by Manfred Henningsen
Editor’s note: Manfred Henningsen is a frequent contributor to Hawaii Reporter. His latest book — a coming of age memoir that spans WWII and postwar Germany is also a trenchant political commentary that reminds Americans that they need to come to terms with their own racist past. Henningsen, who came to the U.S. in 1969, doesn’t mince words when it comes to “American Exceptionalism” which he contrasts with Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung–which means the effort to analyze, digest and learn to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust.
Regimes of Terror/Regimes of Memory: Beyond the Uniqueness of the Holocaust is Professor Henningsen’s first book written in English and arguably it’s very, very timely.
The Russian invasion of the Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has updated one of my major motivations for writing this book: why did the violent record of Russian history in the 20th century not prevent Putin from ordering his so-called “special operation”, and why did most of the Russian people become the willing bystanders of this war? Talking to a very diverse selection of Ukrainian citizens on a 2-week journey from Lviv to Kyiv and Odessa in 2016, the then occurring military operation in the Donbas region made it clear to them that Russians hadn’t changed.
Again and again, my brother and I were confronted with the insight that the Germans had learned from their violent history, including their terror regime in the Ukraine from 1941 to 1945, and therefore could be trusted. Yet the Russians had not recognized the legacy of the Stalinist terror in the Ukraine and therefore behave today as they had before.
The unique nature of my manuscript stems from the fact that in the long introduction I attempt to reconstruct how I became slowly aware of the monstrous past of the society I was born and growing up in since 1938 during and after the war. The formative experiences of my childhood are characterized by an unspoken compact of silence Germans practiced on almost all levels of society, including the family. In early 1945 I observed the change in the small town of Gluecksburg in the northern-most art of Germany when Nazi and Wehrmacht uniforms became suddenly replaced by the uniforms of the British occupation army. The seven-year-old boy didn’t understand what it meant because nobody explained it to him. Yet it became obvious to me that something extraordinary had happened because the people in the new uniforms spoke a language I didn’t understand.
I saw thousands of refugees that were coming from the eastern parts of the country (East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia), fleeing the approaching Soviet Army. They were seeking refuge in this region in the North that had seen almost no destructive impact during the entire war. But I didn’t see the hundreds of surviving concentration camp inmates who were arriving in late April and early May by train from Neuengamme near Hamburg and by ship from the camp Stutthof in East-Prussia in the harbor of the nearby city Flensburg. By that time, Flensburg had become the last capital of the Third Reich with Grand Admiral Doenitz as Hitler’s successor.
These sick and emaciated survivors must have been seen by many people but were never mentioned when they reminisced about the end of the war. I never heard about these experiences until I read about them in a book that was published in 2015, covering the final days of the war in Flensburg. Recovering these suppressed experiences of historical reality, had to wait a long time until the social prohibition of questioning had been lifted. I don’t know whether all the bodies that were buried in mass graves in 1945 have been by now excavated and identified.
The pervasive silence about the Nazi past that determined my childhood and high school years in Flensburg ended for me when I entered the University in Munich in 1958, studying history, philosophy, and political science. It was the time when critical historical and political studies about the Third Reich began to slowly appear. Yet reflections on the past were often characterized by self-pity about the loss of home and property, experiences of suffering and death on the flight from the east and during the Allied bombing raids on German cities.
The processing of the past, the by now famous Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, had not yet started, though the activities of institutional apologies and payment of reparations had been started by the West German government in negotiations with Israel and the Jewish World Congress in the early 1950s. Pressure from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had facilitated these moves.
The book retraces the stages of the process of German civil society, slowly coming to terms with the record of evil. I have watched this development from the 1960s onward, first from inside Germany and then since 1969 from the USA. As a German living in the USA, I was regularly questioned about the past and couldn’t escape the presence of Nazi Germany as a permanent feature in the American culture industry. Everything connected with Germany had a moral question mark attached to it. As a result of this constant exposure, I became curious about the question of how other societies, including the USA, had processed the negative aspects of their history.
Living in the US since 1969, first in Stanford, and then since 1970 in Hawaii, and getting married to a young African American woman in 1974, the focus on American historical denial became a parallel inquiry to my German quest. Why was the story of America told as an exclusively White experience, ignoring the economy of evil that slavery and Jim Crow constituted, and refusing to listen to the counter-narrative of meaning Black writers, preachers, gospel singers and musicians had to offer?
The books by Ta-Nehesi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) and Between the World and Me (2015) and the documentary film by Raoul Peck about James Baldwin, I’m Not Your Negro (2016), which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, tell the story of white racism in the US as it still impacts American life today. Henry Louis Gates’ 2019 PBS documentary and book on the Reconstruction Period (Stony the Road. Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, 2019) underline the intentional amnesia that has been socially dominant.
I try to use a similar approach in my book when I compare German and American experiences.
Yet as much as I was preoccupied by the German and American parallelism of forgetting and attempts at overcoming this syndrome, encounters with Asian students at the University of Hawaii made me also look at scenarios of terror in Asia. Since Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, triggered the American entry into the war, the Tokyo Trial (1946-48) as its conclusion opened the perspective on the terror committed by the Japanese Imperial army in China.
The still pervasive unwillingness of the Japanese political class to take responsibility for the record of evil perpetrated on China, Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian countries by the empire follows a pattern that one could call the norm of denial and memory suppression. Comparing the Japanese with the German story and then also dealing with the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and the Indonesian violence of 1965-66 provides a global comparative perspective on regimes of terror and memory.
When it comes to books that received popular acclaim in the area I am talking about, I would mention Timothy Snyder’s studies, Bloodlands (2010), Black Earth (2015) and The Road to Unfreedom (2018) that have influenced my comparative approach. Yet Ian Buruma’s, The Wages of Guilt. Memories of War in Germany and Japan (1994) and especially Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (1997) may come closer to my attempt throughout the book to use my personal experiences as the existential connection to understand the manifestations of evil in Germany, America, and the rest of the world.
The subtitle of Iris Chang’s book on the terror the Japanese army unleashed on Nanjing in December 1937, The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, emphasizes the comparative dimension when she confronts the failure of the Japanese political class to the terror record of the empire with the successful processing of the past in Germany.
The subtitle of her book provoked some angry responses in the US because it seemed to relativize the Holocaust. Yet contrary to this charge (which will predictably be raised against Ken Burn’s 2022 PBS-documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust”), she wanted to provoke her American readers to finally recognize the economy of violence the former WWII ally, the Republic of China, had endured during the war. The subtitle of my book, “Beyond the Uniqueness of the Holocaust”, has already provoked even more angry responses since I dare to question the notion that the perpetration of evil on a grand genocidal scale depends on Germans as perpetrators and Jews as victims.
Speaking about the universal potential of this kind of action doesn’t take anything away from German responsibility for the terror they perpetrated. Yet it allows the world to look at history in a much less Holocaust-centric way and imagine, based on the knowledge of genocides that have happened in Europe, Africa, and Asia since 1945, a future when Holocaust-like scenarios will emerge without Germans as perpetrators and Jews as victims.
To experientially substantiate this notion of the universal potential for genocidal terror, I visited sites where this terror has already been acted out:
Dachau (1956, 2010), Buchenwald (1991, 1995, 2016, and 2018), Auschwitz (1997), Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh (1997), Nanjing (April and December 2012), Babi Yar, Kyiv (2016). In addition, I visited museums and memorials in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Berlin, Munich, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Tokyo, Jerusalem (Yad Vashem) and Cape Town to get a fuller exposure to the universal record of crimes against humanity. These visits made me also realize how the universal presence of evil in human nature enables political regimes of all stripes in all parts of the world to weaponize this disposition.
Manfred Henningsen, who resides in Honolulu, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His new book, Regimes of Terror/Regimes of Memory: Beyond the Uniqueness of the Holocaust is available on Amazon.