Germany, Paula Deen, and the Burden of History

Holocaust Memorial in Freiburg, Germany
A Holocaust memorial in Freiburg, Germany.

I had a wonderful business trip in Germany. I went to Freiburg, a charming city at the foot of the Black Forest with a cathedral dating from the Middle Ages and a modern concern for the environment. The people were friendly and patiently accepted my inability to speak German. I enjoyed delicious food and great company.

As a Jew, I have to look at Germany differently. Even if you’re not Jewish, Germany provides an important lesson about dealing with history.

For example, to get to the company office, I crossed a bicycle and pedestrian bridge that crosses the train tracks. Draped over one end of a bridge is a bronze statue of a coat. When I looked closer, I noticed that it has the star the Nazis forced Jews to wear. The statue is a memorial to the Jews who were deported from Freiburg in 1940 and were killed in concentration camps.

I later went to a street called Platz der Alton Synagoge. It was named after Freiburg’s main synagogue that was destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938.

German television showed documentaries about the rise of Adolf Hitler, probably in recognition of the rise of National Socialism 80 years ago. One of the more popular books in German bookstores is Er Ist Wieder Da, a satirical novel that wonders what Hitler would think if he woke up in today’s multicultural Germany.

It seems to me that Germany doesn’t shy away from the dark parts of its history. They don’t ignore it, make excuses for it, or say “That happened a long time ago, and it doesn’t apply to us now.” A society that lives in 150-year-old houses and worships in 700-year-old churches can’t afford to gloss over the past. If you’re going to live in history, you live in all of it — good and bad.

It’s a lesson that would help Paula Deen.

I’ve written about other celebrity n-word eruptions, but Paula Deen’s is different. It’s because she declares herself as the “Queen of Southern Cuisine.” You can’t use that word and wrap yourself in that culture without drawing the darker sides of that region’s history. (Some have also criticized Deen for not giving due credit to the African Americans who shaped Southern cuisine.)

It’s the same problem as “Accidental Racist,” the problem of wanting it both ways. She makes her fortunes on Southern pride, but wants to slink away from Southern racism. She wants to tell the world in a Southern way “I is what I is,” while the “is” of the South contains slavery, segregation, and lynching. Sure, Paula Deen lived long after slavery and wasn’t responsible for creating the ills of Southern society. But she is a part of it, just as Germans who were born long after the fall of the Nazis bear the shame of the crimes their ancestors committed.

Every place has shame in its history. The question is whether you accept it and learn from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Germany, to its credit, has chosen to accept and learn from its history. Perhaps it’s because what they did was so horrible that it can’t afford not to.

Can Paula Deen? Can the rest of us?

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