Germany is held up as the model for historical reconciliation. But as America grapples with the legacy of racial violence, the real lesson lies in the conversations Germans still can’t have.
The week the story was published, President Biden signed a historic bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison, a law more than a century in the making. The bill is a long overdue step towards acknowledgement and accountability: Around 6,500 Black Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950, and their stories often went untold.
The bill is part of a growing effort in the U.S. to confront the country’s legacy of racial terror violence. In December, 2021, Erica Hellerstein traveled to Mississippi and Tennessee to meet the groups at the forefront of the country’s lynching memorialization movement. The result was a richly. reported a deep dive with innovative design and multimedia components about America’s efforts to preserve the memories of lynchings through the lens of Germany’s Holocaust reckoning.
For Erica, a staff reporter at Coda Story, this was a story that dates back to a sweltering summer afternoon several years ago, when she visited the country’s first national lynching memorial in Alabama.
Despite the thousands of documented lynchings in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, the memorial had only opened in 2018. She left the site devastated by the magnitude of the racial terror it catalogued and stunned by its unique place in the American landscape. The memorial drew inspiration from Germany’s landscape of Holocaust memory and homages to the victims of Hitler’s killing machine.
Germany has earned the reputation as the global “master of memory” for how it has dealt with its Nazi past. But underneath the country’s celebrated “memory culture” lurks something more complex. A split between collective and individual memory. A Hungarian-born Jewish psychotherapist living and working in Germany told her that he sees the country’s emphasis on public memorials as a national form of displacement from individual guilt over the role peoples’ families played in Nazi Germany: “Because we are making a memorial public, we don’t need to look in our families.”
What can Germany teach us about the difference between individual and collective memory? Erica’s reporting seeks to uncover what the US can learn from the dark spots of Germany’s memory culture and the individual desire to forget the past when it implicates one’s family. Her article is a catalyst for how Americans can understand our past, a dazzling examination of where Germany has faltered, and a published piece of explanatory journalism encased in a compelling package of visuals that enhance understanding of the issues being explained.