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‘My grandfather was a Nazi’: Taking responsibility for the past

Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, September 1936
Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive
Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, September 1936

Every year I teach a class at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul called “Genocide Prevention: A 21st-Century Challenge.” Students sign up for a variety of reasons: They have a Holocaust survivor in the family; they took a course in high school or college on genocide and human rights and are eager to learn more; they want to go into human rights law; or the class was simply offered at the right time to fit their schedules.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
On the first day I ask students to fill out a short information sheet about why they’re taking the course and to include anything else they’d like me to know about themselves as students.

One year a student I’ll call John wrote that his grandfather had been a Nazi under Hitler in Germany. The student was taking this course as part of his personal vow to make up for what his grandfather might have done.

Dedicated to righting wrongs

John was haunted by this personal history, by this close connection to the greatest horror of the 20th century, and he took responsibility for it. He is determined to live a life dedicated to righting various kinds of wrongs as some measure of atonement.

I don’t know what the grandfather did, and I don’t know if John is aware of any of the specific details. The point is that it doesn’t matter – to John or to me. The grandfather was part of a huge system that perpetrated injustice, preyed on vulnerability, exploited power, terrorized the weak and the disadvantaged, exulted in cruelty and meanness.

John’s pain was obvious at every class as we studied the genocides in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust, Congo, Darfur, and Myanmar. He saw the patterns of greed, the usurpation of authority, and the malevolent thrill in destroying others based solely on their identities of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin.

Our ancestors were culpable; so are we

Four hundred years ago the first ship arrived with slaves at the colony of Virginia. For 400 years African-Americans have been without reparations, apologies, or prosecutions of the perpetrators of slavery, racism, bigotry, hate, and violence.

John is taking responsibility for what his grandfather did in the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others. Where is our responsibility for four centuries of slavery, racism, thousands of lynchings, inequity in education, poverty, health, housing, and every single aspect of life? For police brutality?

Our ancestors were culpable. John shows me that we are also culpable, all of us.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/29/2020 - 02:18 pm.

    The only responsibility to the past you have is to be the best you can be today. Whatever your grandparents or your parents did, good or bad, is their legacy, not yours. I was taught decades ago by an Iron Ore miner that the only person you can control is yourself. He also taught me that just because everybody is doing it, doesn’t make it right. This “new era” of you are responsible for things you didn’t do, is absolutely ridiculous. Be the best person you can be, help others and you decide what is right and wrong for you. Letting others define you is destructive.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/29/2020 - 06:42 pm.

      Joe, you’re missing the point entirely.

      It’s not that we’re responsible for things we don’t so. It’s that we benefit from racism & other forms of discrimination, without even intending to.

      That doens’t mean that you & I were just handed everything we have on a silver platter. It’s a relay race; how well I do during my leg of the race depends, NOT ENTIRELY BUT IN PART, on my position when I was handed the baton.

      When I entered the trades in the mid 80’s, overt racial discrimination was largely (but not entirely) gone. But my white skin still benefited me. There is a father-son or uncle-nephew aspect to the trades. Like a lot of industries, it helps to have someone who knows the ins & outs, and can introduce you to the right people. Then there’s also the, “If Bob’s a good guy & a skilled plumber, his son will likely do well too.” So Bob’s son & nephew will have an advantage over others without connections, regardless of race.

      But due to historic de jure racial discrimination in the trades, I was not competing against minorities who’s fathers & uncles were actively barred from the trades. Like Babe Ruth, I did not have to compete against the best, because the all of the best weren’t allowed in the league. I did not create that playing field, but I did benefit from it.

      Here is another example. In the 50’s though the 60’s, red lining kept blacks from owning homes in middle class neighborhoods. There were plenty of black guys who had good blue collar union manufacturing jobs. They could afford decent homes. But they were stuck renting in the ghetto.

      This meant they had money available for nicer vehicles. The Cadillac brand had a strong affinity with many black guys. But cars DEpreciate in value, while homes are much more likely to APPreciate in value. This hobbled millions of black families when it came to accumulating family wealth. Wealth, as opposed to income, is a huge advantage to have when riding out an economic downturn, or personal financial emergencies.

      I have taken positive steps to get more participation in the trades by people who’s older relatives were kept out. It means if my kids try to get in the trades, they will need to be sharper. But it’s a small way for me to right past wrongs. Not because I did the wronging, but because it wasn’t right me to benefit from it, and I don’t want my kids to benefit from it.

      Joe, have no problem giving you the benefit of the doubt that you have not encouraged racial or ethnic discrimination. But you might examine whether or not you benefited from that. If you’re white in the US, you almost assuredly have.

      • Submitted by Michelle Mullen on 07/01/2020 - 10:48 pm.

        Our yesterdays have no importance except as experience in making today more fruitful. Regrets and self-condemnation for what we’ve done or left undone, only destroy the self-esteem we could derive from a balanced view of ourselves. When you talk about benefiting from the past and is it right or wrong, should you or should you not?!?!?! It’s a never ending cycle, you will always benefit from what someone has done before you. It’s not of your control. It’s absurd to think that EVERYONE hasn’t benefited from the past. We all are different and therefore will all benefit in different ways. We take from life what we need. And it’s up to each individual as to what we do with it. Some make better choices than others but to say it’s about getting “delt a better hand at life because your white” is absolutely racist and should not be said or even referred to.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/02/2020 - 04:00 pm.

          So you’re good with perpetuating a system that benefits people with white skin to the detriment of other people with darker skin?

          Let’s have a race. But you get a boat anchor tied around your left ankle.

          • Submitted by Michelle Mullen on 07/05/2020 - 03:51 am.

            Ok yes, let’s have a race. You, myself, and my sister. Who unfortunately was born with a substantial learning disability…. So let’s tie said anchor to her leg instead. I guarantee you she will finish the race, she probably won’t win. Well to her she will be winning if she can just finish. Unfortunately for her there is no changing this for her, it’s something that will never get better. She doesn’t look to her parents for blame as to why she is like this. She doesn’t look to her grandparents for blame or their parents and say why did you make me like this? We will never know why this happened, all we know it’s not her fault. She is so thankful for everyday and feels so blessed all the time…. Some days I just look at her and think could I be that strong if it were me? There is absolutely nothing in the year 2020 you can’t achieve if you truly want it. I wonder how long some people will continue to blame other people or the past for the things they can’t/won’t achieve in their life instead of looking within. I guess 400yrs isn’t long enough?!?!?!

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/29/2020 - 11:08 pm.

      Then you do all those who follow you a disservice, by failing to address the problem now, continuing to kick the can further down the road. How selfish, and personally irresponsible it is make others in the future assume the burden of fixing deep societal problems that can and should be addressed by US, today.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/30/2020 - 11:19 am.

      “How is government going to fix `deep societal issues’?” The direct answer is that government fixes deep societal issues by fixing itself. Institutional or systemic racism is racism that is not directly overt or visible except by comparing how it treats people. If it wasn’t clear before the killing of George Floyd, it ought to be clear that those of us in the US who are white have never disentangled ourselves of the white supremacist past. Most likely, many of us have traveled through, life unaware of it while our institutions and laws have continued to enforce Jim-Crow like policies that grew out of black chattel slavery. Policies that may not violate the letter of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution but violate the spirit. You can connect the dots between the unequal treatment of black people by police and the campaigns by the Republican Party to suppress voter registration and voting.

      As a rule it’s true as you say that one is not responsible for things you didn’t do, but it’s also true that if you’re not part of the solution of a widely recognized social problem, then you’re part of the problem. The government is us and we’re each of responsible as citizens to advocate and support changes that live up to the spirit and letter of the Constitution that guaranty equality of treatment and opportunity under the law.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/01/2020 - 06:31 am.

        Jon, What will change if a person says my grandfather was a Nazi? Will inner city schools get better? Will rural schools get better? Will a poor person get a job? Will fathers stay in the home? Will the murder rate in Chicago go down?
        Again, you are responsible for your actions. Admitting you had a privilege or that a relative was a Nazi, will change nothing. White privilege is a sham, economic privilege exists and is color blind. If you have money you have more opportunities, period.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/01/2020 - 09:50 am.

          The point of the article is that a person did change when he knew the full story about his grandfather’s Nazi past. You have a point about simply “admitting” to having a privilege. That’s what one might call a version of “cheap grace.” Admitting to a problem without changing your attitude and your ways is meaningless and, you are correct, will change nothing.

          Your point about economic privilege also has a certain validity. Poverty in this country is highly correlated to poverty and lack of economic opportunity. But so-called white privilege is correlated to the way this economic privilege is allocated. If the color of your skin is white, the facts show you will not be as economically disadvantaged if your skin is black or of color. Segregation was systematically enforced by law for 56 years after Plessy v. Ferguson. It continues to be enforced “de facto” by patterns and behaviors learned and set during that period in the South, the North, the East and the West.
          No one says that by taking responsibility for

          • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/01/2020 - 09:52 am.

            No one says that taking responsibility for your actions means not taking responsibility for your duties as a citizen or a member of your society.

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