily, was faced with bureaucratic hurdles – many victims had to hire lawyers to prove that they were actually victims – and ultimately every Reparation a symbol. What amount outweighs genocide?
But it is no coincidence that Germany keeps popping up when it comes to the question of whether America should make reparations for its crimes against its own black population in particular.
Berlin-based and Atlanta-born philosopher Susan Neiman argues in her unbalanced yet interesting book What we can learn from the Germans that America owes damages to the black population for systematic looting, repression and exploitation of that population, especially in the south of that country, but certainly not only there. It is false that the abolition of slavery brought to an end these practices, which continued, albeit in an altered form, well into the 1960s and in some ways to this day.
She relies emphatically on Germany and it is interesting that she presents this country with some restraint as a light among the nations. History can be that ironic.
Neiman is not the first to rely on Germany for American Reparation to argue. In his much discussed essay in The Atlantic In 2014, “The Case for Reparations,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates already did. He notes that even President Roosevelt’s critically acclaimed New Deal, which America decided in the 1930s, is not least for fear of the the appeal of communism, and creating something of a social safety net in America, was not free from discrimination. The 1935 Social Security Act excluded people who worked as domestic workers or on land from old-age services or unemployment benefits, rendering 65 percent of the black population in America (between 70 and 80 percent of black Americans in the south) ineligible for those facilities.
In a recent article in the magazine of The New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones joins Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also believes it is high time for reparations. She points out that wealth and not income is the way in particular in America to create security and upward social mobility, especially since there is little or no inheritance tax in America compared to a country like the Netherlands. Wealth, possessions plus investments minus debts, has been denied to the black population because of the slavery past and legacies of that past, including segregation. In black areas it was almost impossible to get mortgages and in white areas blacks could not buy houses.
Income inequality between the black and non-black populations in America has remained largely unchanged since 1970, to which Hannah-Jones adds that studying for a black American does not have the same positive financial effects as for non-black Americans.
There is structural subordination in many areas, for which reparations would be a logical remedy.
Hannah-Jones also refers to the Holocaust. America allocates $ 5 million annually to support U.S. Holocaust survivors, she writes, as evidence that America can be generous. Now, five million a year is not much, but there are no more Holocaust survivors, and America’s responsibility for this genocide is relatively small.
Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a detailed look at the resistance of the population in what was then West Germany Reparationg to do. Only five percent of West Germans felt guilty in 1952, only 29 percent believed Jews were entitled to some form of compensation. As if he wants to indicate that even if a large part of the population does not feel like it, one should not be afraid of reparations. The then Chancellor Adenauer, certainly not an idealist, rather a supporter of Realpolitik, the Reparationg, especially out of well-understood self-interest, to prevent Germany from remaining an outcast.
Without wanting to equate the slavery past and other American sins and the catastrophe of European Jews – there is much to be said for considering the Holocaust as a uniqueness – I think America cannot escape some form of Reparationnot least for the original population. A better social safety net and access for all citizens to reasonably good medical care would already be a step in the right direction, but whether that is enough is the question.
Also read: There is no account of the slavery past
The Netherlands, too, will ultimately not be able to escape any form of reparation for its slavery past, and this also applies to the humiliation due to recent ethnic profiling by the police, an abuse that has affected not only black Dutch people, but also Moroccan Dutch young people.
Reparations do not mean that the past has been forgiven and forgotten, but they make it clear that a country such as the Netherlands realizes that the past consists partly of blemishes for which responsibility must be taken. On May 8 of this year, German President Steinmeier said in his memorial speech that you can only love Germany with a broken heart. Something similar also applies, for other reasons and on a different scale, to the Netherlands, insofar as you should or could love a country; in a free society, every citizen is free not to love his or her country.
The consequences of facing up to the blemishes of one’s own past cannot be just excuses that oblige them to do almost nothing.
How and to whom those reparations should be paid can be discussed. Just as the Dutch Railways were advised on how to deal with the scandal that arose from the transport of Jews and other prisoners from the Nazis to the concentration camps, the Dutch government could also be advised how to deal with the stains from a different era and which financial compensation would be appropriate, a compensation that will always remain partly symbolic as suggested. But the symbol with which one acknowledges one’s own wrongdoing is a not insignificant compensation.
Who is pure and who is impure
In addition, reparations can make it clear that continued and very real discrimination based on ethnicity in the labor market is not accepted by the state. And reparations will probably help to avoid the false and sometimes destructive sides of the public debate on this problem. The emphasis will no longer be on expelling and punishing real or suspected perpetrators, on defining communities, who belongs and who does not, who is pure, who is impure, but compensation for misdeeds from the distant and less distant past. , knowing that no society benefits from playing off populations and communities against each other, even if this happens for emancipatory reasons.
Saints do not receive compensation, no one should claim any victimhood
The welfare state has proven that redistribution of funds has a pacifying effect. By emphasizing symbolic but at the same time very real, because economic damages, it is hoped to make clear that the past that is alive and seldom really over must not be a prison, it should not be. Those who are once marginalized do not always have to stay that way; victimization should never come close to a death sentence or canonization.
Too often in our culture one confuses victimization with holiness and is subsequently disappointed when the victim turns out not to be a saint.
Saints do not receive compensation, no one should claim any victimhood. I expect reparations to contribute to ‘normalization’ of relations, often to extinguish resentment.
Distress competition must be prevented as much as possible. Organizing competition along ethnic lines, between the descendants of victims and perpetrators, is harmful to a society. No one is guilty because of his birth, no one should be reduced to a group identity he didn’t ask for.
So, although reparations should never be confused with forgiveness and forgetting, I believe that a society or culture where forgiveness is dismissed as weakness or worse, collaboration has no future, no future. The pursuit of justice is often confused with punishing and humiliating the enemy, while our enemies also have a life story that deserves to be heard, to gain insight, to avoid that living together is little more than dying together.
A step toward justice is rarely taken out of love for justice, almost always out of dire necessity. This year has once again made clear how bitter the necessity is. In America, but also in the Netherlands, you have to wait for an Adenauer.
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC Handelsblad of 1 August 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated August 1, 2020