Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil

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This is a book about making amends. In particular, it is about the way that modern Germany has come to view, and deal with, the legacy of the Holocaust. The author is a Jewish American, originally from the south, who has lived for a long time in Berlin. The main focus of the work is on how the German example can be used to help the US, and in particular the southern states, to atone for the historical crime of slavery.

In the process, Neiman offers some fascinating insights into the relative histories. In Germany she points out that, after the Second World War, many were reluctant to even admit to the crimes of the Nazis. Instead leading politicians and intellectuals were keen to portray Germany as the primary victim of the war.

This was compounded by the fact that many former Nazis were allowed to continue in public office. Neiman reports that, as late as 1986, conservative German historians sought to excuse Hitler, on the grounds that he only responded to Russian provocation.

However, this approach came under increasing criticism, particularly following the social upheavals of the late 1960s. Younger Germans demanded that previous generations face up to what had been done. The lengthy German term for this process translates to something like “working-off-the-past”. It led to changes in public policy, in education and in the way that the war was commemorated.

Neiman goes on to contrast this with the attitude to slavery in the southern states of the US. Here, she argues, there has been very little attempt to work off the past. This is demonstrated by the current debate around Confederate monuments to the Civil War. There are hundreds of these, although there have recently been successful campaigns to remove some.

The book points out that very few of them were raised in the immediate aftermath of the war. Instead there were two main phases of building such monuments; after the end of the post-war reconstruction period and then again following the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In both cases the purpose was less about remembrance and more about asserting white supremacist ideology.

Both sections of the book are interesting and well-researched. The author has interviewed many brave individuals who were key to campaigns aimed at bringing about change in their respective societies. She concludes that the US, and other nations with a history involving colonialism and slavery, could learn a lot from how Germans have come to terms with what happened in the past. This is however the weakest part of the book.

Neiman is clear that racism persists in Germany too, and indeed has taken a more pernicious form with the rise of the AfD. But she provides no real analysis of strategies that could be adopted to combat racist ideas and movements. Instead the emphasis is on accepting individual guilt and vague appeals to Enlightenment ideals. Learning from the Germans is an eloquent and well-written description of a problem but those seeking answers will need to look elsewhere.