Teona Tsintsadze

Letter from Germany: A strange and enduring love affair with the antebellum South

Tucked away in a leafy area of Berlin, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin subway station may look like the last vestige of a national obsession with the darkest period of American history, but these ideas live on in other ways

Last summer, the German professional basketball player Moses Pölking took on an unlikely off-court opponent. Organizing an online petition, the athlete demanded that the name of a Berlin subway station be changed. Located in a leafy, well-to-do part of town, it is now known as Onkel Toms Hütte — or Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  

The 1852 novel, written by Harriett Beecher-Stowe, for which the station is named occupies a fraught place in the annals of American literature, recognized both for galvanizing public opinion against the brutality of slavery and for reinforcing reductive racial stereotypes with the servile depiction of its main character. 

Pölking, whose parents are German and Cameroonian, spoke of his discomfort passing the station. “It woke up a lot of bad emotions,” he told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle, arguing that it is way past time for it and a nearby street to be renamed.

So far, Pölking’s petition has not succeeded. The station’s name greets visitors on a large sign outside, emblazoned in white letters against a bright blue background. 

A few minutes down the road lie Onkel Toms Hütte stable and horseback riding school, a restaurant called Uncle Tom’s Burger and the Onkel Toms Hütte kindergarten. In fact, the entire area pays homage to a book once described by the Black American writer James Baldwin as a “catalogue of violence.” 

The existence of this neighborhood in modern-day, multicultural Berlin can be traced back to a surprisingly durable national fascination with America’s antebellum South, which first took hold in the mid-19th century. 

Soon after publication, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a global sensation and the only book in the 19th century to outsell the Bible. It made Beecher-Stowe Germany’s most beloved American author and had a profound effect on popular culture, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin-themed beer gardens and campgrounds springing up across the country. Berlin’s Onkel Toms Hutte subway station opened in 1929, near an Uncle Tom’s pub and a sprawling housing development of the same name. 

These literary-themed homages tapped into a fantasy with the American South that sanitized the brutality of chattel slavery and characterized plantation life as bucolic, simple and comfortable for thousands of “loyal and happy” slaves. 

Heike Paul, is an American Studies professor at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg who has written extensively about Germany’s obsession with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She describes this inaccurate interpretation of a brutal and shameful period of American history as the “pastoralization of slavery” and a “total disconnect” from Beecher-Stowe’s text, which was written to expose the horrors of the practice.

Similar ideas are also central to the “Lost Cause,” a revisionist account of America’s past that surfaced after the defeat of Confederate forces in the Civil War of 1861-1865. Romanticizing plantation life and depicting slaves as the faithful servants of benevolent owners, the mythology of the Lost Cause also insists that the war was fought over state’s rights, not whether or not white people had the right to own and place other human beings in chains. 

While Beecher-Stowe was a staunch abolitionist, the unquestioning subservience of her central character reinforced stereotypes and a variety of racist ideas. According to Sanders Isaac Bernstein, a Berlin-based PhD student at the University of Southern California, whose work has included analysis of German nostalgia for the Confederate South, this archetype “was invoked by both German progressives and conservatives as proof of Black inferiority and as a justification for colonization.”

Bernstein holds up as an example the introduction of a 1911 German translation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which states that “the Negroes are undeniably an inferior race, and, now that they have been freed, are widely perceived to be a plague in the United States.”

While living in the South, I encountered ideas rooted in the Lost Cause repeatedly. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the Civil War casually referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression,” or the myriad revisionist narratives I came across while covering North Carolina’s debate to remove Confederate statues from public spaces. Most people who opposed the idea argued that taking down or altering the monuments amounted to historical erasure, advancing the falsehood that the war was fought in response to northern “tyranny.” In reality, however, the defense of these symbols, included, at its core, a glorification of the Confederate cause and antebellum life.

Coming across these ideas in the contemporary South may be unpleasant, but it is not surprising. I did not expect to find traces of them in Berlin, though. Wanting to understand how this contentious American myth gained such a following in Germany, I asked Bernstein to meet me at Onkel Toms Hütte. He arrived, dressed in black. We both took photographs of the station’s sign and then moved to a nearby bench. 

Outside of the neighborhood of Onkel Toms Hütte, most of Germany’s homages to Beecher-Stowe’s book are no longer visible. The nearby tavern shut down in 1978 and the campgrounds disappeared decades ago. But “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is not the only example of Southern storytelling that resonated in Germany. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone with the Wind” became an immediate bestseller under the Third Reich and its 1939 movie adaptation, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, is said to have been a favorite of Adolf Hitler. 

Revisionist interpretations of the Confederacy persisted under the Nazi regime, which had developed its own Lost Cause narrative to cope with the national humiliation that resulted from Germany’s defeat in the First World War. According to an account by the ex-Nazi leader Hermann Rauschnin, Hitler believed that the “American people themselves were conquered” when the South lost the Civil War. Since then, he argued, the United States had slid into a state of political and racial “decay.” 

You can still see clear signs of this strange love affair lingering in the Germany of today: Civil War reenactments in which the majority of participants want to take the losing side; Confederate flags flying at anti-lockdown protests, at country music festivals, or hung in the back of Berlin drinking establishments. In many instances, the Stars and Bars can be seen as a convenient alternative to the Nazi swastika, the display of which has been banned under German law since 1945. 

The cultural resonance of the Confederate war manifests itself in subtler ways, too. Bernstein, who is American, said: “Sometimes I’m surprised by the way in which one can still encounter people being like, ‘You know, the real America is in the South.’ I think it comes back to a particular idea of the city being somehow part of the world capitalist system, but the country is where a nation’s cultural life truly exists. I can’t help but think that part of that is the remaining power of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Gone with the Wind.’”

Of course, Germany is not the only country in which Confederate iconography can be seen. In recent years, the Stars and Bars has become a common touchstone for the far right from Ireland to Brazil. However, it is especially jarring in a nation that has, for decades, made rigorous efforts to confront the violence and prejudice of its past. 

Germany’s long and painful process of reckoning with the Holocaust, known within the country as Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, is often hailed as a global model of historical reconciliation. According to Bernstein, it includes a deep suspicion of wistful longing for an imagined past, an emotion fostered and exploited by the Nazis to advance their ideas of antisemitism and volkisch nationalism. 

However such messaging remains powerful to this day. In a recent campaign, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland called for a return to a “normal” Germany. While, at least on the surface, about the country’s emergence from the coronavirus pandemic, one video juxtaposes grainily nostalgic cinefilm of a white family with contemporary footage of burning barricades, anti-fascist protesters and lockdown signs. At one point a garden gnome makes an appearance in a neat suburban garden, presumably owned by a clean-cut white, middle-class family — a bizarre symbol of the party’s cozy, quaint and culturally homogenous vision for the nation.

That these ideas still have a following in Germany may explain why Pölking’s campaign to rename Onkel Toms Hütte has, as yet, not been acted upon. After all, preserving the name allows people to cling to a German identity rooted in an illusory version of the past, far away from the complexities and tensions that exist in today’s world.

For Bernstein, that raises a worrying question: “Shouldn’t Germany, of all places, be aware of the trap of nostalgia?”

Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Washington, DC’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship.

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