September 16, 2019
Learning from the Germans by Susan Neiman; Hitler: Only the World Was Enough by Brendan Simms – reviewHistorians in the News
tags: World War II, Hitler, racism
Susan Neiman is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public.
Moral legacies are hard to pin down and even harder to escape. The need to balance atonement and desire for societies to heal and move forward is a changeable alchemy. The Czech writer Milan Kundera called it the “struggle against forgetting” and two countries, both successful and prosperous democracies, provide contrasting case studies. Germany and the US treat their heritage of racially motivated evils very differently and the consequences are explored in a wide-ranging odyssey by the American philosopher and essayist Susan Neiman. Learning From the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil is part memoir, part prescription and a project heavily influenced by her own biography.
Growing up in the American south during the civil rights era, and spending much of her adult life in and around Berlin as a Jewish woman, Neiman has a keen ear for discomforts and awkwardnesses and the small tics of guilt and avoidance.
“The question of whether Jews should count as white people was not quite settled in the south where I grew up,” she writes.
A relative of Emmett Till, a teenager lynched for allegedly offending a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, cites a grim local observation: “If I was Catholic and I lived in the south, I’d be worried. If I was Jewish, I’d be packing up. If I was black, I’d be gone.”
Settling in West Berlin in 1982 (a year before the Deutschland 1983 turbulences over the stationing of rival nuclear warheads in a divided Germany), her interest turns to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung – a fine German mouthful, meaning “working through the past”.
Neiman reckons Germany has got this right in relation to its dealings with Hitler’s legacy; and America, especially the south, has not, when it comes to facing its own record on the legacy of slavery and racial bias. She points out that Berlin alone has more than 400 monuments to the victims of the Nazi tyranny, including a recent innovation of Stolpersteine – “stumble stones” – the raised concrete brass plates on the city’s pavements inscribed with the names of victims of the regime. It is far harder to find major monuments to the victims of racial oppression across the US, let alone in the slavery heartland of the south.