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Owning Up

Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil, by Susan Neiman, Allen Lane, 415 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-0241262863

Susan Neiman is a distinguished American philosopher and essayist who has made Berlin her home for over two decades. She is currently the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, near Berlin. Born in Chicago to Jewish parents and raised in Atlanta, she is the author of numerous books and articles on contemporary philosophical and cultural issues.

Neiman has long been struck by the contrast between the efforts Germany has made to atone for the atrocities of the Nazi era and the ambivalence which she detects in her own country, particularly in the Deep South, towards the American experience of racism and slavery. Armed with forensic analytical skills and an intimate knowledge of the political cultures of both Germany and America, she sets out in her latest book to explore this contrast. (While the genocidal treatment of Native Americans might also be considered relevant, she makes only passing reference to this aspect of American history, perhaps too large a subject for the present exercise;  nor does she engage to any significant extent with other examples of racial prejudice in America, such as antisemitism).

Drawing on a formidable array of interviews conducted in Germany and America over the last few years, Neiman presents an ambitious comparative study which examines in detail the legacy of racial violence and prejudice in both countries. Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil is an incisive, vivid and highly readable account of two quite diverse histories and their aftermaths. Forceful in its impact and unsettling in many of its revelations, the study is nonetheless cautious in the judgements it reaches. Neiman avoids, on the whole, a binary categorisation of Germany as the repository of all virtue in this debate and America as the opposite. She is meticulous in her presentation of evidence and does full justice to the complexity of the issues on either side around guilt, acknowledgement and atonement. She deliberately leaves many questions open.

That said, there is no doubt about the broad direction of travel. While the book’s frank title may unsettle or provoke some of her American audience, Neiman’s basic proposition is one which, I suspect, will not be resisted by anyone with direct experience of Germany over recent decades. Namely, that postwar Germany has been on the whole successful in coming to terms with the horrific legacy of the Nazi era and that there are lessons here not only for America’s South, where there has been markedly less willingness to confront past evils, but also for other societies around the world and the wrongs over which they have presided ‑ or may yet preside.

Neiman documents in compelling detail how the Germans have chosen, albeit with some initial delay, to face their history head-on. It can, of course, be countered that they would have had little alternative given the circumstances in which the Nazi era came to an end: total military defeat for the German nation, the collapse of their society and economy, crimes against humanity on a scale never previously witnessed, dozens of countries laid waste and untold human suffering. In this situation, the Germans had realistically no alternative to a frank and complete acknowledgement of what had happened. That it took them some time before they were ready to make this acknowledgement can be attributed to a number of factors. In the initial decades after the war, a “victimhood” culture prevailed, the collapse of their nation leaving many Germans resentful towards the Allied victors, unwilling to acknowledge guilt for what had happened and resistant to efforts to impose “denazification” programmes. The scale of their defeat and humiliation engendered bitterness, and a desire to forget, rather than repentance. Rebuilding a destroyed society and economy became the immediate and top priority and all other responsibilities were put to one side. One of West Germany’s leading postwar conservative politicians, Franz Josef Strauss, claimed publicly that the demands of the Wirtschaftswunder (the “economic miracle” of recovery) in effect freed Germans from any requirement to listen to people reminding them of the Holocaust and other Nazi-era crimes.

Only with the succeeding generation did a willingness to acknowledge the enormity of Nazi misdeeds gradually emerge. In the sixties, and aided by a recovering economy and related opportunities for travel, young Germans became aware of the discrepancy between their parents’ stony silence on the war and what they heard elsewhere about it. Their reaction was one of anguish and shame, to the extent that many preferred to use vaguely Anglicised versions of their names – or, as Neiman notes, to pass themselves off as Danish or Dutch when travelling abroad – in order to dissociate themselves from the sins of the previous generation. The alienation felt by German youth found further expression in the dominance of radical left-wing thinking at German universities, as elsewhere in Europe, in the late sixties.

At the same time, West Germany’s mainly conservative governments of the fifties and early sixties were replaced by a new social-liberal administration, led by Willy Brandt, which promoted greater openness towards East Germany and the Warsaw Pact countries as well as a more honest coming to terms with Germany’s past. Brandt, who had impeccable wartime resistance credentials, made a celebrated public gesture of atonement for Nazi crimes by falling to his knees in Warsaw before a memorial to the Jewish ghetto. West German opinion was, however, still deeply divided at that time; many older Germans criticised what they saw as a gesture not of humility but of humiliation.

In the course of the seventies, a fuller awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust began to develop in West Germany. Ironically, one of the catalysts for this was a rather trite US television series entitled Holocaust, which was broadcast on West German TV in a dubbed version in 1979 and became an instant sensation. For many Germans this was effectively their first encounter with the realities of what had happened in the concentration camps. I was living in West Germany at the time and can recall vividly the weeks of national soul-searching and agonised public debate that the series triggered.

Arguably, it was from that point on that the first serious efforts were made by the German public to come to terms with Nazi atrocities. This process is described by Neiman, translating from the German, as a “working-off” of the past. A phrase used slightly more often in Germany (which I prefer for its stronger undertone of struggle and exertion) is “overcoming the past”.

Neiman draws attention to a range of initiatives taken by the German government or by regional, city or other groups to acknowledge the wrongdoing of the Nazi era, often accompanied by powerful messages of atonement. Among the better-known of these are laws which prohibit any expressions of antisemitic views, Holocaust denial or the display of Nazi symbols; school education programmes which acquaint German schoolchildren in detail with the horrors of the Holocaust; high-profile monuments such as the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum in Berlin; and the practice of inserting into pavements outside houses where Jewish families once resided so-called “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine) with details of those families. There is no shortage in Germany today of sites which commemorate Nazi atrocities, often with comprehensive accompanying detail. The best examples are the former concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and elsewhere. In the Berlin suburb of Grunewald, a railway siding from which large numbers of Jews departed to the camps is preserved, with extensive and chilling details of the size of each daily transfer.

The usual German word for monument is Denkmal (approximating to “something which inspires thought”). An even more expressive alternative, often used in the context of sites associated with Nazi misdeeds, is Mahnmal, meaning a monument intended as a warning or admonition. The word used to describe a place where some horrific past event is being commemorated is Gedenkstätte, meaning a place which gives rise to thought. These refinements of language signal that, for Germans, acknowledging the shame of past atrocities and atoning for them means above all learning lessons for future action and creating bulwarks against any recurrence.

Neiman remarks that, in agreeing to earmark a large and prominent site in central Berlin for a Holocaust Memorial, Germans were showing a commendable readiness to “face up to their own shame”. While elsewhere monuments tend to be erected only to heroes, the Germans are ready to “memorialise their failures”. Living in Berlin not long after the unveiling of the monument (a vast square of unevenly grounded stone plinths), I remember that the controversy which it attracted was unrelated to its central position in the city. Nobody had any difficulty with the location, chosen for the neat symbolism of being halfway on a trajectory from the site of the “Hitler bunker” to the impressively rebuilt Reichstag (symbol of Germany’s proudly democratic future). Rather there were questions about the artistic merits of the monument or how to protect it from hordes of visiting tourists. Far from tucking it away in a remote part of their city, the Germans wanted this monument to their shame to be accessible and visible for all citizens. Similarly, a proposal at one stage to tear down the Wannsee villa in suburban Berlin where the “final solution” was decided upon was successfully resisted; the house still stands as a memorial to the infamous 1943 meeting that took place there.

Neiman shows that over the past three or four decades, and in particular since reunification, there was been a steadily greater and franker German engagement with the crimes of the Nazi era. Whether through government policies designed to outlaw and punish racism of any description or the creation of monuments and museums to ensure that Nazi crimes are not consigned to oblivion, Germans have been forthright in recognising their own collective responsibility for what happened in that era and in signalling that there will never be any recurrence.

She makes a cogent and compelling case. I quibble with it only in one respect. Neiman argues that East Germany was more forthright than West Germany in confronting the Nazi demons and that it took more practical steps in that direction. It is true that the East German state was founded on an avowedly “anti-fascist” philosophy. However, this was essentially driven by the dictates of Soviet ideology and rhetoric at the time. In practice I am not sure that the evidence warrants Neiman’s conclusion. She highlights, for example, a prominent Soviet war memorial erected by the East Berlin regime; but this commemorates Red Army casualties in the assault on the city rather than the civilian victims of Nazism. The logic of her thesis would be that the remains of the “Hitler bunker” should have been preserved for public viewing; but in fact the site was sealed over and buried when a new apartment complex and parking lot were being constructed in East Berlin. It is difficult to see the professed determination to expose Nazi crimes as other than ritualistic lip service in the case of an East Berlin regime which for example failed to condemn mass murders under Stalin or whose own domestic security service (the Stasi) perpetuated many of the police tactics of the Gestapo.

Within her survey of lessons which the Germans have sought to learn from their past, Neiman includes the marked openness towards immigrant labour, notably from Turkey, over the past thirty to forty years. Turkish “guest workers” have made up a significant proportion of the population of many German cities and over the years measures to support their integration into German society have become more effective. Even a conservative German president was able to remark a few years ago that “Islam belongs to Germany”.

The apogee of this openness was perhaps reached with Chancellor Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit a million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. While this was, and remains, a deeply contested decision in Germany, it is hard not to see it as ultimate confirmation of a country which has moved beyond the xenophobic and genocidal horrors of its past. However divisive its impact in Germany, and however worrying the populist backlash to which it has now given rise, the 2015 decision was proof of a political leadership in Germany which has learnt definitively from its past.

The domestic political consequences are indeed troubling. Angela Merkel and her party have paid a heavy price. The far right has been galvanised, the Alternative for Germany (AFD) is gaining significant ground in the former East German states and there is a resurgence of neo-Nazi activity. However, the criticism directed at the chancellor tends not to question the decision as such. Germans by and large have no difficulty with a Germany which is open and welcoming to migrants and refugees. (Neiman points out, for example, that in Germany in 2018 there were far more people working to support refugees than voted for right-wing parties). They have in this sense been ready to transcend their past and to banish forever the legacy of Nazi xenophobia and genocide. They recognise that the 2015 decision sought subliminally to convey this message. Where many of them part company with the chancellor is on the detail of the decision: they query the extent to which the country’s borders should be opened and the degree to which the influx is controllable. In overall terms, however, there is a strong commitment to welcoming immigrants, opposing racism in all of its manifestations and supporting policies aimed at integrating immigrants into German society.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Neiman detects considerably less willingness to face up to, and atone for, the evils of racism and slavery as practised in America’s Deep South. She finds that, apart from some commendable academic or civil society initiatives, very little has been done to acknowledge any obligations towards the country’s black communities flowing from this wrongdoing. The doctrine of American exceptionalism, it would appear, has led to a deep reluctance in many parts of the US to accept that there were ever racially motivated crimes committed against sections of the American people.

From the impressive volume of evidence which she has assembled through interviews and research, Neiman notes that, whenever reference is made to initiatives which have been taken in Germany to acknowledge Nazi-era crimes, there is a reflex reaction to the effect that the US vanquished the Nazis and had right on its side in doing so. Furthermore, any wrongdoing in the Deep South pales into insignificance compared with the scale and depravity of Nazi crimes. Nevertheless, Neiman underlines the moral necessity to treat these two situations on equivalent terms. She is in good company: the distinguished American author James Baldwin commented in 1963 that white Americans share collective guilt for the persecution of black Americans as Germans did for their silence during the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Focusing much of her attention on Mississippi, Neiman traces the history of efforts in the Southern states to resist the doctrine of racial equality forced on them as a consequence of their defeat in the American Civil War. The “Lost Cause” ideology continues to this day, reflected in texts attached to various Confederate monuments and statues. According to this narrative, the Confederacy was established to defend states’ rights and it was this issue, rather than slavery, which caused the Civil War. Indeed, one antebellum claim was that the greatest civilisations had been founded on slavery. In a parallel with the Germany of the immediate postwar period, Neiman finds in the South a persistent sense of self-pity and feeling of victimhood, a belief that the people of the South were – and in a sense still are – the Civil War’s greatest victims.

Conversely, her liberal interlocutors describe the evils of slavery in stark terms. If it was not literally genocide, says one, “it was socio-political and economic genocide, and it was conspicuous”. The only consolation is that various groups and individuals are working away quietly at community level in the South to challenge the widespread falsifications of its history and to ensure that the past is not forgotten but, in one illuminating phrase, “seeps into the present”.

Neiman documents the 1955 kidnap and murder of a black teenager in Mississippi (Emmett Till), which many regard as the event which triggered the civil rights movement. She also relates various other episodes of racial tension and violence and, in particular, examines the controversy around the efforts of a young black man, James Meredith, to gain admission to university in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962. Meredith was eventually admitted, later wrote a book on his experiences and in 2014 – he is still alive – a statue was dedicated to him. Neiman notes at the statue-unveiling ceremony a continuing reluctance on the part of the university authorities to accord Meredith equal rights and respect.

She describes the work of various liberal-minded initiatives which are drawing attention to unresolved issues in Mississippi around racial equality and the treatment of its black population. Elsewhere, the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, several years ago which involved the murder of nine African-Americans in a church by a young white supremacist prompted calls for universities and other institutions in the state to reconsider the Confederate symbols they still display. Few obliged – or, if they did so, then only belatedly and under duress.

Neiman’s general finding is that there is at best a half-hearted interest on the part of Mississippi and other Southern states in outlawing manifestations of white supremacy. The election of Trump, she suggests, was in part due to the existence of such sentiments. It was also a backlash against the arrival of the first black president at the White House eight years previously. The people who voted for Trump were the same people who elected George Wallace, one interviewee suggests. She goes on to recall the use of Nazi symbols and slogans by white supremacists who in 2017 protested at plans to remove a monument to Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump infamously described the group of protesters as “very fine people”. Since Trump took office, she notes later, there has been an unprecedented rise in hate crimes in the United States.

Overall, Neiman is struck by the absence in the South of any widespread sense that the crimes committed over the years against the black population should be atoned for. She also notes that, while Germany has had no difficulty erecting monuments to its own failures, America sees monuments as being appropriate only to heroes and victories. There is, for example, no monument on the Washington Mall to atone for slavery (though there is a Holocaust museum there). What is missing in America is shame, she suggests; individuals may privately feel shame but the shame due from America’s past of racism and slavery is not being expressed “in the public landscape”. As one of her interlocutors remarks, shame is the necessary precursor to acknowledging and atoning for misdeeds. She takes comfort, however, from the efforts being made by a handful of liberal academics and activists in the South to challenge complacency, or wilful ignorance, about America’s past.

An issue with which Neiman engages closely is that of reparations for past wrongdoing. Just as Germany in the 1950s (and under US pressure) paid reparations to the victims of Nazism, so there should be American reparations now for the wrong done to African-Americans by slavery. While she is a little vague on how, and to whom, these reparations might be paid, her main point seems to be that there should be an acknowledgement in principle that compensation is due to African-Americans because of their slavery origins, with options and mechanisms to be considered at a later stage. US corporates might, for example, acknowledge a debt, given the enormous contribution made to American wealth by slave labour.

Neiman makes a valid case, even if one could imagine a host of technical complications around assessment of relative claims after many intervening generations. An analogy which she mentions is the formal apology delivered by Tony Blair to Ireland for the evils of British Famine policy in the 1840s. However abstruse such a gesture might have seemed coming 150 years after the event, there is no doubt that it contributed much needed momentum to the Northern Ireland peace process at a critical time. A similar gesture, with similar impact, was David Cameron’s public apology a few years later for Bloody Sunday.

Standing back for a moment from the ambitious comparison which Neiman offers between the treatment of a repugnant past in, respectively, Germany and America, my only significant question relates to the extent to which we are comparing like with like. Ultimately the horrors of the Nazi era were of a different order from anything which happened in the Deep South. The Holocaust was a singular evil, a stand-out in human history, requiring acknowledgement and atonement from the German people on a unique scale. Add to this the circumstances of Germany’s defeat, which effectively ruled out any efforts at evasion of national responsibilities (even if it was to take a couple of generations before this message sank in). But, if we leave aside the differences of scale and global impact, there can be no real quibble with Neiman’s central proposition: both situations plumbed the depths of moral delinquency. Unstinting acknowledgement and atonement are required for both and so far only Germany has stepped up to this task.

To be fair, Neiman recognises the many differences between both situations and also accepts that study of how Germany is confronting its past will not in itself provide a blueprint for others. It is legitimate, however, for her – and us ‑ to ask how, in these two sample cases, countries are taking responsibility for past sins. Her book, Neiman comments, is not about comparative evil but about “comparative redemption”. To the extent that she is able to prick consciences with her account of the German experience, she will help to develop common ground and to enable universalist concepts of guilt and atonement to take root in American soil.

The very delay of several decades before Germany began its own process of honest engagement with its Nazi past is, she suggests, one of the lessons which Americans can usefully learn from the Germans. It is not too late, even a century or two later, for Americans to come to terms with the evils of racism and slavery and to find ways of atoning for them. One of her interviewees remarks to her that, just as Germany’s identity has been changed by its own confrontation with a horrific past, so American identity can be changed. “We are not doomed by [our] history; we are not controlled by this history; but we cannot deny this history.”

Neiman finds a greater readiness in Germany to recognise that a country’s past will inexorably shape its future. She also commends Germans for being willing to recognise the particularity of the Holocaust horror and for their refusal to take refuge in specious generalisations about the universality of evil.Germany’s very willingness to acknowledge fully the wrongs it has committed has, she suggests, helped to make it a better country and to have it readmitted to the family of civilised nations. A country’s open reckoning with its past is a crucial step towards maturity. These are all insights, she suggests, from which her native country would benefit.

Finally, while her book focuses primarily on the German and American contexts, Neiman allows herself a couple of side-swipes at Britain’s record of wrongdoing, in particular its historic responsibility for the slave trade ‑ but also its mistreatment of Ireland. Mentioning her love of this country (where she evidently spends a few months each year), she tells us that her original intention had been to add Ireland as a third object of interest for this study. She spent the summer of 2016 exploring our programme of commemorations to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. Fearing, however, the level of detail to be mastered and the scale of the undertaking (“at least another book” would have been required), she dropped the project. Given current controversies and what lies ahead as we face into the centenary commemorations of our own Civil War, one cannot help thinking that she made a wise choice.


David Donoghue recently retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has a longstanding interest in Germany and had a five-year posting to the Irish embassy in Bonn in the late seventies. More recently he served as ambassador to Germany (2006-9). He also had ambassadorial appointments to Russia (1999-2001) and Austria (2004-6) and was the Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast from 1995-99. As ambassador to the United Nations (2013-17), he co-led the global negotiations which delivered the Sustainable Development Goals. He is currently working in a number of think tanks on issues around sustainable development, migration and refugees and conflict prevention.
Susan Neiman’s 
Learning from the Germans will be published as a Penguin paperback in August this year.



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