How to honor a shameful past

Your Fi correspondent in the United States visited Germany last month. Berlin is a city that shows its scars. The palace of the German parliament, the “Reichstag”, is a striking landmark. In the palace corridors, you still see the graffiti of Russian soldiers who occupied Berlin at the end of World War II. “Moscow,” says an inscription that has remained there for more than 70 years. We can almost conjure the image of the soldiers writing their names and those of their hometowns.

The building was completely destroyed at the end of the war. It was rebuilt under the direction of famous architect Norman Foster to host the parliament of a unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The four towers that formerly represented the regions of the country now house the offices of political parties. A digital column on the politicians’ access door projects the text of all the speeches pronounced in that hall. The glass dome was left open to the sky to capture rainwater and let the hot air out of the debates in the main halls. It is difficult to reach consensus in our ever-growing nations. We can almost imagine modern German lawmakers leaving their debates with a sense of frustration and contemplating the consequences of the alternative: destruction, occupation, division. In their offices, they see the value of their work every day.

The monuments to the secessionist leaders of the American Civil War of 1861 give the opposite message. In cities and towns all over the south of the U.S., bronze statues still seem animated by a sense of treachery. They do not show the humiliation of defeat. They do not transmit the violence of destruction. Last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, they had the power to unleash division again. Impenitent on its pedestal, Robert E. Lee still leads the same diabolical war. At his feet soldiers are fighting, doomed to fight the same battles, generation after generation, for 150 years. Instead of honoring the past, his monument mocks it.