Reparations for the Holocaust and for Slavery: Same, Different or Indifferent?
During the Holocaust, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, or NS (the Dutch national railway company), on behalf of the Nazi occupiers, operated the trains that transported more than 100,000 Dutch Jews, first to “transit camps” and then to the Dutch border.
There, the Dutch Jews were transferred to German trains that would take them on to Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only around 5,000 Dutch Jews survived. The state railroad company got paid for the transportation – millions in today’s terms!
“The NS complied with the German order to make trains available…The Germans paid for it and said the NS had to come up with a timetable. And the company went and did it without a word of objection,” said Dirk Mulder from the National Westerbork Memorial last year.
Although it has been 75 years since the last train crammed with Dutch Jews destined for the Auschwitz death camp left the transit camp Westerbork, the Dutch people have never forgotten.
NS apologized in 2005 for its role and in November of last year agreed to set up a commission to investigate how it can make reparations for the injustice calling its involvement “a black page in the history of our country and our company.”
Last week, NS announced it will compensate Holocaust victims and survivors for its role in the genocide. Living Holocaust survivors will receive 15,000 euros (Approximately $17,000). Widows and widowers of victims will receive half of the amount, and children of victims receive 5000 or 7500 euros
There have been other major reparation and compensation actions by European governments and organizations to Holocaust victims and survivors.
Here at home, reparations to the descendants of slaves are once again being fiercely debated, or ignored.
One clearly saw both at the recent congressional hearings on the tragedy and legacy of slavery.
Thousands of mostly Black people waited to get into the standing room only hearing room where all Democrats attended but “only four of 12 GOP reps bothered to appear in the hearing room at any time” to discuss such an important idea – an idea that “was sneered at” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even before the hearing convened. An idea that he has already promised will never pass in “his” Senate.
The idea of reparations, however, is not new in the United States. Dr. Allen J. Davis has compiled a list of 30 “Reparations Payments [and Apologies] Made in the United States by the Federal Government, States, Cities, Religious Institutions, and Colleges and Universities.”
Among these, several reparations to Native-American Indians for lands confiscated and other injustices and, of course, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II.
Some of the reparations or settlements to American Indians are for events that have taken place almost a century-and-a-half ago.
For example, in 1980 the Supreme Court ordered the Federal Government to pay some $122 million to eight Sioux Indian tribes to compensate the illegal seizure of their tribal lands in 1877, an event that, at the time, took place more than a century before.
Which brings us to the argument often made against reparations for slavery: “It happened such a long time ago… Slavery ended more than 160 years ago… There are no black slaves living today…It is unfair to ask American taxpayers, many of them from families that came to the United States after slavery ended, to pay for the wrongs of slavery.”
However, is 160 years ago really that much more “long ago” than the hundred years after which reparations were made to Native Indian tribes, or the 75 years after which reparations are being made to victims of the Holocaust?
This is but one of the many difficult, subjective and emotional questions that are being asked and opinions voiced -– both pro and con — about reparations for what is often called “America’s original sin.”
The Constitutional Rights Foundation discusses this “conundrum” here, including a list of pros and cons regarding reparations.
Among the “cons,” in addition to the passage of time:
• The problems faced by African Americans today are not the “legacy of slavery” or even racism…
• Federal and state governments have already spent billions of dollars on social programs… affirmative action, and education. These programs have benefitted African Americans.
• African Americans, particularly the young, need to overcome their problems through their own efforts and not depend on more government handouts and benefits.
• Reparations would be too expensive, depriving the country of the opportunity to fix the Social Security and Medicare systems and meet other budget needs that benefit all Americans.
Those in favor contend:
• The claim for reparations is not against white Americans or even individual Americans. It is a claim against American government and society, which has continued from the time of slavery…Through slavery, African Americans were terribly wronged and modern blacks were robbed of their inheritance…They deserve to be compensated.
• The problems faced by many blacks today come from slavery and society’s ongoing racism. Blacks were uprooted from their homes in Africa and brutalized in America by a system that destroyed the family structure and degraded the individual…Compared to whites, blacks remain in a disadvantaged position and will remain so until they receive compensation and society’s racism ends.
• Welfare, subsidized housing, affirmative action, and other previous efforts to address socio-economic problems of the black underclass have been too little and too late…
• Reparations will not promote dependency. Instead, they will give individual African Americans and the community as a whole a chance to create their own economic base and become self-reliant.
• The cost of reparations may be great, but a debt is owed and must be paid. The moral claim for reparations at least equals that of any other government program. America is a rich country, and if the will exists, the money can be found.
Lead image, right photo: Wikimedia Commons: Albert Konrad Gemmeker. Dutch Jews boarding a train at Westerbork.