Spending time in Berlin is interesting after growing up in South Carolina. Aside from the fact that “Berlin” is a better band name than “Pelzer,” there’s also the manner in which the two places treat certain indiscretions in their past. Berlin must have something in its tap water that promotes remorse and regret — an element regularly filtered out of the United States’s supply. Berlin is very “OK, here’s what went down. There are historical and educational reasons for knowing. We don’t dwell on it but man did we screw up. Have some Schwarzwurst.”
When I was a kid, there was really none of that in South Carolina. It was more, “Your ass is free but we’re not that happy about it. Have some processed cheese.” If Berlin and Germany as a whole is “Never Again,” South Carolina was “Oh, yeah, we’d do it again.”
Arriving in Berlin, I expected to see “Hitler Boulevard” and “Joseph Goebbel Jr. High School.” After all, there was a Wade Hampton High School near where I grew up, and there are at least 8 streets named “Wade Hampton” in South Carolina. This guy was a Confederate calvary officer who spent his life managing plantations in South Carolina and Mississippi. When his father died in 1858, he inherited one of the “largest collections of slaves in the South” — about 3,000 — and a library that boasted 10,000 volumes, which would have made it possible for each slave to check out 3 books at the same time if they had library cards or been allowed to read.
I suppose Germany does not name things after Nazis because, most importantly, they believe you should not memorialize bad people but also because the Nazis lost. Where else in society, other than the American South, do we name things after losers? There’s no Walter Mondale Airport or Fort Michael Dukakis or (eventually) Barack Obama Square. But even the black hair salons are named after Confederates in South Carolina: My mother got her hair done at The Jefferson Davis Beauty Parlor and Weave Shop.
While I was on a bus tour of the city, the tour guide mentioned that the Berlin Zoo once had Africans as exhibits but “that would never take place today. Thanks God!” You would never hear that in South Carolina. I have taken plantation tours when the guide was at the point of tears discussing the lost cause. “Yeah, well, you know, after the War of Northern Agression, the owners could no longer afford the upkeep of the plantation so they had to sell their home. Sniff. Sniff.” My heart breaks for them. Besides, they probably just moved to a condo in Charleston, near the water. It was better than sharecropping while waiting for your 40 acres and a mule like a sucker. That was worse than waiting for those X-ray glasses you ordered from the back of a comic book. You should have been suspicious — why is no one else using this technology? — but you knew everything was going to change once you received them.
I was on one tour where the guide was in antebellum costume, flouncing around in a ball gown and thinking she was cute. She asked my friend, “Wouldn’t you have loved to have lived when you could dress like this all the time?” My friend replied, “No, because I would have been a slave.”
But the U.S. has this fascination with the trappings of a society built on slave labor and human misery. There is no German version of “Gone with the Wind” (“Vom Winde Verweht”). Berlin also has monuments to the victims of the holocausts. Monuments to slaves in South Carolina are alongside the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. This is like your wife’s ex-boyfriend coming along on the honeymoon: “Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit here and silently resent you.”
Berlin is an overall progressive city 70 years after World War II. I would not wanted to have been anywhere near the South in 1935 — 70 years after the end of the Civil War. You had Jim Crow and lynchings; the only real improvement was the launch of zoot suits in the late ’30s. And you had at least 30 years to go until “I Spy.”