By Chet Yarbrough
Learning from the Germans (Race and the Memory of Evil)
By: Susan Neiman
Narrated by: Christa Lewis
Susan Neiman (Author, Moral Philosopher).
Not many authors are more qualified than Susan Neiman to write about “Learning from the Germans”. As an American moral philosopher and cultural commentator who lives in Germany, Neiman offers an analysis of race and evil. One may disagree with her conclusion but not with her understanding of the subject.
Neiman notes being raised in Atlanta, Georgia by her Jewish mother, and father. Regarding race and evil, Neiman understands what it is like to be white in America and Jewish in Germany. Southern discrimination and religious persecution are vivified by Neiman’s experience in both cultures.
What comes as a surprise to some is Neiman’s argument that Germany handles guilt and shame for the holocaust better than America handles guilt and shame for racism, slavery, unequal treatment, and murder of people of color.
The primary theme of Neiman’s book is that post WWII Germany dealt with the history of the holocaust more forthrightly than America has dealt with racism and its evil.
Neiman explains memory of the holocaust is memorialized in Germany after the war. It has only been in the twentieth century that America has begun to memorialize 200 years of black slavery, lynching, and murder.
Pictures below are German sites preserved showing concentration camps, a prison, a museum, as monuments and reminders of holocaust atrocities. In Germany, by 1950, reparation for holocaust survivors is being negotiated.
With the exception of the Thomas Ball memorial to Emancipation in 1876, no monuments of slavery’s horrendous history are noted in America until the mid-1900s. What Neiman shows is that, only in this American generation, have reparations for slavery been seriously considered.
In the 1950s Germany began to deal with financial reparations for holocaust victims. In the 21st century, America is just beginning to discuss reparation for slavery. Even in 2022, most Americans reject reparations. However, a well-known American, David Brooks, changed his mind in 2019.
David Brooks (Writer, conservative political and cultural commentator, reporter, editor.)
“Nearly five years ago I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” with mild disagreement. All sorts of practical objections leapt to mind. What about the recent African immigrants? What about the poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege? Do we pay Oprah and LeBron?”
“The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.”
Robert Jones, the Founder of the Public Religion Institute, and a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a book suggesting reparations are the only way white America can find forgiveness. Neiman acknowledges the high cost of determining fair reparations for American slavery but implies money spent on defense would be a good place to search for money to invest in white America’s forgiveness for slavery. Neiman notes Germany rebuilt itself after WWII. Her inference is that America has enough wealth to do the same with reparations for slavery.
Trump refers to the 2017, Charlottesville, Va. alt-right and white nationalist rally where a white supremacist plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters to the racist rally, one of which is killed.
Neiman recalls the murder and torture of a Black 14-year-old boy, Emmitt Till, in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.
Two white Americans admitted their guilt in Till’s torture and murder, after being acquitted for the crime by an all-white jury. The murderers went free to live their remaining lives in Mississippi.
Neiman reflects on the murders of nine African Americans in Shelby, North Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015. Roof self-identifies as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi.
Neiman’s point is that Germany has done better to acknowledge and repair their relationship with holocaust survivors than America has done in reconciling its racist and evil actions regarding slavery and what has become institutionalized racism. Germany’s success has been in the face of an east and west Germany reconciliation after the fall of the Berlin wall.
Neiman notes the difference in east and west German survivors’ beliefs while showing they acted to reconcile their Nazi past with memorialization, and demonstration of shame and guilt for the holocaust. A significant part of that reconciliation is legislated reparation for holocaust survivors.
Neiman explains, just as there remain Nazi collaborators in the East and West, there are racist collaborators in the northern and southern United States. Neiman infers if Germany could reunify within 40 years after WWII, the U.S. should be able to reunify after the end of the civil war. Why is it taking the U.S. over 150 years to get to the point of just talking about reparations for slavery, let alone memorializing its evil?