The controversy over Confederate memorials during the past several years raised our consciousness of the importance of knowing what our society honors and why.
We felt the power of physical markers to constrict our sense of the world and our own lives. Monuments must reflect not only our greatest aspirations but also reject our worst intentions.
The past is simply, never past.
For many Utahns, this controversy seemed a distant storm with few implications for our community. Although more quietly, we too have dealt with the issues that frame such debates. Recall in 2017, the changing of the name of “Negro” Bill’s Canyon near Moab to erase the race-based tag and remember African American rancher William Grandstaff.
Recently, I was made aware of a symbol of hatred in our midst. This past summer, the Tanner Humanities Center’s Mormon Studies Program at the University of Utah hosted public school teachers from across the United States in a National Endowment for the Humanities program designed to teach Utah history from the first emigration to the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad.
One of our site visits included the federal military cemetery at Fort Douglas. While exploring the cemetery, several teachers expressed their astonishment on seeing a gravestone of a World War II German soldier inscribed with a swastika.
None of the other POW gravestones bore this symbol of Nazism, the mark of Adolf Hitler’s regime as it carried out its plans of world conquest and extermination. My subsequent research revealed that of the more than 500 graves of German World War II POWs on American soil, no other was marked with an engraved swastika.
Army records say that the gravestone was requested and designed by other POWs, who also raised funds for its construction. The image is that of the Iron Cross medal given at the time in Nazi Germany.
I consider this symbol of hate an affront to the American service men and women buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery. As a Jew, and as the son of a World War II combat medic wounded in Europe in 1944, I felt this pain personally.
Note that Germany has no monuments that celebrate Nazi armed forces during World War II or feature the swastika. Germans, in penance, honor victims, not perpetrators. Their values are visible.
To rectify this quietly, I contacted the headquarters of the Office of Army Cemeteries in Arlington, Va., and voiced my concerns. I asked Army officials about initiating a process for the removal of the tombstone and its replacement with one similar to those marking the graves of German POWs on American soil. My thought was that the removed gravestone might be housed in the Fort Douglas military museum with accompanying explanatory information.
My request was denied. Army officials informed me that “the symbols on the marker were the official symbols of the government” for which this soldier had fought. The gravestone had been “approved by the Army Command responsible for the cemetery at the time.”
The letter concluded, “we find that this marker does not glorify or endorse the horrors committed by Nazi Germany.” In sum, it was “inappropriate for the Army to change a historically accurate representation.”
Had these officials not witnessed the controversy that raged in the South and is still not spent? Can they not understand that the public display of the swastika sends a message that goes beyond the historical?
Some readers may want to dismiss my concern as another example of 21st century sensibilities and political correctness. If so, know that the U.S. Army’s file on the gravestone contained an article from the Oct. 6, 1944, edition of The Salt Lake Tribune. Army officials summed up the piece as reporting, “unfavorable repercussions from individuals and the American Legion. The main objection concerns the display of the swastika on the monument.”
Americans across time have turned away in disgust from such symbols of bigotry.
I had not wanted to make this matter public but see no other opportunity for resolution. I write in support of our values and against all forms of hatred. There is no place for the swastika in our community or any symbols that trumpet racial and religious superiority. This is our American creed. It is time to right an historical wrong.
Robert A. Goldberg, Salt Lake City, is a professor of history at the University of Utah.