My review of Susan Neiman’s “Learning from the Germans” – a book that has some insights on today’s racial conflicts.

This is a thought-provoking and brilliantly researched book. It also has a very original premise. Every nation has a past in which there is at least one event or period of which they can be ashamed. For Germany, of course, it is the unique horror of the Nazi period and the holocaust. For the United States it is Slavery and the failure, post the Civil War, to establish effective civil rights for all. Susan Neiman does not equate Germany’s Nazi past with the institutionalised discrimination and lynchings of the Southern States of the US. But she does suggest how today’s Americans can and should “confront Race and the Memory of Evil” – by using Germany as the precedent. “Learning from the Germans”.

For me there were many new things in this book. I know Germany fairly well but had not realised that the determination to record and explain the Nazi period is a relatively recent thing. The museums, school curricula, memorials and other records of the evils of Hitler have only really come into place in the last thirty years. Under the immediate West German governments of Adenauer and his successors there was little attempt made to feature anywhere the years 1932-1945 or to make reparations to those who suffered. Interestingly the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was different and young East Germans were far more likely to know of Germany’s recent past than their West German compatriots. Today across Germany there are outstanding museums of the Nazi era and the Holocaust. In part, of course, these are driven by accumulated guilt and it took a generation that was too young to have been guilty or not yet born to create these memorials. 

The post-Civil War period in America which in the Southern States maintained and expanded discrimination and it endured until well into the 1960s and, arguably, it hasn’t entirely gone away today. White Supremacists raise their fetid heads from time to time and have in Donald Trump a “President” who doesn’t seem over-bothered by them. Ms Neiman records some of the infamous cases of murder carried out by the Klu Klux Klan post war – and chilling stories they are as well. She points out how the “Confederacy” states like Georgia the State of her birth were segregated. The Civil Rights heroes of the 1960s had to fight not just the racist extremists but even Southern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson who didn’t want to lose the white vote! She visits Mississippi and finds bigotry still present but where there are also encouraging signs. Museums of Slavery have been built and the horrors of segregation are more a matter of record today. She quotes Stanley Cavell who said “History will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it” – this is perhaps the main driver of Ms Neiman’s book.

I am British and found this retrospective on German and American evil and how later generations have addressed it very instructive. Here in the United Kingdom whilst we are happy to wallow in the perceived greatness of our past we are largely unwilling to address our errors, many of which were venal. Susan Neiman says that in Britain “… there is no monument remembering the victims of colonial famines and massacres…” – she’s quite right about this. There is no “Museum of the British Empire” (one in Bristol closed through lack of support) and teaching in schools and universities on the subject is minimal. Britain’s involvement in slavery, our appropriation of lands overseas that were not ours, our discrimination against and often murder of native peoples needs to be addressed just as much as the Germans and Southern Americans are addressing their pasts.

At over 400 pages “Learning from the Germans” is a long read and a moving and timely one. So much of modern society around the world revolves around discriminating hierarchies which self-select on the basis of race, colour, nationality, absence of disability, gender or creed. Sammy Davis Junior once called himself “the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.” Almost a full house! In my country there is now open nationalism and xenophobia in Government. In the White House it’s the same. If Trump could read and if Boris Johnson could be bothered to they should look at Susan Neiman’s book. The holocaust historian Laurence Rees called his definitive book on the Third Reich “The Nazis – A Warning from History”. Ms Neiman’s book is that as well – but it also shows how by “Learning from the Germans” we can do something about that lesson.

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