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America does not have the ‘horrible past’ of Germany

How can a writer in “The Washington Post” even begin to compare the two histories?

Headquarters of “The Washington Post.” Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.
Headquarters of “The Washington Post.” Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.
Nathan Lewin
Nathan Lewin

The Washington Post’s support of the currently popular trend to call Americans racists is well-known. Its readers, including me and many others who do not share the Post’s premise, read its stories and opinion pages warily but are seldom surprised.

The Post’s issue of June 6 (June 3 online) was, however, shockingly obscene. Over three pages, it contained an “Opinions Essay” written by Michele L. Norris that bemoaned America’s failure to “face its horrible past” as Germany has done. America, says Norris, has a “criminal past” that should be marked by a 26-letter German word that signifies the tangible symbols Germany has created to exhibit and atone for Germany’s collective guilt.

One minute. America eradicated slavery almost 160 years ago after a civil war that resulted in thousands of deaths. Our Constitution and a presidential proclamation buried slavery. Over the last half-century, laws have been passed and enforced, court cases have been litigated and won, and American public opinion has unanimously applauded eliminating Jim Crow and other vestiges of slavery.

The German nation elected a leader who embarked on a deliberate program of murdering 6 million human beings in gas chambers. There was no civil war in Germany over that practice. No German Emancipation Proclamation reversed German policy. The German nation fought to the bitter end, continuing to kill Jews even as Hitler was in his bunker choosing suicide. That is, indeed, a “horrible past.”

How dare Norris compare America’s history to Germany’s! I am a refugee to this country, having been carried by my parents in their 1939 escape from Poland as Hitler’s troops marched across the border. I lost three grandparents in the Holocaust. As a young lawyer—fresh from a clerkship with a justice of the United States Supreme Court—I served in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, assisted in high-profile cases enforcing the civil-rights laws and fought in Southern courts on behalf of African-Americans as a deputy assistant attorney general in the civil-rights division.

The battle for full equality for blacks in this country may not be over. Nor, as recent events demonstrate, have American Jews won civil treatment and equality. Asian Americans and Latinos continue to be victims of discrimination, and they bring their claims to American courts.

As an American, I am proud of how this country has fought and, I pray, will continue to fight for racial and religious equality. It is grotesque to think that Germany’s vergangenheitsaufarbeitung belongs here.

Nathan Lewin is a criminal defense attorney with a Supreme Court practice who has taught at Georgetown, Harvard, University of Chicago, George Washington and Columbia law schools.

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