A few weeks ago a small celebratory gathering caused outrage in Berlin. A group of ex-soldiers from the East German People’s Army, in uniform, held a private party in a restaurant at the Berlin Zoo. German politicians voiced outrage that representatives of a totalitarian state should be allowed to gather in a public place, display their hated symbols and have fun.
In the very center of Berlin, across the street from the newly restored Cathedral of the last Kaiser, the public debate about honoring or dishonoring German history is changing the skyline. After years of argument, the site of the East German Palace of the Republic, where the rubber-stamp legislature met, is now just a grassy field. Next door, the foundations of the palace of Prussian kings and German emperors are being excavated in preparation for its architectural resurrection. The palace was damaged by Allied bombs, blown up by the East German government, and will now be rebuilt through private donations. Berliners have decided they prefer an imperial palace to a Marxist one.
These controversies about history are played out in every society, and are always filtered through contemporary political debates. Recently Americans have been arguing about the Confederacy and its heritage, prompted by the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. As in Germany, regional rivalries and the legacy of a failed state divide the country. Our arguments about whether it is patriotic or racist to memorialize that moment in 1861 depend on how one regards the legitimacy of the Southern states’ secession. Because secession came out of a political disagreement about slavery, both sides have become offensive and defensive in their rhetoric.
Although the participants in these historical debates tend to assert their moral superiority and their opponents’ bad faith, their one-sided simplicity actually reflects the nasty partisanship of contemporary politics, rather than the messy ambiguity of historical fact. A wonderful example is the discussion about whether to honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was a slave-trader who made a fortune before the Civil War. In battle, he led his often outnumbered troops to victory after victory, until the final year of the War. But he is also remembered for a great military crime, the massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in April 1864. In the immediate aftermath of the War, Forrest was one of the early members, perhaps a founder, of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee, and became a significant leader of their violent efforts to maintain white supremacy.
Thus far the story seems to provide the simple clarity that can cause citizens to scream at each other. On one side, legendary military leadership in a noble cause; on the other, mass murder in the service of racist self-interest.
But Forrest’s final years complicate that story. After a few years, he left the KKK and disavowed its violence. He promoted reconciliation between blacks and whites. In his final public speech, he addressed a black organization in Memphis in 1875. Forrest said, “I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief.”
In the heat of war Forrest the tactical genius committed a monstrous crime. Later he disavowed the racism and white supremacist violence that characterized Southern treatment of black Americans for another century.
Honoring “great men” is often made possible only by ignoring the ambiguities which made them human, but not so great. The website of the General Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society, on which the full speech can be read, does not mention Fort Pillow or the KKK. But Gen. Forrest is worth remembering as an example of how one person can combine the best and worst of human qualities, like those historical arguments which outlive them.