Learning from the past

How have Germans, US southerners, coped with legacy of the Holocaust, American slavery.

August 28, 2019 17:55
3 minute read.
Learning from the past

JEWS BEING transported by railway during the Holocaust.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Susan Neiman’s provocative new book, Learning from the Germans Race and the Memory of Evil, attempts to compare how the Germans have responded over the last 70 years to their Nazi past with how American southerners have reacted to their devastating legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and the decades that followed. Neiman, a moral philosopher with a PhD from Harvard, has written at length before about evil and its aftermath and it is a topic that clearly intrigues her; particularly how guilt, shame and silence are passed from one generation to the next.

She asks, “Who has the right to make comparisons? This is not a trivial question.” She claims to accept the uniqueness of Nazi atrocities and describes her book as a study of “comparative redemption, not comparative evil.” But some of her comments seem oblivious at times, such as when she asserts, “The focus on Auschwitz distorts our moral vision; like extremely nearsighted people, we can only recognize large, bold objects while everything else remains vague and dim.” Her usage of the word “Auschwitz” in such a dismissive voice is startling to the reader.

Neiman believes Germans have made great progress in coming to terms with their past. In contrast, she believes the American South lags far behind Germany. White southerners have had difficulty acknowledging their past and seeking repentance. On visits to her childhood home in the American South from her present home in Germany, she is distraught by how southerners still disguise their contempt behind sugarcoated voices that mask their aggression toward blacks.

Many Germans have embraced Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which she explains is a process where people undergo psychological transformations as they confront the ethical quandaries that haunt them: the sins of their parents, their own silence. Many have confronted the vile lies that pervaded Germany after the war; that most Germans were ordinary citizens caught up in a bureaucratic madness; or that Germans thought they were simply trying to eradicate the Bolshevik menace; or the lie that pretended there was resistance to the Nazis instead of widespread complicity.

Neiman examines the work of her Bettina Stangneth, a moral philosopher like herself, who has written about former Nazis she interviewed in various stages of denial in Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2011). Stangneth is not as hopeful about Germany as Neiman, and tells her about feeling nauseated when she heard a chilling recording of Eichmann in Argentina shortly before his death swearing eternal loyalty to the Nazi endeavor and expressing regret only for his inability to kill more Jews.

NEIMAN, THOUGH, remains heartened. She is impressed by the Holocaust museum in Berlin, which takes up the space of two football fields and is located in the center of the city. She is further enthused by Germany’s evolving education system which includes extensive teaching about the Nazi past. She enjoys the diversity she sees in her Berlin neighborhood; the new sea of all sorts of faces that speak to the new restaurants that have sprung up, one Greek, another Moroccan, and still another Kurdish. She has spent decades in Germany, and it is where she raised her children.

Neiman is less hopeful about the American South. She is overwhelmed by the Confederate flags that fly proudly from back of pick-up trucks. She cringes at the statues of Confederate generals that are proudly displayed in state parks that seem to still celebrate a war that sanctified the ownership of black people and stripped them of their humanity. She feels southerners are lost in the past, writing incisively, “Competitive victimhood may be as close to a universal law of human nature as we’re ever going to get. It is surely an old and universal sport. Though the South’s defeat is older, you can hear the same litany: the loss of their bravest sons, the destruction of their homes, the poverty and hunger that followed – combined with the resentment at occupying forces they generally regard as loutish, who had the gall to insist their suffering was deserved.” She is troubled that white southerners seem so resistant to any sort of reckoning; they remain defiant.

While comparing the Holocaust and American slavery is highly provocative – and even Neiman admits the Holocaust is an incomparable event – at the end of the day, Neiman’s intentions of trying to more deeply understand new sides to these extraordinarily dark historical events are pure, and her heart is in the right place.

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