Learning From The Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, by Susan Neiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2019, 415 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
Update Nov. 14, 2019: Hear our interview with Susan Neiman during her recent visit to San Diego. Click here to listen.
September 22, 2019 (San Diego) - As an increasingly polarized America fights over the legacy of racism, Susan Neiman, author of the contemporary philosophical classic Evil in Modern Thought, asks what we can learn from the Germans about confronting the evils of the past.
Susan Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum. Her previous books, include Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age; Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists; Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy; The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant; and Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin. She studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin, and was a professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv Universities. She is the mother of three grown children and lives in Berlin. This background, perhaps, says a lot about the impetus behind her writing this thought provoking book; Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.
In the wake of white nationalist attacks, and amid the ongoing debate over reparations and the controversies surrounding Confederate monuments and the contested memories they evoke, Neiman’s Learning from the Germans delivers an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with historical wrongdoing. Neiman is a white woman who was born in the segregated South and a Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life in Berlin. Working from this unique point of view, she combines philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with Americans and Germans who are grappling with the evils of their national histories.
In further regard to the ongoing debate over reparations, the author states; “Opponents of reparations will blanch: the case I’ve sketched does imply that there is no honest way to resist claims for reparations on a global scale. Lawyers may argue over legal precedent, but moral precedent was set when Germany first paid reparations for the Holocaust. There followed a small but significant number of reparations settlements: for U.S. treaties broken with Native Americans, for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, for black farmers denied loans. Britain even paid reparations to Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion. By acknowledging that nations have an obligation to compensate for past crimes. Holocaust reparations opened uncounted doors.” Neiman is actually making the argument for slavery reparations for blacks here in America!
Perhaps the most profound passage in this insightful and well written book, is taken from a letter written to Neiman in response to a short article written by her which landed on the internet: “I have lived in Mississippi my entire life (Oxford now) and I am a white conservative. Hilariously (at this point) that must mean I am a racist, I suppose. But in fact I – and many like me – genuinely do wonder what the right thing to do with regard to the history of the southern states in America and the history of the United States in general. Your article provided substantial guidance for me.”
Neiman indicated that this “Mr. Stewart” wanted more, and his letter continued with a list of questions, namely: “What do you think” Should we tear down all Confederate statues? Should we rename all buildings and streets? Should we take this cleansing past things relating to the Civil War and take Washington off the dollar bill? For your reference, I have asked numerous alleged civil rights leaders in Mississippi, and I even had the opportunity to eat dinner with James Meredith and hear his take on the issue. The sides are split, but man oh man, those who think we need to eliminate all vestiges of the slavery era are the angriest. But are they right?”
This same James Meredith that Mr. Stewart indicates he had the opportunity to eat dinner with, Neiman states in Learning from the Germans, she interviewed Meredith about his battle for equality in Mississippi, as well as Bryan Stevenson about his monument to the victims of lynching. Stevens0n has actually written a bestselling book about injustice titled Just Mercy.
The author indicates that she wrote Mr. Stewart back to offer a few concrete suggestions and concluded by noting that if all self-described white conservatives were as thoughtful as he, the country was in better shape than she thought.
To follow up on that line of reasoning, and which crystalizes her thought process in regard to this book, she states: “I didn’t need the election of Donald Trump, as terrifying as it was ludicrous, to prove that it’s not. Had it started in Ferguson? With the acquittal of the man who shot Trayvon Martin? By the time a smirking, dead-eyed kid named Dylann Storm Roof killed nine African Americans at a Bible study group in Charleston, the crisis seemed as clear to the white people who’d been able to ignore it as it was to the black people who’d never forgotten it. The heartache that gripped America was not just about the fact that the massacre took place in a sanctuary. There were also the voices of many victim’s families declaring hate would not win.” Mind you, this is a white Jewish woman born in the segregated South, with this assessment!
It is interesting to note how the author of this insightful book attempts to blend the aftermath of Nazi Germany, and their persecution and genocidal murder of Jews, with that of the discrimination and subjugation of former black slaves here in America. It seems to me difficult to reconcile making this comparison, especially coming from the lens and prism that I have been saddled with. Mind you, I am a black man and those former slaves were my ancestors, while those Jews that were murdered, were Neiman’s ancestors.
As a matter of fact, and an interesting point made by the author in Learning from the Germans, she states: “At first glance, the case for American reparations has little in common with the case for German reparations for the Holocaust.” Is this a case of comparing apples and oranges, or should we even go down that path?
Neiman makes many profound statements and comparisons in this book between the plight and legacy of blacks and Jews, another one of which is stated; “The murder of millions of Jews is a crime not only against a particular tribe but against the very idea of humanity, and it is principally as human beings, not as Jews, that we abhor and remember it. The crime we call the Holocaust – an attempt to wipe out a slice of humankind simply for belonging to a particular tribe – was an attack on the idea of humankind itself, which is part of the reason why so much of humankind, Jewish or not, recognizes it is the standard of evil.”
Neiman further states: “The images of cattle cars, gas chambers, and ovens are seared into whatever collective memory we have, but we don’t need them to acknowledge a crime against humanity. I support Black Lives Matter not from tribal loyalty or even tribal guilt, but because the killing of unarmed civilians will always be a crime against humankind itself.”
In yet another profound statement in this book, that actually puts the issue(s) in perspective, she states; “The criminalization of African Americans was deliberate and intentional. Here’s a quote from the diary of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff: [The president] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to ... [He] pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless. The worst is Liberia, which we built.” This is expressly revealed in a recent audio recording of a conversation about Africa between Nixon and Reagan here.
In further regard to the issue and notion of reparations, which this book seems to be about, the author states in Learning from the Germans: “Any serious discussion of American reparations for slavery must acknowledge two facts:
- America’s wealth is intrinsically bound up with profits from slavery, from the plantations of the South to the factories of the North.
- Chattel slavery was abolished in 1865, but it was replaced by other forms of subjugation that were not just a function of custom and prejudice but a matter of law.”
The afore-mentioned Bryan Stevenson, whom Neiman indicates she interviewed for this book, ironically, is one of the authors contributing towards The New York Times Magazine “The 1619 Project”, chronicling the 400 year anniversary of blacks being brought to these shores from Africa as slaves. Read here.
In Learning from the Germans, and in further regard to Bryan Stevenson, Neiman states: “Stevenson is the only national figure on record who took German confrontation with its bloody past as a model for what Americans should do with ours, and I wanted to know how he got there.”
Neiman quotes Stevenson in here brilliantly conceived and written Learning from the Germans, as stating: “The difference between the United States and Germany, is leadership. In Germany, there were people who said we can choose to be a Germany of the past or a Germany of the future. We cannot do it by trying to reconcile the Nazi era with what we want to be. Either we’re going to reject that and claim something better, or we’re going to be condemned by that for the rest of our existence. That was something that never happened in the United States.” Profound!
Neiman sums up this incredibly poignant and insightful book into our past with the memory of evil, by stating: “As I’ve argued elsewhere, a culture of victimhood is indeed unhealthy. But objections to that culture can become reasons to support reparations, as long as that support is properly grounded. Proper grounding would come with an apology and a full description of the wrong that was done. Unlike welfare or affirmative action, reparations would be seen as a straightforward payment for an overdue debt. If our forebears failed to pay it, the responsibility to do so devolves on those of us who benefit from that failure, whether the benefits come directly from wealth or other privileges gained from belonging to the white majority of a powerful nation.”
Dennis Moore has been the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at: @Dennis Moore8.