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German Nostalgia for the Antebellum South

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To me, the question about why the Germans hold nostalgia for openly racist regimes is not that hard to answer, but let’s answer it anyway because the Germans love them some Southern plantation nostalgia:

On the U3 Line of Berlin’s mass transit system, there is a stop called Onkel Toms Hütte, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The stop bears the name of a neighbourhood tavern and beer garden that stood for almost 100 years, from 1884 until 1978. German restaurants, inns and beer gardens bore the title of the anti-slavery polemic, which became a shorthand for a type of Southern comfort – evidence of the novel’s complex, counterintuitive and, at times, disturbing reception.

When the novel was translated into German and published in 1852 – the same year as its American release – it was immensely popular. Though the melodrama about the cruelty of American slavery did much to stir German opinion against the practice, it also initiated a fascination with the seemingly simpler life of the slave depicted in Stowe’s domestic scenes.

A cottage industry sprouted up around it: plays, musical scores, even European-set reimaginings in which slavery became an increasingly elastic concept.

The Berlin tavern, built in 1884, adopted the name Onkel Toms Hütte because its proprietor liked the novel. It was just one of many leisure establishments that drew on Stowe’s novel to promise a “good ol’ time”. Heike Paul, a professor of American studies at FAU Erlängern-Nuremberg, characterises this attitude as a “romanticisation of slavery and a nostalgic, even remorseful view of its ‘pastness’”.

This hazy romanticisation was undergirded by racial prejudice, which found in Stowe’s depiction of Tom as a “happy slave” a justification for racial hierarchy. Though “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was originally cultivating sympathy for Black slaves, by the early 20th century it was invoked by both German progressives and conservatives as proof of Black inferiority and as a justification for colonisation.

An introduction to a 1911 German edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin describes how “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”.

Bettina Hofmann, a professor of American studies at Bergische Universität Wuppertal, argues that Uncle Tom’s Cabin introduced racial terms to the German language that foreshadow the Nazi race categories. However, as she qualifies, “it would be an anachronism to accuse Stowe of having paved the way for Hitler’s thoughts on race”.

Still, it remains a dim possibility that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had at least some influence. Stowe’s novel was, after all, one of Hitler’s self-proclaimed favourite books.

That Lost Cause nostalgia would be popular among Nazis and that the Confederate flag has been commonly displayed in anti-lockdown protests by far right elements in Germany seems….rather predictable actually.

Of course, if the U.S. banned the Confederate flag as the Germans ban the Nazi Swastika, we would be in a better place.

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