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How to Confront a Racist National History

In her 2019 book, “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” the philosopher Susan Neiman examines the different ways in which Germany and the United States have confronted their past sins. Neiman, who grew up in the American South and now lives in Berlin, describes how Germany has reckoned with the Nazi era, through memorials, official acts of remembrance, and various forms of reparations. Indeed, just as the Nazi period has become the ultimate example of unadulterated cruelty, postwar Germany has become the paradigmatic example of a country that has fully considered its past. Could something similar be possible in the United States? As Neiman’s book seeks to answer this question, it also serves as a conscious attempt to “safeguard” Germany’s confrontation with history, at a time when the far right is on the rise there, as it is in many countries.

I recently spoke by phone with Neiman, amid renewed discussions in the U.S.—sparked in part by the killing of George Floyd—about how to remember slavery and segregation, and increasing controversy over whether Confederate memorials have any place in modern-day America. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why it took the Germans longer than many people think to come to grips with Nazism, the different ways East and West Germany approached the legacy of the Third Reich, and what the German experience with reparations can teach the United States.

Your book is generally admiring of Germany’s efforts, but you present the country as taking several decades to get where it did. What changed?

Time and pressure. The pressure came in West Germany from civil society. In East Germany, it came from the leadership, who were Communists, and who recognized that the Communists had been the first group that the Nazis attacked. You had a top-down process on one side of Germany, and a bottom-up process in the other side.

I don’t idealize the process that the Germans went through in facing up to their criminal past. It was long, it was reluctant, and they faced an enormous amount of backlash. Most people outside of Germany have come to think the Nazi times were so awful that, the minute the war was over, the German nation got down on its knees and begged for atonement. And that’s just not the case. In fact, the few people who did get down on their knees, like Willy Brandt, in 1970, were vilified by the majority of their compatriots.

You are referring to the West German Chancellor who fell to his knees as a gesture of atonement, in Warsaw, in 1970.

Precisely. There is a very famous picture that went around the world, and I think that for most non-Germans it is the iconic picture of postwar Germany. But that’s not reliable. Think about Brandt himself, who, as a Social Democrat, went into exile as soon as the Nazis took power. So, personally, he had nothing to atone for. But he still felt that, as the leader of a nation, he ought to make a gesture. What we don’t know, or what most people don’t know, is that the majority of the country thought it was wrong for him to get on his knees and atone, and particularly to be submissive before Slavic people.

So the change was from seeing themselves as the war’s worst victims—and I’ve seen mouths drop open when I tell this to an American audience, but they really did see themselves as the war’s worst victims. It’s not something that Germans tend to talk about. They’ll tell you about their Nazi parents, or their Nazi teachers, but they won’t say that their parents not only went along with Nazis but thought of themselves as the worst victims of the war. And I realized it was the same trope that you hear among supporters of the Lost Cause. “Our cities were burned, our men were wounded or put in prisoner-of-war camps. Our women were violated, our children were hungry, and, on top of that, the damn Yankees blamed us for the war.” These are exactly the sentiments that you would hear in West Germany.

I think it is very natural for everyone to want to see their ancestors and their nation as heroic. And if you can’t do heroic, then the move is to see yourself and your nation as a victim. But the move from seeing oneself as a nation of victims to a nation of perpetrators is one that the Germans finally and with great difficulty made. And that’s a historical precedent.

Read entire article at The New Yorker