Time and pressure, courage to take unpopular positions necessary to overcome one’s country or community’s racist past

Excerpt, New Yorker, July 2020

In her 2019 book, “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” the philosopher Susan Neiman examines the different ways in which Germany and the United States have confronted their past sins. Neiman, who grew up in the American South and now lives in Berlin, describes how Germany has reckoned with the Nazi era, through memorials, official acts of remembrance, and various forms of reparations. Indeed, just as the Nazi period has become the ultimate example of unadulterated cruelty, postwar Germany has become the paradigmatic example of a country that has fully considered its past. Could something similar be possible in the United States? As Neiman’s book seeks to answer this question, it also serves as a conscious attempt to “safeguard” Germany’s confrontation with history, at a time when the far right is on the rise there, as it is in many countries.

I recently spoke by phone with Neiman, amid renewed discussions in the U.S.—sparked in part by the killing of George Floyd—about how to remember slavery and segregation, and increasing controversy over whether Confederate memorials have any place in modern-day America. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why it took the Germans longer than many people think to come to grips with Nazism, the different ways East and West Germany approached the legacy of the Third Reich, and what the German experience with reparations can teach the United States.

Your book is generally admiring of Germany’s efforts, but you present the country as taking several decades to get where it did. What changed?

Time and pressure. The pressure came in West Germany from civil society. In East Germany, it came from the leadership, who were Communists, and who recognized that the Communists had been the first group that the Nazis attacked. You had a top-down process on one side of Germany, and a bottom-up process in the other side.

I don’t idealize the process that the Germans went through in facing up to their criminal past. It was long, it was reluctant, and they faced an enormous amount of backlash. Most people outside of Germany have come to think the Nazi times were so awful that, the minute the war was over, the German nation got down on its knees and begged for atonement. And that’s just not the case. In fact, the few people who did get down on their knees, like Willy Brandt, in 1970, were vilified by the majority of their compatriots.

You are referring to the West German Chancellor who fell to his knees as a gesture of atonement, in Warsaw, in 1970.

Precisely. There is a very famous picture that went around the world, and I think that for most non-Germans it is the iconic picture of postwar Germany. But that’s not reliable. Think about Brandt himself, who, as a Social Democrat, went into exile as soon as the Nazis took power. So, personally, he had nothing to atone for. But he still felt that, as the leader of a nation, he ought to make a gesture. What we don’t know, or what most people don’t know, is that the majority of the country thought it was wrong for him to get on his knees and atone, and particularly to be submissive before Slavic people.

So the change was from seeing themselves as the war’s worst victims—and I’ve seen mouths drop open when I tell this to an American audience, but they really did see themselves as the war’s worst victims. It’s not something that Germans tend to talk about. They’ll tell you about their Nazi parents, or their Nazi teachers, but they won’t say that their parents not only went along with Nazis but thought of themselves as the worst victims of the war. And I realized it was the same trope that you hear among supporters of the Lost Cause. “Our cities were burned, our men were wounded or put in prisoner-of-war camps. Our women were violated, our children were hungry, and, on top of that, the damn Yankees blamed us for the war.” These are exactly the sentiments that you would hear in West Germany.

I think it is very natural for everyone to want to see their ancestors and their nation as heroic. And if you can’t do heroic, then the move is to see yourself and your nation as a victim. But the move from seeing oneself as a nation of victims to a nation of perpetrators is one that the Germans finally and with great difficulty made. And that’s a historical precedent.

I suppose another thing that complicates the story is that the Germans did become victims, in the sense that their cities were burned, civilians were killed, a lot of German women were raped by Russian soldiers, there were huge population expulsions of German-speaking peoples from other European countries—

Can I just interrupt you? We always hear about the Red Army rapes. All the armies raped civilian women. If you go down to the Deep South, the sense of victimization is still very strong. And it’s not entirely unjustified. I think the North has always wanted to look at the South as the locus of our problems.

In 2018, I was driving on the Turnpike and trying to keep myself awake by singing along to the radio, and a song came on. It was Joan Baez singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and I suddenly realized I cannot sing along to that song anymore. It would be like singing a beautiful melody to the night they drove the Wehrmacht out. And Joan Baez, she not only sang at the March on Washington, she sang in Selma, when white people were being killed. So her civil-rights creds are as good as they come, and yet she could nevertheless record this huge hit that is an elegy for the Lost Cause. So I think it’s really important that we see that as an American problem. The South magnifies it, but it’s an American ignorance of our history.

You talked about it being a bottom-up process in West Germany, and I think the way that’s normally talked about is that it was generational. That kids in the 1968 generation started putting pressure on their parents to tell them what happened and why.

Generational change definitely played a role. But it started much earlier. It was not a huge movement. There were clergypeople who were quite involved in setting up organizations that sent young people to work in kibbutzim, or other places where help for victims of the Nazis was needed. I think one really important thing that happened was the beginning of the publication of memoirs of survivors. That presented a picture, particularly in West Germany, that wasn’t available. In East Germany, by the way, there were over a thousand books and a thousand films made about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. I think art has an enormous function here, as it should, in simply helping us to see things from another perspective. And I think it is playing a big role in the renewed civil-rights movement in America. I think that the work of our greatest writers, like Toni Morrison, but also many, many others, has really changed our view of what it is to be an American, and what black Americans have been through.

You also had people demanding to excavate the rotting concentration camps, and turn them into memorials—or the torture chambers of the Gestapo, which were unearthed by a group of civil-society activists in Berlin, who are now funded by the state, but at the time they weren’t. The state was not too happy about any of this.

I think travel also played a role: the fact that, within Europe, people began to realize that there are very different versions of history that they weren’t talking about. For a generation of Germans who were born either during or just after the war, history basically stopped in 1933. You just didn’t learn about it in West Germany. But it became important to develop curricula that actually show both the rise of the Nazis and what they did to their victims. Again, it’s not complete; it’s not perfect. But it was a combination of forces, which were all very important.

I wrote a piece in The Atlantic, in September, about how there were no Nazi memorials, and of course someone wrote to the editor and said, “Here’s one.” And the truth is, there are a couple, which neither I nor any of my friends knew about, because they’re off in tiny little villages. But almost all of them were removed. The Third Reich was only active for twelve years, so there wasn’t a lot of time to build monuments. And the Allies decreed what the streets and offices were to be renamed, and had swastikas taken off of the public buildings. There wasn’t that much that had to be removed, but the idea that these people should be memorialized in any way, even though you still had family members mourning for them, was just not done. What happened instead is a plethora of monuments both to people who resisted the Nazis and to their victims.

In the West, you had politicians like the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl express a grumpy attitude about the United States having a Holocaust memorial. So how much of this do you think was cynically done to make Germany more palatable to others? And then similarly, in the East, they were interested in focussing on Fascism’s crimes, because they were also running a non-democratic, authoritarian state, and wanted to focus attention elsewhere.

Politicians always do things for political motives. I think that’s what makes them politicians. Certainly, what you’re talking about in West Germany was explicit. The decision by Konrad Adenauer to pay reparations to the state of Israel and to individual Holocaust victims was explicitly made as an attempt, first of all, to make Germany acceptable to the West again. And, at the same time, there was a really quite wicked trade-off, which was, “We’ll pay some money and then we can just be silent. We’ll keep all our old Nazis in their offices,” which happened. “We won’t prosecute people. We will not talk about the past. We’ve paid our dues. That’s it.” It was Adenauer who even made a very famous statement, when he was running against Brandt for Chancellor, in 1962: “What was Herr Brandt doing abroad for twelve years?” So you had the very thing that made Brandt a good German in the eyes of the world make him a bad German in the eyes of the Christian Democrats.

Kohl is an interesting case, because I think Kohl actually evolved. I really have hardly a good word to say about the man. He was famous for saying that he didn’t have any responsibility for Nazism due to the “mercy of a late birth,” which became kind of a trope. And, of course, you don’t blame a three-year-old—he was three when the Nazis took power—but to say you have no responsibility for the nation that you’re leading is pretty problematic. Despite his feelings about the Holocaust Museum in Washington, he really fought for the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which is surprising. I’m not entirely sure why he wanted to do that, but he did.

So there were definitely very cynical moments in West Germany. In 1985, there was a very famous speech by the then President, Richard von Weizsäcker, in which he finally called May 8th “the end of the war, a day of liberation.” Again, it had been called that for forty years in East Germany, but it was time that people stopped describing it as the Day of Defeat or the Day of the Unconditional Capitulation, which is how it was described. And I think that the combined force of these elements from civil society really did move conservative politicians like Weizsäcker and Kohl, who were not Social Democrats by any means.

The East German case is more complicated. The people who ran the country all were either in concentration camps, or they fled into exile to avoid them or avoid being killed. So their anti-Fascism was not cynical at all. It was very deep, it was very personal, and they really were committed to founding another Germany. And, of course, it was an authoritarian system. And this is not even talking about the Soviet dependence; and I’m not defending Stalinism.

I’m glad that we both agree on that.

But what one has to remember, in trying to understand what East Germany did, is these people had seen the failure of democratic institutions. They were quite scared of saying to the people who had been living under Nazi propaganda for thirteen years, “O.K., guys, just elect whoever you like.”