By Thomas Craemer
This essay is part of PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation 9, a special series of essays, On Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism.
My parents grew to adulthood in post-war West Germany during a time when speaking about the Holocaust was still taboo. They challenged their own parents with questions like “What did you do during the Holocaust?” Not receiving many meaningful replies, my parents’ generation made sure that my own generation would learn about the Holocaust in nearly every school subject. As a result, I grew up on Holocaust documentaries and felt intense shame for being German based on our horrific history.
One day, I met Holocaust survivor Mieciu Langer (see Image 1; Langer 1999) who had retired with his wife Felicia from Israel, of all places, to my German hometown Tübingen where our families became friendly. During one joint dinner, Mieciu opened up and shared the horrific memories of his youth. I was able to express my feelings of shame to Mieciu and he simply embraced me. In 2001, following our deeply memorable dinner conversation, our two families decided to embark on a spiritual journey to Poland where Mieciu had been born and where his family was murdered by the German Nazis.
In Kraków, Poland, we commemorated Mieciu’s family together. Image 2 shows my mother, Heidi Crämer, taking a picture of Felicia and Mieciu Langer in front of Mieciu’s childhood home, with Mieciu’s grandson David in between. One day, the family received a notification that they had to relocate to the new Jewish ghetto instituted by the Nazi occupation government. Image 3 shows Mieciu in front of their new ghetto home. The family had to move multiple times within the ghetto each time that the size of the ghetto was reduced. The accommodations became increasingly crammed and unsanitary while the Nazis erected a wall around the ghetto that looked like Jewish tombstones (see Image 4). Ultimately, the Kraków Ghetto was ‘liquidated,’ and everyone had to assemble at the intersection shown in Image 5. Some were selected, like Mieciu, for forced labor, while others were selected for immediate extermination. Mieciu was imprisoned in the Płaszów concentration camp.
Image 6 shows Mieciu and his grandson David in front of the Płaszów concentration camp memorial site. Since no barracks have survived at Płaszów, Mieciu showed us in Auschwitz, a camp where he had not been imprisoned, how they lived tightly crammed in triple bunk beds (see Image 7), and how they died. Image 8 shows Mieciu entering the crematory, the destination the Nazis had intended for him.
When Mieciu had been David’s age, he performed forced labor first in the Płaszów concentration camp, later in Czestochowa, and then, in the German concentration camps of Buchenwald and Rehmsdorf. Later he was forced on a death march from Rehmsdorf to Theresienstadt in what is today Austria where he was liberated by Soviet troops (Langer 1999: 113-114).
I often wondered how a Holocaust survivor could ever trust Germans again. I am not sure whether reparations helped. Mieciu possessed exceptional humanity, blaming the Nazis for his suffering, rather than the German people. He had received a reparations pension (Entschädigungszahlungen) since the 1970s until his passing in 2015 of about 1,200 Euro per month (Langer, personal communication 7/10/2016), about USD1,483 in 2019 dollars (Pound Sterling Live 2019; Friedman 2020). As a reflection of Mieciu’s terrible losses and suffering, these payments were clearly inadequate. However, they signaled to him that Germany was actively trying to change, and to me that my country was taking responsibility and expressing remorse.
When I was naturalized on September 19, 2014, I embraced my new U.S. citizenship with pride while retaining my old German citizenship. Finally, I had something to be proud of: the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the ban of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the struggle for the abolition of slavery itself. Of course, neither I, nor any of my new American compatriots were around when all these milestones were accomplished. Yet psychologically they were easy to embrace. Harder to embrace were the negative aspects of my new national identity.
Although nobody alive today was ever a slave owner or enslaved, we all indirectly benefit from slavery, even I as a first generation immigrant. Many American roads I use were laid by enslaved people, even in the North. The buildings that house the democratic government from which I benefit were erected with the aid of slave labor. The insurance premiums I pay are likely less expensive than they would have been, had the insurance companies not profited from insuring enslaved people, making their lives expendable in the process. These are just a few examples. All Americans alive today indirectly benefit from U.S. slavery, and some do so directly by inheriting estates accumulated through slave labor. This means that we all share a historical responsibility for setting things right. My experiences with Mieciu suggest to me that reparations may be a good approach.
My own work on reparations (Craemer 2015, 2018, 2019) and works by Richard F. America (1990) as well as Darity and Mullen (2020), suggest that developing formulas for reparations is a complex task, but not an impossible one, as some opponents of slavery reparations would hold (e.g., Eizenstat 2019). Thanks to meticulous record keeping by the perpetrators, it is possible to estimate both the damages and benefits of slavery to different groups. Analyzing these figures is an important first step toward developing concrete reparations proposals, which the political representatives of the descendant community can then negotiate with the perpetrators’ successors. Of course, nothing can ever be ‘repaired.’ Reparations serve as a symbolic gesture to acknowledge the historical injustice, and to make a formal apology more meaningful.
Comparing the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery?
Drawing a parallel between the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery may seem odd at first blush, as the two historical injustices seem hardly comparable. The Holocaust lasted only a few years, slavery a few centuries. Morally the Holocaust may have been the more devastating event as its express purpose was the extermination of the entire Jewish people (and other groups besides). Forced labor was just one means to that end in a program called “Vernichtung durch Arbeit,” (“extermination through labor”). During slavery, too, death on a massive scale was tolerated as a means of exploiting the enslaved. From the perspective of a victim, it probably does not matter whether the ultimate purpose of one’s suffering is enslavement or death as long as one is tolerated in the pursuit of the other. Thus, shared human suffering makes the two historical injustices comparable.
One major difference between Holocaust reparations and slavery reparations is that the former targeted primarily individual survivors, while the latter will benefit descendants of the enslaved. However, reparations to survivors have intergenerational wealth implications for their descendants too. Had the survivors of U.S. enslavement received reparations after slavery, their descendants would be better off than they are. The fact that reparations were withheld can hardly serve as a legitimate argument to continue withholding them. On the contrary, when it comes to slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the passage of time serves not as an extenuating circumstance, but as an aggravating factor. The debt accumulates compound interest exponentially and it is important for both sides that the debt be settled sooner rather than later.
Legal Similarities between the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery
What Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery have in common is the fact that at the time they occurred no positive law existed to ban them. However, U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Robert H. Jackson (1949), pointed out that in common law actions can be recognized as violating rules long before these rules are explicitly written down. Jackson (1949) concluded, “Unless international law is to be deprived of this common-law method of birth and growth … the judges at Nuremberg were fully warranted in reaching a judicial judgment of criminal guilt.”
As with the Holocaust, slavery violated international common law in most countries in which it was practiced. Most European nations (except Portugal and Spain) did not allow slavery in their own territory. Even in Portugal and Spain, the institution was heavily contested. In many African countries, slavery was either not recognized, or existed in a form more comparable to serfdom in Europe where a so-called ‘slave’ had property and inheritance rights and/or could not be sold (compare Craemer 2019).
Attempts by slave traders to portray slavery as an ancient and legally recognized institution everywhere emerged as a legal fiction and projection backwards in time driven by powerful economic interests in the 19th Century. This legal fiction is still very common (compare Finkelman & Drescher 2017), and is generally based on citing the universality of slavery in classical antiquity, while ignoring the ban of slavery almost everywhere in medieval and early modern Europe. The shaky legal foundation of slavery in international law might open the door for reparations suits in international courts. However, the historical example of German Holocaust reparations points to a different possible scenario, a political strategy whereby representatives of the perpetrator-side reach out to representatives of the victimized side for negotiations and a series of settlements. German Holocaust reparations were not a result of the judgments at Nuremberg. They emerged from political considerations.
German Holocaust Reparations
In 1945, German Holocaust Reparations seemed unlikely because crimes against humanity represented an untested charge, and in the emerging Cold War, the Western Powers had an interest in binding West Germany into the Western Bloc. They were reluctant to demand reparations from West Germany on Israel’s behalf (Craemer 2019). Instead, West Germany’s first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer took the initiative and stated on November 11, 1949, “The German people are resolved to make good the wrong done to the Jews in their name by a criminal regime … This reparation we regard as our duty” (Adenauer cited in Brecher 1973: 86).
Official negotiations resulted in an agreement with three components. First, Germany would financially help Israel resettle 500,000 Holocaust survivors. Second, Germany would pay a lump sum to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims for “heirless Jewish property” (P. G. 1954: 262), and third, Germany would enact legislation for individual compensation (Brecher 1973: 94–95; P. G. 1954: 262). Slavery reparations Stuart E. Eizenstat (2019) estimated that, “Germany has paid more than USD60 billion since 1952 for the horrors of the Holocaust.” Thus, Germany paid about USD10,000 for each of the estimated 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This is not much, but it is more than nothing and serves as a symbolic token that Germany takes its apology for the Holocaust seriously.
Slavery Reparations in the United States
To arrive at a conservative estimate of the value of slave labor for the United States, I used census information to estimate the number of enslaved people living in the U.S. in each year between 1776 and 1860 (Craemer 2015). This allowed me to compute the total number of work hours available to slave holders by multiplying each year’s total by 365 days and 24 hours per day (the enslaved were ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, no law regulated or limited work hours). To estimate the value of each hour, I used historical wage data for production workers’ hourly compensation (in nominal dollars) provided online by Officer and Williamson (2018). I multiplied the number of man-, woman-, and child-hours available to slave holders by the hourly wage in each year from 1776 to 1860 and compounded the total up to the present by a very conservative interest rate of 3% (not even making up for inflation). I arrived at an estimate of USD14 trillion in 2009 dollars (Craemer 2015, 649), which, further compounded to 2019, would be USD19 trillion, or roughly one year’s worth of the entire U.S. GDP (USD21.4 trillion in 2019; Countryeconomy.com, n.d.). Compounded at a more realistic 6% interest (the interest rate at which Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people in 1838), it would amount to USD6.574 quadrillion in 2019 dollars. This example demonstrates the importance of the interest rate in any potential reparations negotiations.
International Reparations for Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Between 1825 and 1947, France forced Haiti to pay reparations to French slave owners for the abolition of slavery (Craemer 2015). In 2004, Haiti demanded repayment of this so-called “Independence Debt” but France declined. Similarly, the European Union ignored the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM’s) Reparations 10-Point Plan that lists 10 programmatic goals from educational to health programs (Leigh Day 2014).
Meanwhile, some African leaders voiced reparations demands for depopulation due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In 1991, the heads of state of Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo, recommended a debt write-off. With Africa’s debt of USD250 billion at the time this would have amounted to USD475 billion in 2019 dollars (Osabu-Kle 2000: 331 and Friedman 2020). Further, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) set up the Group of Eminent Persons that developed a Middle Passage Plan modeled on the Marshall Plan. According to Mazrui (1994: 7), the Marshall Plan had “from 1948 to 1952 transferred 12 billion dollars from the United States to help reconstruct Europe after the devastation of war.” This would represent USD129 billion in 1919 dollars with reference year 1950. Further, in 1999, the Truth Commission Conference in Accra, Ghana, demanded USD777 trillion in reparations, amounting to USD1.2 quadrillion in 2019 dollars (Henry 2003: 86, see also Craemer 2018: 701). Finally, in 2000, Osabu-Kle proposed a method of assigning per-victim dollar figures based on the Warsaw Convention for assigning value to loss of human life when an aircraft crashes. In 2019 dollars, this would be USD113,057 per victim and amount to an estimated total of about USD47 trillion (compare, Craemer 2019).
Emory University’s (2013) Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database records every known shipment of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic between 1514 and 1866. These records account for about 12.5 million victims. Of course, the enslaved were only a portion of the total victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. More victims perished as a result of wars waged for the purpose of enslavement. Based on Wittmann (2012), the total number of victims is about 54 million, and based on Osabu-Kle (2000), 414 million. For each scenario, I estimated how many Africans were victimized in each year of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and how much would be owed had only a portion of Holocaust reparations been paid for them at the time (my computations assumed the historical equivalent of only USD5,000 in 2016 dollars; Craemer 2019). I compounded the resulting annual reparations estimates with only 2% interest (lower than in the previous example) to arrive at estimates in 2019 dollars of USD160 billion, USD726 billion or USD5.614 trillion depending on total number of victims estimated. At a more realistic 5% interest the compounded dollar amounts would explode to be USD23 quadrillion or more.
The Middle Passage Plan of 1992 with USD129 billion in 1919 dollars would fall below the lowest Holocaust-based compensation estimate. The others would fall somewhat above, but all African reparations demands for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including the demand of USD1.2 quadrillion in 2019 dollars by the 1999 Truth Commission Conference in Accra, Ghana, would fall below the lowest estimate compounded at a more realistic interest rate of 5% (USD23 quadrillion). This means that African demands of Transatlantic Slavery reparations are quite modest and fall well within a reasonable range established by various conservative estimation procedures based on German Holocaust reparations.
Various reparations estimation methods exist for slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To compensate for slave labor, it may make sense to use the man-, woman-, and child-hours that were available to slave owners and to multiply them with historical hourly wages compounded with reasonable interest rates. To arrive at reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade it may make sense to use per-victim Holocaust reparations and scale them up to centuries of the trade. In each case, the most important figure to negotiate is the interest rate as it leads to exponential growth. For representatives of the perpetrating side settling earlier rather than later may make sense, as waiting does not diffuse the debt, but exponentially compounds it. For members of the victimized side time matters too—for “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Thomas Craemer is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. He received a political science doctorate from the University of Tuebingen, Germany (2001), and a PhD from Stony Brook University, New York (2005). His research focuses on implicit racial attitudes and race-related policies like slavery reparations. His 2015 Social Science Quarterly article on “Estimating Slavery Reparations” was widely cited in the media. In 2020, he co-authored an article in the Review of Black Political Economy, together with Trevor Smith, Brianna Harrison, Trevon Logan, Wesley Bellamy, and William Darity Jr. This article, titled, “Wealth Implications of Slavery and Racial Discrimination for African American Descendants of the Enslaved,” forms part of a larger report currently being drafted by Professor William Darity’s Reparations Planning Committee of which Craemer is a member.
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