Earlier this summer I traveled to Germany. I was the first member of our family to visit since my grandfather, but he hadn’t gone there on vacation. I took an economy-class seat on a jet airliner. My grandfather took a glider in the early hours of D-Day. I thought of him every day I was in Germany, and I shared stories about him with my son while we hiked through a part of the country my grandfather’s unit had occupied after the war. His war stories read like a comic book — he was a member of the storied 101st Airborne Division, he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and he saw what was left of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. A citation given to him by the Belgian government, the Croix de Guerre, now hangs on our wall.
Since my grandfather died when I was very young, the stories I have of him were told to me by my mother and grandmother. He became an attorney and was a fierce defender of the Constitution and the rule of law. He became a family man and told his children the stories of what he had seen. And he had no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or bigotry of any kind. He had seen enough Nazis for one lifetime.
There was a surreal quality to my time in Germany because it was so peaceful and charming. I knew that not long ago the country had been in ruins, and I couldn’t help but contrast the Germany I was experiencing with the Germany my grandfather had seen in 1945. One experience brought the change into stark relief. I was in a park in a small city in Bavaria. A few of our number went off to get sandwiches for a picnic, and I stayed behind with the children, who were playing. As I watched the kids slide and swing, several other families arrived and joined in. It took a while for me to realize how diverse we were. There were two gay couples, a straight couple, an interracial couple, a differently-abled family, and then a cluster of us Americans. We exchanged pleasantries, watched each other’s kids, and enjoyed the restful moment. I smiled at how much Hitler would have hated it. We were a far cry from his narrow, hateful vision. And we were the winners. Thanks to my grandfather and millions like him, everybody in the park was safe. Not a swastika in sight.
It came as quite a shock, then, to see Nazi flags at yesterday’s hate-filled march in Charlottesville. Since moving to South Carolina, I have grown accustomed to our hateful banner, the Confederate flag, and the unending fights to remove it from our shared public spaces. But I can’t say that I’m used to Nazi flags. Of course, white supremacists use them interchangeably. In Virginia, they marched side by side, the Confederate flag and the Nazi flag — lost causes raised high for all to see. It made me sick to look at, and I wondered what my grandfather would have said. Actually, I think I know what he would have said. To paraphrase Sen. Orrin Hatch, they didn’t go all the way to Germany to fight Nazis only to let them go unchallenged here at home. Which is all I wanted to say in this column, the one sure appropriate response to Charlottesville.
In the spirit of my grandfather who fought the Nazis, I must stand and speak against this hate in our own country. In the spirit of my town, still grieving the attack of white supremacist Dylann Roof, I join with others in relegating the symbols of hate to the dustbin of history. Even as I write this, I am aware that a statue of John Calhoun, a white supremacist and proponent of slavery, stands tall above our town, not two blocks from Mother Emanuel AME Church. That shameful monument should have come down a long time ago. And if anyone in your family fought like my grandfather did, then you should stand and speak as well. If anyone in your community has been murdered, then you know that these symbols aren’t about heritage or a bygone era; they are about the current climate of hate.
Watching the footage from Charlottesville, I wondered if there was anything my grandfather might have recognized. I looked for a long time. I think he would have recognized the ordinary courage of the hundreds of citizens who showed up to peacefully protest the Nazis that had come to their town. This country is at a boil, but some Americans still know what we are capable of standing for.
Jeremy Rutledge is a writer and pastor of Circular Congregational Church downtown.