How Germans Grappled With the Nazi Past

German understanding of the Nazi era is often seen as a model of how a country comes to terms with its past. But the limits of this experience also have much to teach us about building a public memory culture based on a thoroughgoing universalism.

Berlin, Germany during the opening of the Olympic Games, 1936. (Library of Congress / Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Shortly after the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, civil rights activist Julius Lester wrote that the memory of 6 million murdered Jews should not obscure the view of US war crimes in Vietnam and the oppression of blacks in the United States. American society, he said, was sick — and unable to cope with this racist legacy.

Thirty-six years later, I was a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and reminded Lester, who was teaching there, of his essay. In the meantime, he had converted to Judaism, been trained as a rabbi and religious scholar, and become a professor. He told me that he didn’t have to take back what he had written, but that he had come to understand the universality of the Holocaust: no other crime, not even slavery, is comparable.

Racism in all its forms is a core evil of mankind. But the hatred of the Jews and the enslavement of entire African peoples on the American continent are older than “modern” racism operating with pseudo-biological terms. The latter invoked a supposedly threatened public health to expel the “inferior” people branded as pests. In Nazi Germany, they were exterminated — and the handling of this worst legacy of German history would also define the decades after Hitler’s inglorious end. “Racial legislation” in the United States predated the Nazi empire and persisted long after 1945. “I understand that,” said a black US soldier at liberated Buchenwald, “because I’ve seen people lynched just because they were black.”

So, how does Germany, after its problematic unification, and the United States today, face up to this heritage — one which both societies share in different ways, yet which also separates them? These questions are at the heart of Susan Neiman’s book, a lesson in applied enlightenment.

Universalism Defended

Born in 1955, the Jewish author grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She left school at fourteen and joined a commune in California. But her thirst for knowledge kept her returning to the classroom, always remaining involved in antiwar movements. She was admitted to New York City College and later studied philosophy at Harvard and, in part, at West Berlin’s Free University.

In 1986, she earned her doctorate at Harvard under John Rawls, to whom she remained academically and personally connected until his death. This was followed by an assistant and then an associate professorship at Yale then a professorship in Tel Aviv. From there she came to the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, an intellectual meeting place which she has directed ever since.

Neiman’s ancestors immigrated to the United States early enough to be largely spared the Nazi death machines and the haunting memory of them. But she grew up in a state in the US South where blacks were considered third-class citizens and — as she experienced as a child — Jews were second-class. The author strikingly portrays how she initially tried to dismiss these experiences as irrelevant, before coming to terms with them.

The book is a combination of social report and sociological analysis, reflected through the eyes of the historically thinking philosopher. Neiman’s guiding star is Immanuel Kant. With the Enlightenment philosopher she searches for independent thinkers who use their intellect to overcome the boundaries of immaturity.

Another thinker Neiman mentions, the historian Isaac Deutscher, was also concerned with transgressing boundaries. Deutscher saw himself as a non-Jewish Jew (he coined this term) who remained connected to the heritage of Judaism that leads Jews out of the ghetto to emancipation. While such emancipation would have to transcend the boundaries of Judaism, it was Jews’ resistance to oppression and exclusion that enable them to contribute to the liberation of all people. The prerequisite for this, Neiman says, is an unreserved internationalism. She calls this attitude “universalism,” and with it she builds the bridge from Deutscher back to the Kantian Enlightenment whose legacy she determinedly defends.

Such a background itself informs the author’s thought and work process. “This book shows,” Neiman writes, “how the German people worked, slowly and fitfully, to acknowledge the evils their nation committed. Many books have been written urging us to draw lessons from the Holocaust, some of the dubious. My interest is in what we can learn from Germany after the catastrophe was over. The story should give hope, particularly to Americans currently struggling to come to terms with our own divided history.”

Neiman asks who has the right to make comparisons. The Nazis were the first to compare their own racial policies with the United States, and long before they gained power looked to American eugenics to support their “race theory.” The author quotes Tzvetan Todorov, for whom “Germans should talk about the singularity of the Holocaust, Jews should talk about its universality. […] A German who talks of the singularity of the Holocaust assumes responsibility; a German who speaks of its universality is denying it.” The latter is only seeking exoneration; if everyone was somehow guilty of mass murder, how could the Germans have avoided it?

But after a painful reflection process, this attitude gave way to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung (coming to terms with the past), a word that was not only a phonetic challenge for the author. In Germany, interest in all aspects of the Nazi past — especially the responsibility of ordinary Germans — has grown, as evidenced by the large number of memorial sites. In the United States too, there were many sites commemorating the Holocaust, but despite progress in the past two years there are few indeed commemorating slavery (the same could be said of Britain). A memorial in Washington to the genocide of Native Americans, perhaps next to the Holocaust Museum, is barely even conceivable.

The Holocaust as pure evil enabled America to divert attention from its own misdeeds. Thus, many Americans lacked (at least until recently) an understanding of the American Civil War as well as the Jim Crow period society. US political culture would greatly benefit from its own appropriate coming to terms with the past, just as German society has done.

Theodor W. Adorno wrote that the reappraisal of the past influences the conscious, but more so the unconscious. Neiman cites the Frankfurt School thinker to this effect: “That’s just how we are built: attack us from the outside, we’ll be quick to defend our ground.” She makes clear why Nazis — mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann and ideological predecessors and successors like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt — could sleep more peacefully than their surviving victims, and why even the few personalities who tried to remember all this experienced rejection and later only patronizing recognition.

In the 1950s and 1960s, former resistance fighter Wolfgang Abendroth was the only university professor in West Germany to initiate research on the anti-fascist workers’ resistance. Otherwise, there was no mention of anti-fascism in West Germany; even the word was anathema. Instead, strategies of exoneration dominated: the most frequent topics were the bombing of German cities by the Allies and the expulsion of Germans from the now former Eastern territories.

Postwar Germanies

Susan Neiman tries to understand why this was probably inevitable after the end of the war, in the years of the “economic miracle” when Germans numbed themselves with hectic activity — a bid to forget, and make forget. She pays tribute to the efforts made by Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt and the 1960s generation to tear away this veil of intentional forgetting, and to ask probing questions of their own parents. She justifies her overall positive judgment of the Social Democrat/Green coalition government (1998–2005) primarily in terms of the orientation it gave to official remembrance policy, unthinkable under preceding conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In particular, Neiman portrays Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, as a key figure in coming to terms with the past, above all as the initiator of the exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht in 1995. This exhibition was a striking reversal of attempts to rehabilitate the wartime German army “The heroes of the Wehrmacht had become the victims and losers of bombs and POW camps . . . now they had to get used to being perpetrators.” Attacks on the exhibition caused the contradictions in the discussion of history to erupt even more powerfully than they had in the famous Historikerstreit (Historians’ Debate) nine years earlier.

As for the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the author presents

a clear and simple thesis: East Germany did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany. Like any attempt to make normative judgments about history, this one can, and will, be complicated. Still, the judgment will be a surprise to most Anglo-American readers. For most Germans, the claim is the philosophical equivalent of throwing down a glove in an old-fashioned duel.

The author never takes state-sponsored anti-fascism entirely at face value, showing how it slowly became ritualized and instrumentalized. Still, it is important to remember that the GDR was ahead of West Germany in many ways. Neiman quotes Hans Otto Bräutigam, the West’s former permanent representative to the GDR, to the effect that “one of East Germany’s greatest strengths” was its earlier condemnation of fascism.

East Germans interviewed by the author — the Protestant pastor and civil rights activist Friedrich Schorlemmer, the molecular biologist Jens Reich, the director of Centrum Judaicum in East Berlin, Hermann Simon, the Yiddish folk singer, Jalda Rebling, and the writer Ingo Schulze — also emphasized that GDR anti-fascism wasn’t just hollow rhetoric. From the outset there were films, books, and plays, and every schoolchild visited Buchenwald. Learning from the Germans is also an appeal to the East Germans not to let this better part of their heritage be taken away from them — and a demand to the West Germans to honor this heritage as part of a democratic memory culture.

But why did Jews in the GDR, who had suffered persecution, exile and the camps, speak so little about their Jewishness? Was it, perhaps, also because the solidarity with their non-Jewish comrades from the workers’ movement was their strongest bond? But it is also true that the GDR’s commitment to anti-fascism helped many people exonerate themselves. According to a Spiegel survey, after forty-five years of anti-fascist education, in 1990, 4 percent of the East German population showed extreme antisemitic attitudes, a quarter as many as in the West. In the thirty years since reunification, they have caught and surpassed West German numbers.

In 1945, most East Germans were as disinclined as West Germans to take the step toward anti-fascism — which is precisely why this had to be decided for them. But in the Cold War, the West needed the expertise of those who had worked against the Soviet Union under Hitler. Thus, anti-communism, only provisionally cleansed of its anti-Jewish elements, was tested for reuse and found suitable, as Neiman clearly demonstrates.

Financial payments to Israel, which were “called compensations rather than reparations, a word that reminded too many of the detested Versailles Treaty,” are therefore seen as an alibi for the Federal Republic’s integration into the anti-communist Western community. But as one of Neiman’s more haunting passages tells us, the political equation of fascism and communism served an even “darker purpose”:

Few Wehrmacht soldiers were moved to take up arms in order to move down Jewish civilians, though few disobeyed orders to do so once behind the front lines. […] But no dictatorship gets far by merely commanding its troops; it has to inspire them. The heroic ethos the Nazis cultivated would not have been furthered by exhorting recruits to shoot long-bearded old men or to bayonet babies; those acts took place, but they were not advertised. The call to defend Europe from the Communist menace was loud, clear, and far more effective.

This allowed many West Germans’ persistent feelings of guilt to be assuaged, and justified anti-communism: “The worse the Bolsheviks now appear, the better the Nazis look in retrospect.” But repression of the past had also taken place in the GDR — a silence about the crimes of Stalinism, including its antisemitism. Could the GDR have survived, Neiman asks, if it had not also used anti-fascism to conceal injustice and oppression? But, as the author makes clear, the GDR was not condemned because it abused anti-fascism, but because it wanted to combine anti-fascism with socialism and put a stop to those responsible for war and mass murder.

German Lessons?

Neiman says that the impetus for her book came when president Barack Obama gave the June 26, 2015 memorial speech for nine African-Americans murdered in Charleston, South Carolina, and called for a fundamental reappraisal of racism in the United States and its history. She went to Mississippi in 2016, and after Donald Trump’s election, she spent part of her 2017 sabbatical at the university there.

There, Neiman traced the Civil Rights Movement and asked how much institutional and structural racism was still present in America — most openly in the South. She sees the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955, when the white murderers of fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till were acquitted. In the same year, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama was the first sign of mass rebellion against state racism. The delayed prosecution of Till’s murderers and the processing of the crime will not lightly be forgotten by anyone who reads Neiman’s discussion of African-American Christians praying for mercy for Till’s murderers:

The capacity to return hate with love wipes reason off the map, at least for awhile. I cannot understand it any more than I can understand how, knowing that story black churches across America continue to open their doors and their hearts to white strangers again and again. What love and courage. What courage and love.

In the United States, even more than in Germany, Neiman draws on interviews with men and women of the most diverse backgrounds and professions. With respect and sympathy, she portrays people who were not even allowed to dream of an educational path like her own. She describes conditions in Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States, where education-starved poor blacks (and whites, too!) have little chance of breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty, educational and professional disadvantage, health care barely worthy of the name, and early death.

But she also acknowledges the great efforts of men and women to remedy this, at least in small ways. She tirelessly discovers people’s initiatives for self-help and mutual solidarity even where it seems nothing can be done. These passages in the book are particularly touching in their humanity. Nowhere does Neiman lapse into pathos; nowhere does she appear to be lecturing. Her language, as Jan Plamper notes in a thoughtful review, is “often light on its feet, that is, with pointing fingers at rest.”

No Southerner today justifies slavery, just as open antisemitism is no longer socially acceptable in Germany. The ritualized celebrations in honor of the Confederate armies, however, remind the author of a Christian glorification of suffering, just as religious fundamentalism in general became a substitute for the Lost Cause. In contrast, the “most compelling monuments . . . the slaves’ own words, collected from Works Progress Administration testimonies and etched on granite tablets placed in long rows,” are too little present in people’s consciousness. Ignorance of social contexts, including in coming to terms with people’s own past, made Trump possible, the author repeatedly emphasizes.

It is worth remembering that Trump’s political career began in the Birther Movement, which spread the lie that Obama was not born in the United States and that his presidency was therefore illegitimate. But this is only the dirty flip side of the equally foul claim that blacks, when they talk about equality, mean only to possess white women. For Neiman, the phantasmagoria of black men raping white women is “a kind of projection”; it fuels white guilt because they know “that their ancestors took black women as they pleased,” and they now believed “that black men will do the same.”

Was the praise for the Confederacy’s armies starting in the early twentieth century — concealing the cause for which they fought — not well-placed to reconcile the white members of the enemy armies? Is it a coincidence that Birth of a Nation triumphed in 1915 — the same year that the Ku Klux Klan celebrated its rebirth in a night-time ceremony in Atlanta, and that the Jew Leo Frank was lynched in this same state? Have the shadows of that time really become shadows of the past?

Neiman remembers the three civil rights workers murdered in 1964, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, memorialized in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, but also Edgar Ray Killen, who organized their deaths and then lived a free man for forty-one years. She listens even to racists who tried to explain to her that blacks are inherently criminal, and that’s what you have to protect against. Finally, as in West Germany in the 1950s, anti-communism served as a narcotic, here jointly with militant racism. Universities are all hotbeds of communism, the author was told more than once.

So, does whoever has the power write the history? They do, if the means of production and information are in their hands — but they’ve also had to make concessions, at universities as elsewhere. “We had a brilliant civil rights movement, but we didn’t win the narrative war,” comments Bryan Stevenson, an African American lawyer who founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating victims of racial lynching.

Defiant Optimism

The book is a milestone in the literature on memory culture. For the first time, the author has brought together the separate memory cultures of Americans and Germans, of East and West Germans, of Jews and non-Jews, of black and white Americans. She makes clear that the respective reappraisals of the past can be thought of together, that they are multidimensional here as well as there, and that it is takes several generations before history catches up with itself.

But the book offers more than that: with powerful brushstrokes, Neiman paints an impressive picture of the times, capturing the problems of both societies. She removes the boundaries between philosophy and politics, historiography and literature, brilliantly writing for a broad audience without ever giving up a whit of scholarship. Learning from the Germans addresses a liberal readership and wisely avoids terminology that might be “off-putting” to them. But anyone who reads the book with a political mindset will notice that it is not only borne by solidarity with the losers of history, but also by a socialist spirit and an almost defiant optimism.

We can conclude by letting Neiman speak for herself once again. As a Jew, she had learned in Israel that “I could not possibly feel more connected to an arms dealer who shares my ethnic background than to a friend from Chile, or South Africa or Kazakhstan who shares my basic values. My ties are to agents, not genealogies. I choose friends, and loves, for reasons.”