Learning from the Germans

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil is a 2019 non-fiction book by Susan Neiman, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States and by Allen Lane in the United Kingdom. The author argues that German society has largely accepted responsibility for and learned from actions done by the country in the past, particularly in World War II, while the United States had not done the same, particularly for Jim Crow violations.[1]

Neiman stated that each country has its particular history but that studying the incidents in Germany shows that society can atone for past crimes and improve even though doing so is a difficult process.[2] Neiman in particular believes that many Americans lack an understanding of the United States Civil War as well as the Jim Crow period, contributing to issues in American society present in 2019. She believes the United States would benefit from its own corresponding Vergangenheitsbewältigung.[3]



Neiman, a Jewish woman,[3] who was born in the Southern United States,[1] had lived there for a portion of her youth.[2] Neiman's mother, who originated from Chicago,[3] had worked to ensure racial integration at Atlanta Public Schools during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.[2] Neiman resided in Berlin, Germany beginning in 1989 to study the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and resided there for a period of at least 22 years. She became a moral philosopher,[2] and in Berlin she became the head of the Einstein Forum.[3]

The idea came to the book when she noticed American society still celebrating the Confederate States of America even though President of the United States Barack Obama had publicly condemned racism while honoring the victims of the Charleston Church Shooting, which had just happened.[2] She spent at least three years conducting research for the book; that involved reading works about the post-Nazi Germany period,[1] which describe how Germans initially did not feel guilt about the events.[3] In addition to interviewing people in Germany, as part of this task she traveled to the United States and conducted interviews there too; she visited Mississippi in that process.[1] The author said that she incorporated about 50% of the interviews in the book.[2]

Neiman's friends argued that the United States's crimes were committed too far in the past and were relatively too insigificant for the country to learn from Germany's understanding of the crimes perpetrated by the country, something that the conclusion of the book disagrees with. The process of the book began prior to the 2016 United States Presidential Election and the Brexit referendum,[2] and she stated that prior to the former she believed the United States was about to absorb messages from historical incidents.[1] The author completed the book despite concerns that the message may not be absorbed in light of the outcomes of those events.[2]


The book discusses how society in both East Germany and West Germany initially resisted taking responsibility for World War II incidents, but that this understanding developed decades after the war.[1] This solidified after the reunification of Germany as the two halves could no longer assign blame to the other for atrocities.[4] According to Neiman, East German society had more thoroughly opposed Nazism than West Germany partly because the latter opposed Soviet-aligned states with people who formerly worked for Nazi Germany. The book also discusses the Charleston Church Shooting.[2]


Deborah E. Lipstadt wrote in The New York Times that the work "is an important and welcome weapon in" cultural battles about historical events, and that while "Optimally, a reviewer’s evaluation should not be influenced by where she read a book", her understanding was enhanced by what she calls attempts from the government of Poland to minimize Polish culpability in the Holocaust.[1]

Alex Clark of The Guardian wrote that the author "is fascinating and potent on how the Holocaust has functioned on multiple planes, and primarily as an example of pure evil that, by consequence, allows other societies to divert attention from their own misdeeds."[2]

Kirkus Reviews stated that the work is "A timely, urgent call to revisit the past with an eye to correction and remedy."[4] The publication added that "While direct equations between, say, the American secessionists and the Nazis are problematic, there are plenty of points in common."[4]

Several reviewers have criticized Neiman's works for downplaying the crimes of Communism and for ignoring the links between the Enlightenment, racism and Nazism. For example, philosopher John Gray in his review of Neiman's early book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists notes that Neiman's treatment of the Enlightenment is highly simplistic and amounts to "a comic-book history of ideas." With respect to Francis Galton, the nineteenth century founder of eugenics, Gray continues that "no one, no matter how historically illiterate, could argue that Galton was a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. Reminding us of the seamy side of the Enlightenment and the fact that the progressive intelligentsia has often been racist, he is an awkward presence in Neiman's struggle between darkness and light. So, like Trotsky in Soviet photographs, Galton has been airbrushed from history." Many other scholars such as George Mosse and Zygmunt Bauman have previously echoed Gray's ideas about the connection between the Enlightenment, eugenics, racism and Nazism. Likewise, Gray observes the Neiman's assertion that "most of us cherish the ideals of the former Soviet Union" is untrue because Soviet ideals were inherently unobtainable and repressive from the very beginning. Thus, in Gray's opinion, the Soviet ideals that Neiman admires were "just a repulsive fantasy." Since Neiman's take on the Enlightenment and the Soviet Union are very similar in her book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Gray's critique applies equally to it as well. [5] Gray is a strong critic of any utopian ideology, including both Marxism and neoliberalism.[6]

Neiman's treatment of Communism and the East German regime in Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil has especially attracted the attention of more skeptical reviewers. Neiman writes that "anti-fascist" sentiments were genuine in the GDR and that "East Germany did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany." She also casts doubt on the validity of comparing Nazism and Communism and remarks that while she and historian Tony Judt were willing to sit down with an ex-Stalinist, that they wouldn't sit down with an ex-Nazi. This was in reference to her attempt to bring Markus Wolf, the former head of the East German intelligence agency the Stasi, to a 2003 conference that she organized with Judt. Furthermore, she asserts that the GDR put more Nazis on trial than did West Germany, which means did a better job dealing with the Nazi past than democratic West Germany. Moreover, she writes positively of the Treptow monument to fallen Soviet soldiers in Berlin, soldiers who in GDR ideology and propaganda "liberated" Berlin. Finally, she refers to Trotsky as a good, forgotten figure and argues that "hardly anyone mourns the end of state socialism, but the idea of it served to expand our moral imagination. The now-common view that the rot that infected the Soviet Union dooms any attempt to create socialism has shrunk our imagination to the point where we can hardly envision more than mending the neoliberalism that has replaced it."[7] However, Neiman does not mention that while Tony Judt was a strong proponent of the welfare state, he was an ardent opponent of Communism and did not hesitate to compare it to Nazism. In a review of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, a book that Judt praised, he wrote "the facts and figures, some of them well known, others newly confirmed in hitherto inaccessible archives, are irrefutable. The myth of the well-intentioned founders -- the good czar Lenin betrayed by his evil heirs -- has been laid to rest for good. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism, and those who had begun to forget will be forced to remember anew." Judt, who unlike Neiman was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, explicitly compared Communism to Nazism in his review, writing that "from the point of view of the exiled, humiliated, tortured, maimed or murdered victims, of course, it's all the same. And in the sorry story of our century, Communism and Nazism are, and always were, morally indistinguishable. That lesson alone took too long to learn, and it justifies a complete recasting and rewriting of the history of our times."[8]

Besides her overall approach to Communism, Neiman also glaringly omits the fact that Soviet soldiers raped two million German women and girls towards the end of the war, with even young girls and elderly women targeted for rape, and with many rapes occurring well after hostilities had concluded. Soviet soldiers raped over 100,000 women in Berlin alone. In fact, German women nicknamed the Treptow monument the "Tomb of the Unknown Rapist."[9] Reviewer Heather Souvaine Horn writes that "in the section praising the Treptow monument to fallen Soviet soldiers, she fails to discuss the mass rape suffered by German women at the hands of the Red Army. Knowing that the Red Army raped untold numbers of German women, does the monument to fallen Soviet soldiers in East Berlin really represent a society coming to terms with history? Or does it represent a particularly grisly form of forgetting?"[10] Historian Thomas Laqueur makes similar comments in his review, writing that "and it’s worth considering the amnesia that monuments like the one in Treptower Park induce. Red Army soldiers raped around two million German women towards the end of the war. Few of the women who attended the celebration of Germany’s surrender on 8 May 1950 would have escaped this fate, but they had no voice. Theirs was a past that would not be spoken of in public for half a century."[11] With these comments in mind, it is likely that during the Cold War, many East German women and their families viewed monuments to Soviet soldiers in a similar way as African-Americans in the South saw monuments to Confederate soldiers in public places during the Jim Crow era. In both cases, these monuments were reminders of past and present oppression and humiliation, not liberation. The facts of the Treptow Monument and the mass rape of German women completely undercut the argument of Neiman's book that East Germany was a good example of how the United States might go about "working off the past" with regards to its dreadful history of racism.

Reviewer Anne McElvoy questions Neiman's idea that "anti-fascism" in the GDR was genuine. McElvoy writes that "where the account goes awfully wrong is in the musings on East Germany, where Neiman is prone to accepting the GDR’s self-serving use of its “anti-fascist” badging at a face value it never merited, despite the good faith of many cultural figures in the idea. East Germany was sired by Stalinism. Former Nazis were allowed to take “useful” positions in the state apparatus. When I worked with Markus Wolf, the former head of East German intelligence, on his memoirs, his admission that most shocked me was that the east had, at one point, tacitly supported neo-Nazi demonstrations in the west, perversely in order to demonstrate the revival of fascism in the Federal Republic. The account of the east today is a medley of interviews with a lot of people from the 1989 opposition movements. It would be a bit like talking about Brexit Britain through the eyes of a lot of Remainers and Lib Dems. The narrative of “colonisation” of the east by the west after unification is treated unsceptically. Alas, relativism about communist regimes always ends up trying to excuse the inexcusable, while insisting that it is not doing so. Tout comprendre is not the same as tout pardonner and no amount of “whataboutery” can change that."[12] Historian Henry Leide has conducted research in Stasi files that found that the Stasi actively recruited Nazi war criminals and blackmailed them into serving as Stasi spies. [13] The GDR was also known to falsely convict political opponents of Nazi war crimes. While it did convict some individuals who truly were Nazi war criminals, justice in Communist nations such as the GDR was hardly blind as it often simply served the political interests of the ruling Communist Party.

Ultimately, reviewers such as Gray, Horn and McElvoy suggest that Neiman understanding of the Enlightenment and Communism are very flawed. After all, the Enlightenment's influence was not entirely positive, especially with respect to modern racism, eugenics and even Nazism. And as with the Nazis, the Soviet regime, as well as other Communist regimes, murdered millions of people. In fact, altogether Communist regimes actually killed more people than the Nazis, although arguably the scale of Nazi genocide would have been much greater had they won the war. Still, using Neiman's own logic, her book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil is simply another "lost cause" view of history, albeit one that expounds a form of romanticized mythology about the Enlightenment and Communism instead of the Confederacy. Neiman's selective moral outrage that downplays the well-documented, inherently totalitarian nature of Communism that began with Lenin, not Stalin, seriously detracts from her argument about the need for "working off the past." Lastly, Neiman's concern that relegating Communism to the dustbin of history as Gray and Judt have argued is appropriate will only strengthen neoliberalism is a false dichotomy. One could easily idealize the egalitarianism and generous welfare states of Scandinavia's social democracies on the one hand while both scorning the repressive totalitarianism of Communism and eschewing the excesses and abuses of neoliberalism on the other hand.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Lipstadt, Deborah E. (2019-08-27). "Slavery and the Holocaust: How Americans and Germans Cope With Past Evils" . The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-11-21.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Clark, Alex (2019-09-13). "Nazism, slavery, empire: can countries learn from national evil?" . The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-11-21. So what is the value now of focusing on Germany’s past? “By studying [...] of strength and not weakness.”
  3. ^ a b c d e Widdicombe, Lizzie (2019-10-21). "What Can We Learn from the Germans About Confronting Our History?" . The New Yorker. Retrieved 2019-11-21. “For many people, and I’m including myself until recently, the period between 1865 and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is just a blank,”[...] - The date range corresponds to Jim Crow even though it is not said outright. Additionally Neiman uses Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung to refer to Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
  4. ^ a b c "LEARNING FROM THE GERMANS" . Kirkus Reviews. 2019-05-12. Retrieved 2019-11-21. - Review issue June 1, 2019.
  5. ^ https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-the-week-moral-clarity-by-susan-neiman-1739615.html
  6. ^ John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
  7. ^ Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, 87-88, 90-92, 98, 377.
  8. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/22/opinion/the-longest-road-to-hell.html
  9. ^ https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32529679
  10. ^ https://newrepublic.com/article/155546/facing-past-german-style
  11. ^ https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n12/thomas-laqueur/while-statues-sleep
  12. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/16/learning-from-the-germans-susan-neiman-hitler-only-the-world-was-enough-brendan-simms-review
  13. ^ https://www.dw.com/en/book-claims-stasi-employed-nazis-as-spies/a-1760980

Further reading

External links


Categories: 2019 non-fiction books | Books about Germany | Books about the United States | Works about philosophy | Farrar, Straus and Giroux books | American non-fiction books | Reparations for slavery

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