What does it mean to live in the wake of past crime? Susan Neiman tackles that question in her richly rewarding, consistently stimulating and beautifully written Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.
Neiman is a professional philosopher (director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, in fact) with the skills of an investigative journalist and historian. She deals with the most horrible experiences in the real world—slavery, racism and Nazism—and how we should consider remembering the events and their victims. Her background is unusual: She is a white Jewish woman who grew up in the segregated South in the United States, lived in Israel for several years and has been a resident of Berlin for most of her adult life.
Alternating background information, firsthand accounts drawn from her many interviews in America and Europe, and insightful analysis, Neiman describes how the German people worked, with great difficulty, to acknowledge the evils their nation committed during the Nazi period. She points out that the highest proportion of Nazi Party members came from the educated classes. After vigorous and ongoing public debate, Germany has made many positive changes in school curricula and elsewhere and constructed the famous Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. German artist Gunter Demnig designed a much smaller but more unsettling reminder, with more than 61,000 “stumbling blocks” hammered into sidewalks in front of buildings where Jews lived before the war. Each plaque lists a name and the dates of birth and deportation.
Nothing comparable on this scale has been done to acknowledge the victims of racism and slavery in the United States. Americans may understand that wrongs were done, but we prefer narratives of progress. Neiman seeks to encourage a discussion of guilt and responsibility as serious as the one in Germany, “not in order to provide a set of directions, but rather a sense of orientation won through reflection that is no less passionate for being nuanced.” She provides the crucial facets of any successful attempt to work off a nation’s criminal past. They include a coherent and widely accepted national narrative that is conveyed by education and appropriate symbols.
Neiman spent an extended period of time in Mississippi interviewing civil rights icons, which gave her valuable insight into what she was up against, as well as hope. She was encouraged during an interview with Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and the creator of what is known informally as the National Lynching Memorial. He is the only public figure on record who has taken Germany’s confrontation with its terrible past as a model for the U.S. He said that nothing similar has been done here because of the lack of shame about what was done.
This brief overview barely begins to convey the way this disturbing but hopeful and insightful book wrestles with the questions of who we are as human beings and what values we have as a nation. I strongly recommend it.