Ascher Teich has mixed feelings about the money deposited in his bank account every three months.
In a way, it’s helpful, because the modest sum supplements what he considers a pretty meager social security pension. But it also reminds him of the war—of the family members he was separated from and the years with them he lost.
Teich was born in 1932 in Thonon-les-Bains, a small town in eastern France. As a Jew of Polish origins, he was driven into hiding by the Nazis and their vassal French state around age 10; while his parents joined the resistance, he was separated from his siblings and spent two years hidden in an orphanage near the Swiss border by priests who ran the local parochial school. The Teichs reunited at the end of the war, but most of their extended family in Poland died in concentration camps.
As a Holocaust survivor, Teich, who now lives in Florida, is eligible for reparations from the German government under the Article 2 Fund, a program initiated during the reunification of east and west Germany in 1990. It’s one of many components of the German government’s ambitious reparations program.
In 1951, West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer committed to paying “moral and material indemnity” for the “unspeakable crimes…committed in the name of the German people” during World War II. The following year the government signed a set of reparations agreements with Israel (pdf) and an umbrella group of advocates known as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference. Over the next 20 years Germany committed to compensating other countries, Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and former forced laborers. While it’s difficult to estimate the exact amount of money, in today’s dollars, that was paid in deutsche mark over all this time, Germany says it has distributed over €77.8 billion ($91.9 billion)(pdf, p. 27).
As the US engages in a national conversation on racism and the legacy of slavery, Germany’s example is an instructive model for those seriously considering the idea of reparations.
Black Americans have called on the US to right the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow ever since their government broke Union general William T. Sherman’s 1865 promise to award all freed black men “40 acres and a mule.” Their claims have gone unanswered. But things are slowly changing. The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, have sparked a national reckoning around inequality and police violence against Black people. This, in turn, has generated a surge of support for HR40, a House bill introduced in January 2019 to create a task force for studying the feasibility and mechanisms of slavery reparations. This year, Democratic candidates for president have expressed support for reparations and some universities and cities have taken steps towards awarding them.
The US government has paid reparations before. In 1988, it paid $1.6 billion to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It also compensated Native American tribes about $1.3 billion between 1946 and 1978 for seizing their land, although the program was criticized as incomplete and paternalistic. As activists revive the conversation around slavery reparations, they could draw lessons from the most substantial model to date, Germany’s reparations for the Holocaust.
After World War II many Israelis and Jewish Holocaust survivors were virulently opposed to the idea of reparations from Germany. They deemed it blood money and felt it would whitewash Germany’s crimes. In 1952, nationalistic opposition leader and future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin begged prime minister David ben Gurion, who was fighting for reparations, not to “enter negotiations with the Germans.” He said:
“In this generation of ours that we call the last of bondage and first of redemption—in this generation that we have been privileged to gain back our dignity, in which we emerged from slavery to freedom—you are ready, for few millions of contaminated dollars and for impure goods, to deprive us of dignity that we have earned.”
Ben Gurion didn’t so much overcome this resistance as he forged on in spite of it. He believed the only way his fledgling state would survive was through German financial support, and managed to secure political backing for this view within the Israeli parliament. West Germany’s mea cuplas for Nazi crimes (pdf), beginning in 1951, followed by east Germany’s apology in 1990, also had a strong impact. Time, and the staunch support of Israel from modern-day Germany, helped change Israelis’ minds. In 2014, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation polled 1,000 Israelis on their views of Germany. Almost 70% of respondents had a good or excellent opinion of the country, making Germany their favorite European nation.
In both the case of Germany and the US, reparations call on a nation divided—made up of citizens who mostly didn’t directly participate in the crime—to apologize and pay for it. In 1985, German president Richard von Weizsäcker made the case for intergenerational responsibility and solidarity in a powerful speech. “The vast majority of today’s population were either children then or had not been born,” he said. “But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it.”
Last year, an Associated Press survey found only 29% of Americans supported the idea of cash reparations. But initial resistance isn’t necessarily predictive. In 1951, only 29% of West Germans believed they owed Jews restitution for the Holocaust.
For both the Holocaust and slavery, reparations could never measure up to the crime committed. In its 1951 diplomatic note to Allied governments demanding compensation from Germany, Israel acknowledged this. “There can be no atonement or material compensation for a crime of such immense and horrifying magnitude,” it read. But according to Judaism’s own religious and philosophical thought, “reparations are not punitive,” writes American rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who makes the case for slavery reparations in Yes Magazine. “They’re restorative.”
While Germany’s reparations program was motivated by morality, it was also pragmatic. Germany was under immense pressure from Western Allied governments to pay reparations in order to rejoin what politicians after World War I began calling “the family of nations.” Similarly, activists argue that if the US wants to retain its standing in the world, it needs to account for the epic moral deficit in its history. In his influential Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.”
Stuart E. Eizenstat negotiated Holocaust reparations with Germany on behalf of the US and the Claims Conference. He argued against slavery reparations in Politico last year, saying “reparations are complicated, contentious, and messy, and work best when the crime was recent and the direct victims are still alive.”
“Trying to repay descendants of slaves could end up causing more problems than reparations would seek to solve,” he wrote.
But there are reasons to believe the two cases—German World War II reparations and American slavery reparations—are less different than Eizenstat argues. The most common criticism is that slavery ended in 1865 and cannot or should not be monetarily accounted for in 2020. But even though the bulk of Germany’s reparations to Jews were paid less than a decade after the Holocaust, Eizenstat and others successfully negotiated reparations for victims much later than that. The latest reparations were secured by the Claims Conference in 2013, when the German government agreed to pay about $1 billion for the home care of elderly Holocaust survivors.
American slavery may have officially ended with the Empancipation Proclamation, but the burden placed on Black Americans by government-sponsored racism outlasted it. “You’re not talking about 150 years ago,” says Robin Washington, a Black Jewish journalist who is a research scholar for the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Washington’s Black father and Jewish mother bought a house in Chicago in 1953 under a restrictive covenant, which prevented the sale of their property to Blacks. (The Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were unenforceable in 1948 but they continued to exist for many years after that.) Washington’s father, who served in World War II, was also excluded from the provisions of the GI Bill that offered down-payment-free loans to veterans. “I’m 63,” he points out. “My brother is 67. You’re talking about—I was about to say a generation removed, but you’re barely talking that.”
“Using distance and time as an argument” against reparations is damaging, echoes Thomas Craemer, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, “because it says if you commit a historical injustice and then you wait long enough, it doesn’t count anymore.”
Eizenstat worries that reparations will stoke racial tensions in the US. But Holocaust reparations didn’t cause an anti-Semitic backlash from frustrated Germans. Instead, it launched a true movement for reconciliation and recognition that has withstood the test of time. In 2019, the nonprofit advocacy group Anti-Defamation League found that 15% of Germans held anti-Semitic views—significantly less than the 25% average across Western Europe and 34% in Eastern Europe. “If you don’t deal with the past, it’s always going to be there,” says Lily Gardner Feldman, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
There are logistical challenges to slavery reparations in America that were not present in post-war Germany. For one, in the German case, the claimants were the survivors themselves, who were more easily identifiable due to Nazi and local records than the descendants of slaves would arguably be in America today. For another, the Holocaust was limited in time, while slavery and the institutional racism that followed are inextricably linked and span up to 400 years of American history. It’s not clear who should pay, what they should pay, and to whom they should pay it.
But proponents of reparations in the US are less focused on the details than they are interested in securing political and societal support for the simple idea of debating the details. And with new tools like public genealogical databases, activists like Washington say the challenges underpinning such a program have never been more surmountable. All in all, he argues, “anybody who says it’s too hard or too complicated is just too damn lazy.”
In 1970, German chancellor Willy Brandt—who opposed the Nazis and fled Germany after Hitler came to power—traveled to Poland to sign the Treaty of Warsaw, which clarified the limits of the contentious border between the two countries. While there, he paid his respects at a monument honoring the Warsaw ghetto uprising. In a highly symbolic gesture, he fell to his knees, in what has become known in German as the kniefall von Warschau, or “Warsaw genuflection.”
“Most people outside of Germany have come to think the Nazi times were so awful that, the minute the war was over, the German nation got down on its knees and begged for atonement,” philosopher Susan Neiman told The New Yorker. “In fact, the few people who did get down on their knees, like Willy Brandt, were vilified by the majority of their compatriots.” A Der Spiegel survey (link in German) at the time revealed that 48% of Germans felt Brandt’s gesture was excessive.
Yet in spite of public opinion, Germany’s efforts at reconciliation didn’t stop at reparations. The country has engaged in vergangenheitsbewältigung—the process of “overcoming the past.” It erected monuments to victims of the Holocaust, the most famous of which lies at the heart of Berlin (and was only approved in 1999 after a lengthy and contentious debate.) It created the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future, an educational institution dedicated to promoting “the continuing political and moral responsibility of the state, the private sector, and society as a whole for Nazi injustice and towards the victims.”
“The German process has been long, continuous, difficult,” says Feldman. Similarly, “one can expect that in the American case.”
In their book From Here To Equality scholars William Darity and Kirsten Mullen outline a model for reparations they call “ARC.” Reparations, they argue, should accomplish three things: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure. America is still in the middle of the “A” stage: While it has mostly accepted “that there has been a wrong committed,” it has not yet agreed that “some form of repair” is owed to the victims.
Without that, the scholars theorize, there can be no closure on this dark chapter of America’s history. Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Richard von Weizsäcker knew it. Now, the US appears to be realizing it too. If the German example can teach it anything, Feldman says, it’s that “reconciliation is a process” and “reparations are the first step.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated when the German government signed reparation agreements. It first signed them in 1952 and continued to do so over the next decades.