Learning from the Germans
Race and the Memory of Evil
As an increasingly polarized America fights over the legacy of racism, Susan Neiman, author of the contemporary philosophical classic Evil in Modern Thought, asks what we can learn from the Germans about confronting the evils of the past
In the wake of white nationalist attacks, the ongoing debate over reparations, and the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments and the contested memories they evoke, Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans delivers an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Neiman is 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. Working from this unique perspective, she combines philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with both Americans and Germans who are grappling with the evils of their own national histories.
Through discussions with Germans, including Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who created the breakthrough Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibit, and Friedrich Schorlemmer, the East German dissident preacher, Neiman tells the story of the long and difficult path Germans faced in their effort to atone for the crimes of the Holocaust. In the United States, she interviews 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, to provide a compelling picture of the work contemporary Americans are doing to confront our violent history. In clear and gripping prose, Neiman urges us to consider the nuanced forms that evil can assume, so that we can recognize and avoid them in the future.
Philosopher Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought) presents 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. Neiman who is Jewish, grew up in Atlanta, and currently lives in Berlin argues that "our past will continue to haunt us if we do not face it down," and she provides numerous examples of Germans doing just that. One heir to a cigarette company, whose father had been involved with the Nazis, reacted to learning of his father's past by selling his share of the company and using the money to fund a museum installation detailing the war crimes of the Wehrmacht. Visiting the southern U.S., Neiman explains the prevalence of the Lost Cause narrative (the idea that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not slavery) and explores the argument in favor of removing Confederate monuments, noting that "Germany has no statues of Nazis." From memorials to Emmett Till, Neiman gleans some guidance on how to preserve the memory of a terrible event while educating the public on the dangers of intolerance. Neiman's commentary is thoughtful and perceptive, her comparison timely. This exceptional piece of historical and political philosophy provides a meaningful way of looking at the Civil War's legacy.