Facing Up to the Past, German-Style

compulsion to find meaning in chaos has produced many Theories of Trumpism.
Initially shocked by such an erratic candidate and a startlingly racist
campaign immediately following the United States’ first black president, some
observers have, with hindsight, deemed the anomaly not only explainable, but
even predictable. Backlash to Obama, to urbanization, to globalization were all
bound to happen, some say.

LEARNING FROM THE GERMANS: RACE AND THE MEMORY OF EVIL by Susan NeimanFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 434 pp, $30.00

narratives take a longer view. And one in particular has gained favor in the
past few years: Whatever Trump the person himself signifies, Trumpism as a
phenomenon—interpreted as an expression of largely white male resentment—is the
second coming of America’s
original sin. The United States, built on slavery and genocide while
preaching egalitarianism, has never fully addressed its racist past. Now, like
a deranged poltergeist, that past is bringing up its unfinished business.

American philosopher Susan Neiman is one proponent of this
narrative. She sees the murder of nine black Charleston churchgoers in 2015,
and the events of the following years, as prime examples of conservative
backlash in white communities: “The 2016 election resulted, in large part,”
Neiman writes, “from America’s failure to confront its own history.” Her book, Learning
From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil
, offers a possible
answer to one of the questions The New York Times’ 1619 Project,
published in the same month and focusing on slavery’s centrality to the
American nation, has prompted: What now? It is a book about how Americans could
better confront their racist past, by looking at the way Germany has come to
terms with Holocaust guilt.

In the decades following German defeat in World War II, a
significant number of Germans originally saw the Nuremberg Trials as victor’s
justice. Only in the 1960s, when the postwar generation came of age and began
to confront their parents’ pasts, combining debates over free love and
anti-imperialism with questions of their elders’ complicity, did many start to
undertake a broader reckoning. The crucial moment, Neiman argues (as do many
others), finally came with a controversial exhibition beginning in 1995, 50 years
after the war’s close, on the crimes of the German army—previously assumed to
have been apolitical conscripts uninvolved in the SS’s crimes, but whose
soldiers in fact were demonstrably involved in atrocities, including
exterminations of entire villages on the Eastern front.

“No one in Germany denies there’s more work to be done,” Neiman
acknowledges. But she herself now finds Germany a remarkably congenial place to
live as a Jewish woman, contrary to her experience living there in the 1980s.
And there are lessons, implicitly, for the United States.

Neiman, who grew up in the South and now lives “as a Jewish woman
in Berlin,” has a personal connection to this material, and prosecutes her
point through interviews, stitched together with historical summary. First,
informed by her time as director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, she looks at
past and present German discourse, interviewing various intellectuals on how
“German people worked, slowly and fitfully, to acknowledge the evils their
nation committed.” 

Neiman begins her account of German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung or
Vergangenheitsbewältigung, both dedicated postwar words for “working
through the past,” by highlighting the denial immediately following World War
II. “Men and women captured by their own traumas,” she writes, “were blind to
any others.” Yet even at this early moment, as defeated Germans bristled at
occupiers’ posters depicting bodies at Bergen-Belsen, individuals such as
philosopher Karl Jaspers attempted to persuade his fellow Germans that they
were, in fact, guilty. Germans had suffered, and the Nazi State could be brutal
towards dissenters, he acknowledged. But this did not excuse complicity in a
murderous regime.

Eschewing strict chronological treatment, Nieman presents a series
of characters, mostly German intellectuals with opinions on the extent of
German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Some think it has not gone far enough.
But Cilly Kugelmann, a retired program director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin,
takes a different view. The impulse to combat anti-Semitism is so strong in
Germany, “I couldn’t tell a Jewish joke for a long time,” she tells Neiman. And
she sees contemporary German willingness to help refugees in August 2015,
showing up to welcome trains and volunteer, as “a result of German historical
reflection. … When asked why … for most, historical references were front and
center. Their grandparents had been refugees when East Prussia became Poland
after the war; their grandparents had created refugees when they supported the
Nazi Party… Even those who didn’t mention their own grandparents felt bound by
a bequest from the past.”

Neiman talks to her friend Jan Philipp Reemtsma, born in 1952, who
helped stage the famous 1990s exhibit on Wehrmacht crimes, since acknowledged
as a turning point in German memory of World War II. The Wehrmacht—the German
general conscription army—had not been deemed culpable by the Allies. So when
Germans visited the exhibit, some “carrying small photos of their fathers or
grandfathers,” only to find their relatives had likely participated in war
crimes and genocidal actions on the Eastern Front, many were shocked and
outraged. “As it became clear that the exhibit unleashed a torrent of private
emotion,” Neiman writes,” the organizers sought ways for the visitors to
express it, and the responses to the exhibit became themselves and object of

Neiman also allows herself one “clear and simple thesis: East
Germany did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany.”
Whatever the sins of the East German surveillance state, it succeeded in the
five “crucial facets of any successful attempt to work off a nation’s criminal
past: (1) “achieve a coherent and widely accepted national narrative”; (2)
reinforce that narrative with symbols and memorials consistent with that
narrative, paying homage to victims rather than perpetrators; (3) standardize
the national narrative through education; (4) incorporate the narrative into
the nation’s music, specifically the national anthem; and (5) enshrine this new
narrative in concrete action, for example through reparations and by prosecuting
perpetrators, something both governments did, but with East German Nazi
prosecutions far more extensive.

“Antifascism by decree,” as Westerners called it, worked.
It may well have been a tool, both for Germans “to win favor with the Soviet
occupiers” and for the East German state “to conceal its own injustice and
repression,” but ultimately it did spread a strong anti-fascist message. Almost
immediately after the war, East Germany raised memorials to Germany’s victims—Neiman
focuses particularly on the memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers at Treptow, in
East Berlin. Such memorials, like the Nazi prosecutions, may have been imposed
from the top down, but they resulted in changes of sentiment as well. Friedrich
Schorlemmer, an East German Lutheran pastor she talks to, “finds the Treptow
monument more moving than the Holocaust Memorial [erected after reunification]…
He can still get teary when he hears the line from the former national anthem:
Never again shall a mother have to mourn her son.”

Neiman then turns to Mississippi, a Confederate state with high
antebellum wealth concentrations and the site of appalling twentieth-century racial
violence: the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, the attempt to prevent the
integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962; and the murder of the
three civil rights workers in 1964. 

Mississippi, like Germany in World War II, was scarred by the
Civil War and thus ill-inclined to consider the guilt on its own side. Within
the state, where Neiman lived for a year while researching this book, Neiman
first focuses on Oxford and the University of Mississippi, which in 1962 hosted
“what’s been called the last battle of the Civil War”—Governor Ross Barnett and
rioting students trying to prevent James Meredith from becoming the first black
man to study at the university. There, she talks to employees at the Winter
Institute for Racial Reconciliation
about their ongoing attempt to begin a racial
reckoning in the American setting.

The Winter Institute’s Welcome Table program brings together racially
mixed groups for  monthly meetings over a
year and a half—first focusing on building trust, then discussing tougher
matters, including first childhood memories of race as an issue and the
difference between systemic and intentional, personal racism. Part of what
makes the approach work, Neiman writes, is the Institute’s insistence on “the
humanity of the perpetrator as well as the victim,” in order to build “the
trust needed to talk directly about racism, past and present.” “When you’re
listened to,” one staff member tells Neiman, “no matter what your identity is,
you feel valued, and you’re more open to engage in conversations that get
deeper and deeper.”

Neiman perceives ample evidence in Mississippi for her thesis—that
lack of reckoning with the past is indeed responsible for our fraught present.
She asks another employee at the Winter Institute “why so many white
Southerners hate President Obama. Her answer was swift; she had no need to
speculate. ‘I’ve had two white men tell me they’re afraid he’ll take revenge
for all the things whites did to black people.’”

The Winter Institute’s work, Neiman argues, runs counter to the
way Mississippi is inclined to approach its history—which, her interviewees say,
is primarily to avoid it. Attempts to install museums and memorials to the
state’s black victims, she shows, have proceeded slowly and with great
controversy: Tallahatchie County’s apology and memorial to Emmett Till’s family
took decades, and only materialized after much negotiation in 2007.

Neiman aims to encourage American efforts at a grim time. It might
be easy for a critic to argue that Americans have already missed the Vergangenheitsbewältigung
boat: If Germans managed to confront their past in the Wehrmacht exhibit 50
years after the “zero hour” of World War II’s conclusion, is there really much
hope for Americans, 154 years after Lee’s surrender? But this, Neiman holds, is
the wrong timeline to be looking at: Americans are only now in the early stages
of their reckoning, for the simple fact that the Civil War did not really end
in 1865. Due to Reconstruction, due to Jim Crow, and as evidenced by the
appalling violence and state-federal standoffs of the 1960s, the appropriate
point to mark the South’s “zero hour,” she believes, is not 1865 but 1964, with
the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to this timeline, Americans are
a bit behind the Germans, but not by much—“about the place where Germany was
when the Wehrmacht Exhibit provoked the kind of backlash that the removal of
Confederate monuments provoked in New Orleans.”

This idiosyncratic degree of optimism—treating a century and a
half of intransigence as evidence that Americans can evolve—is deliberate. The
book is a compare and contrast in two case studies. But it’s also, as Neiman
acknowledges, undergirded by a broader idea most often associated with
Enlightenment-era thinking: that history is fundamentally progressive—things
get better over time. Germany is better now than it was in the 1980s. And as
for the United States, the current moment itself is in part a reflection of the
progress of the Obama era: “Racist violence,” she posits, “occurs most often
when black people advance.”

Comparing German and American attempts to reckon with the past is
a worthy exercise: Despite well-documented imperfections and
, Germany
has clearly managed something unusual in international history. German accountability
for the Holocaust has far surpassed U.S. attempts to acknowledge either slavery
or genocide against Native Americans; Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide; Russian
denial of Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukraine; Austrian, Polish, and
French minimization of their own uncomfortably complicit role in the
Holocaust; or patchy
Japanese acknowledgement of
atrocities in China, to name but a few
counterexamples. And anything that can be gleaned from studying the German example—as
well as anything that can be gleaned from looking at where it did not succeed—is
worth considering. 

The particulars of such a task, however, are far from easy, and Neiman’s
specific conclusions lean eccentric. Neiman says several times in her
introduction that she is not a historian, and indeed the book is more
persuasive at a theoretical and intuitive level than at an empirical one. There
are a few notable omissions—for example, in the section praising the Treptow monument
to fallen Soviet soldiers, she fails to discuss the mass rape suffered by
German women at the hands of the Red Army. Knowing that the Red Army raped
untold numbers of German women, does the monument to fallen Soviet soldiers in
East Berlin really represent a society coming to terms with history? Or does it
represent a particularly grisly form of forgetting? Despite the conspicuous and
brief decriminalization of abortion in the Soviet occupation zone, postwar
Germans in both the East and West mostly refused to listen
to female narratives of wartime rape. How
does that square with one of the supposed lessons of the reckoning process in
both Germany and Oxford, Mississippi—that people must feel their trauma is
acknowledged before acknowledging their own guilt in the traumas inflicted on

In Neiman’s narrative of the East’s and West’s different paths to
historical reckoning, her desire to rehabilitate (with somewhat good reason)
the East skims over a number of complicating factors, some big, some small. If
one is to contend that East Germany, despite its authoritarian approach, “did a
better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany,” one needs to grapple
with the fact that the present-day right-wing nationalist Alternative für Deutschland
party is proportionally particularly popular in the East—suggesting
that top-down memorialization initiatives don’t necessarily inoculate a
society against a resurgence of racism.

This wrinkle points to another factor in the long-term success of
a historical reckoning, which Neiman mentions in passing but never fully
explores: the state of the economy. West Germany has been blessed with relative
economic prosperity since World War II, but the East less so—much like the
American South. (Economists, naturally, tend to like such explanations,
pointing to data suggesting economic expansion on its own increases
tolerance, while economic slowing or contraction increases inter-group
tensions.) While one shouldn’t oversimplify or use GDP numbers to negate personal
responsibility, economic conditions are an important part of the postwar German
and American stories, and easily overlooked in personal interviews that disproportionately—although
not exclusively—feature members of the intelligentsia.

Inattention to economic context also complicates an otherwise very
persuasive case for reparations. “It cannot be too much to expect the U.S.
Congress to do in the twenty-first century what the German parliament did in
1952,” Neiman writes. Ethically, that’s true. Practically, however, the two
moments are wildly different. West Germany, in 1952, was not just in the middle
of a post-war boom, but had also received nearly $1.5 billion from the Marshall
Plan in the three preceding years, and was spending nothing at all on military—the
Wehrmacht had been abolished in 1946, with the Allies effectively taking charge
of defense responsibilities, and the new, limited military, the Bundeswehr,
would not be established until 1955. It was as close to a fiscally unique
situation as one can imagine—and even then, Adenauer’s decision to support
reparations was met with a great deal of hostility. As the richest country in the world, the United States can afford reparations. But if the point is to “learn” from
the German example, what, exactly, should a country perpetually deadlocked on
budgetary issues learn from the highly unusual example of West Germany in 1952?

Most importantly, the idea that Trump’s presidency rests on
Southern denial—however intuitively persuasive—skates past some pesky
particulars. While Trump did win ten out of eleven of the former states of the
Confederacy, the non-Confederate states of California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New
York, Michigan, and Illinois count among the top-ten Trump spots by total
voters. What should we make of the 32 percent of Latino men who voted for Trump in 2016? Or the fact that if all
Obama voters had turned out for Hillary Clinton, Trump would have lost the
election? Trumpism in the United States goes beyond any single form of bigotry.
Racism in the United States goes beyond the mere legacy of slavery. (Just look
at how northern abolitionists wrote about the black people they claimed to
champion, at white opposition to public school integration in the present, or
at a research paper published this past September finding that Southern states do not
necessarily have the highest levels of racial resentment in the country.) Addressing
racial inequality and injustice in the United States today is a much larger
task than Neiman seems to propose.

History is not the story of a one-way journey towards “progress,”
and events are not necessarily comparable because they look alike. It does
not necessarily follow that one community can adopt the model provided by another—something
Neiman acknowledges in several caveats, but elsewhere seems to reject outright.
Ultimately, “this book itself is offered as an exercise in universalism, in the
hope that understanding difference will help us find shared souls,” she writes.
Germany may not be able to offer a prescription for Americans, but the
comparison, Neiman says, may offer “hope.”

In the midst of a backlash to a presidency that had explicitly
adopted “hope” as a slogan, that may ring hollow to some readers. Historical
reckoning does not necessarily proceed by numerology: The fact that Germans
took about half a century to come to terms with Nazism (and, surely, it’s far too
to say whether this or any other social trend is permanent) needn’t
suggest Americans are approaching a similar period of progress. And the fact
that the United States took until 1964 to enshrine the legal reforms that
should have happened at the end of the Civil War is not an explanation for its delayed
reckoning, but a historical question in its own right. If the Civil War did not
end until the Civil Rights Act, and the American reckoning clock thus only
started in 1964 as compared to Germany’s 1945, surely the most relevant
question is not “why is the American version of the Wehrmacht exhibit ten years
late” but “why did the Holocaust last six years and America’s enslavement,
disenfranchisement, segregation, and lynching of black people last three
hundred and forty-five?” Moreover, dating the active period of America’s racial
trauma from 1619 to 1964 doesn’t account for the fact that black people are
still killed by the American state and its representatives, through the death
penalty and police shootings, at rates far exceeding white people in similar
situations—something that has not been similarly true of Jews and the
German state since 1945. 

The United States’ debate about its own past is enriched by books
like this one, and it could use another ten like it. But in the courageous work
of building a better world, grim realism can be as useful a tool as optimism. A
progressive view of history, human society faltering but measurably advancing
towards a better future, is always at risk of seeming deterministic, and thus
lulling us into a false sense of security about the amount of grueling,
uncertain work needed to make the world a better place. The current American political
moment—regardless of whatever happened in Germany in the 1990s—is entirely ours
to fix.

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