National Atonement

The House of Representatives this week began hearings on the question of reparations for slavery in the United States. The issue, which has been discussed many times since the Civil War ended, has somehow become part of the 2020 presidential debate. Many of the Democratic candidates support some form of compensation to descendents of former slaves, while Republicans are mostly opposed.

At the same time that this debate is being fought in Washington, the Polish prime minister, part of a right-wing administration that is deeply sensitive about the country’s role in World War II, announced that his country would never pay damages or compensation to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While many Jews see the Poles as complicit in the crimes of the Nazis, the Polish government sees itself as a victim of Nazi aggression.

The case of the Holocaust is different from American slavery because with the former some victims and perpetrators are still living, but both experiences had massive effects on the current state of affairs. We are still living with the consequences of both, but after the Shoah there was a concerted effort by some countries to make amends while after the end of Reconstruction the U.S. decided to mostly forget about restitution for slavery.

My grandmother, who fled Austria with her family after it was taken over by Germany in the Anschluss in 1938, worked hard to get the pension and compensation she deserved from country she left. She even helped other refugees navigate the bureaucratic steps needed to access their restitution. Even though Germany and Austria were willing to make amends, they didn’t necessarily make it easy.

It’s understandable why countries are usually unwilling to make up for past wrongs. Once you open up the possibility of historic reparations, where do you stop? The U.S. has certainly mistreated many groups over the years: American Indians, Japanese Americans. How should restitution be made, with cash payments or some other form?

These are important questions to resolve, and certainly making reparations for slavery would be exceedingly challenging, particularly because the institution was abolished in 1865, but the example of other countries show it is possible. Spain, which expelled Jews in 1492, has found a way to return citizenship to people who can prove they descend from those who fled. No historic sin is too distant that it can’t be addressed in some way.

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