“Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” by Susan Neiman— Confronting Past Evil

Neiman, Susan. “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Confronting Past Evil

Amos Lassen

Susan Neiman’s “Learning from the Germans” is  an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Neiman, a white woman who came of age in the civil rights–era South and a Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life in Berlin uses here unique perspective along with philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with both Americans and Germans who are dealing with the evils of their own national histories.

Neiman tells the story of the long and difficult path Germans faced as they attempted to atone for the crimes of the Holocaust. In the United States, Neiman interviewed James Meredith about his battle for equality in Mississippi and Bryan Stevenson about his monument to the victims of lynching, as well as lesser-known social justice activists in the South in order to provide a “compelling picture of the work contemporary Americans to consider the nuanced forms that evil can assume, so that we can recognize and avoid them in the future.

Neiman relates hard truths that others avoid and leave unsaid. The book is disturbing yet hopeful and insightful as t looks at who we are as human beings and the values we have as a nation.

This is an insightful comparative analysis of post-WWII German sentiments about Nazi atrocities alongside southern American attitudes about the Civil War and slavery, suggesting how Americans might better come to terms with their country’s history. It is also a “pointed demonstration of how Germany offers lessons for attending to polarizing issues of the past and present and serves as an important lesson for those who seek to face up to the past wrongs in this country.”

What Nazis and Americans shared in common was the idea of the superiority of the white race. Nazism went after Jews and others as inferior to Aryans and themselves as “the Master Race.” The planter slave owners saw black people as inferior thus allowing white people to see themselves as superior.

Neiman counters the Nazis learning by examining common parallels and uncommon resolutions. Slavery and Nazism were vehicles which drove a racial superiority/inferiority hierarchy. Nazism crashed in WWII but the effects of slavery live on in American society and the  current administration is pushing to “ensure domestic tension” and succeeding at a very alarming rate. .

Nazism had a short life span (12 years) in which to sink deep roots. America began to set racism’s roots in 1619. While America is proud of its exceptionalism and with slavery, America has been exceptional in how long it has endured, and how pervasive racism still is. As Americans we are affected by a post traumatic syndrome.

Neiman explores the concept of “Vergangenheitsaufarbeiting – working-off-the-past, as practiced for the past nearly 75 years by Germany to come to realistic and accepting terms with the horrors of the Nazi regime. To understand why, how and where this was implemented to derive the present day re-unified Germany that can feel shame and regret for their past sins, while being ‘proud’ to have the Enlightenment values to do so.”  She explores whether the lessons of the German process since the Second World War might be a model for Americans to come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism.