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Walk the streets of Berlin, or any other German city, and you will not see a statue or any other memorial honoring German generals or politicians of the WWII years.  Not Rommel, not Ludendorff, not Hitler himself who once commanded the adoration of millions.  You will see commemorations of the war’s victims.  You will see monuments to those who resisted.  You will find testimony of the prisons and torture chambers and planning centers of the Nazis, with full explanation of what was done.

Walk around Nashville, Tennessee, Selma, Alabama or any small town of the American South and you will see the opposite:  massive statues honoring slave holders; Civil War generals; those who proposed, argued for and led eleven states in violent secession against the country they had sworn loyalty to.  There are few to no memorials to the victims of the war, or those who argued against it.  Small plaques record virtually every skirmish of the war; only one, and recent, to the thousands of lynching victims in the years of Jim Crow between the withdrawal of Federal troops in 1877 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“Why is that?” wondered Susan Neiman, an American moral philosopher, teaching in Berlin. 

What is happening in Germany that brings about a reckoning with the past, and which has not happened in the old Confederacy?  Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil  (2019)  is her record of what she found.  Through interviews, historical research, and visiting many memorials in Germany and few in America, talking to those who proposed and built them,  she brings a thoughtful excavation and reflections on both histories, what has been done, and not done, how Americans can learn from German efforts and, throughout, the moral value of memory.  How do we come to accept our entire histories, not just that which we have pride in but that which shames us as well?

She asks: what do we remember, and why? How do we represent that? Why are statues and monuments erected at particular times? What do they tell us not only of the person, or event, memorialized but about the values of the community putting them in place? What do we forget, and why? What do we teach our children? Should we remember our failures as well as our achievements and share such memories communally? If we find pride in our ancestry, should we also find, and acknowledge shame?

Neiman is uniquely qualified to look at these questions, especially in the disparate yet uncannily reflective histories of the German Reich and the American Confederacy.  Not only is she a philosopher, concerned with the problem of evil in the world (author of, among others books,  Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy,) but she is a Jewish American who grew up in the segregated South.  At university she studied under John Rawls who wrote extensively on the idea of justice as fairness, before moving to Israel for several years, to “give tribalism a try.” In 2000 she accepted a position in Berlin where the slowly bubbling reckoning of German culpability for the war was beginning to become widely public.  

As she saw the growing, and gratifying recognition by Germans to the past of the country they loved, she realized that this acknowledgment had not appeared the minute the war was over.  Germans had reacted much as the defenders of the “Confederate Lost Cause” had in the 1860s. Both recited the same litany: their suffering was as great as the victims of the Nazis;  they had suffered the loss of their bravest sons; their homes and businesses had been destroyed; they had lived in poverty and hunger for years following. Most Germans denied, as most Southerners have denied, that terrible wars had grown out of terrible ideologies of racism.  Even if some acknowledged that “terrible deeds were done,” very few could bring themselves to ask who in their family lines had done what.

Yet, by the 1980s the public narrative in West Germany had began to shift.  The “grim-lipped brutal silence” began to change, particularly as the 68ers, the “baby boomers” of Germany, began to ask questions of their parents, out loud, repeatedly and impolitely:  what had they done, and what had they known?  In the decades that followed, through large public gestures and many small town-centered ones, the past was pulled out of silence.  Nazi  torture sites and prisons were labeled; signage and images were installed to tell what was done, by whom.  Those who resisted the Nazis were recognized.  Memorials to the victims were built in many towns and cities.  An enormous Holocaust Memorial now occupies city-center in Berlin.  The Rosenstrasse memorial testifies to the courage of hundreds of non-Jewish wives and relatives of imprisoned Jewish men, who gathered for days, in freezing weather, outside the prison to clamor for the release of their husbands. They succeeded. 

One of the most striking memorials, because of their “everydayness,” are the growing number of “stumbling stones, ” 4″ x 4″ brass plaques set in sidewalks and on walls, with the names and deportation dates of those who once lived there: Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and others.  Some 70,000 have been placed, beginning in Germany but now all across Europe.

Stolpersteine Plaque

To even suggest that Nazi Germany has strong similarities to the slave South is shocking to many, and outrageous to not a few.  We are beginning to understand, though, through new historical research and not a little agitation, that this shock is because the details of the Southern slavery and Jim Crow past is so little known.  The South, since the premature end of Reconstruction in 1872 and especially in the 1920s, with the arrival of movies, has persuaded itself, and indeed much of the nation, that theirs had been a Noble Cause: that their solders were braver, their generals smarter and their cause was about self determination, not at all about slavery – which in any case, except for a few reprehensible outliers, was quite benign. 

Thousands of tourists, thinking of Gone With The Wind, seek out the beauty and gentility of the great plantation manors without a thought of the slaves who labored in the fields, lived in abysmal conditions, were mercilessly whipped – for insolence, for sleeping late, for not fulfilling cotton or sugar cane quotas.  The great houses were only possible because of their labor. Most non-Southern tourists walk by statues of General Nathan Bedford Forrest with barely a glance —  a military genius second only to Lee say the plaques; a war criminal who ordered the deaths of surrendered Union troops, Black, they don’t say.  A man who was instrumental, after Reconstruction, in promoting Black convict labor for hire; a man who was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  Nowhere near his statues are these facts made known. 

Not many, I would guess,  who have heard, in grammar school, of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the great invention it was, have also heard how, due to it’s prodigious ability to gin cotton, slaves were pushed to double their output.  The lash became not just a measure of punishment, but a daily driver to speed their work. 

It has only been in the last few years that these perceptions of a courageous, misunderstood South have begun to change.  Following the deaths of Black men at the hands of vigilantes or police, beginning in 2012 with Trayvon Martin’s death, and especially after the death of George Floyd in 2020, statues of the men who led a disastrous war against the United States, willing to kill their fellow citizens in order to buy, sell and control slaves, have been taken down, some by rope and chain, and communal effort, some by order to town and country leadership. To not a small number of people these actions are reason to be upset, if not furious. Protests, marches, threats of violence, and killings have come in response.

“This is our heritage, this is our history,” they claim – regarding  the thousands of statues, plaques, memorials, roadside markers, and street names of their Confederate forebears.   Against these claims of “our heritage” demands to remove more statues have continued.  As research has revealed the documented behavior of sometimes very famous men, pressure to rename buildings and streets has grown.  “Our” heritage, more and more are insisting, is not just White.  It is multiple, complex and must be acknowledged, in the stories we tell, in the history that is taught and in the public remembrances of those we want to represent us.  If soldiers and statesmen are to be lauded for their “courage,” we want it know, what were the causes and consequences of what they did. 

How did Germany achieve its turn-around, Neiman wanted to know, and why has the United States taken so long to honestly confront the actual experience, and effects, of slavery?  What can be learned from the Germans to help speed up and achieve a true reckoning with our past?

Though she’d been doing research and thinking about the responses of both cultures, the triggering decision to write Learning from the Germans was seeing President Obama sing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial for Rev. Clementa Pinckney Friday, June 26, 2015, one week after she and eight others were gunned down in their church. During the eulogy the President called for the removal from all places of honor the Confederate Battle Flag, which had been prominently displayed on the gunman’s social media sites and throughout the South.  Within days, it was taken down from various State Capitols and other government locations; a few large commercial enterprises stopped selling Confederate paraphernalia.  This, Neiman sensed, was a first lurching step at doing what the Germans had been doing since the 1970s.  How could what she had learned, both as a young woman in the south and as a scholar in Germany, help contextualize and focus the efforts of Americans to acknowledge that the past was something more than cozy stories of Masters and men? 

Learning from the Germans is a trove of little known history, historical and moral, in both Germany and Confederate America. One admirer has dubbed it as a sort of “investigative philosophy.”  Divided into three sections, each is written with a blend of history, autobiography, reportage, and moral questioning.   She interviews Germans and Americans who have undertaken the work of interpreting the past, not in books, but in public commemoration with statues, interpretive centers, and museums.  She places history as it was told in its first iteration alongside what is understood now, or in some cases only beginning to be understood, and in not a few cases still denied.  The book, se says, was intended not simply to recount similar but disparate national responses to great crimes but to

“…explore how the past should, and  should not, be used in thinking about our moral and political futures.  This kind of moral training helps us recognize complex forms of evil as well as simple ones and prepares us to begin to prevent them.”

She devotes a significant section to the murder of Emmett Till and the impact the fight to make it public had on the Civil Rights movement; she reminds us of Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner and that a Freedom School exists in their name.  She calls on moral philosophers and others involved in the new field of “memory studies” such as Tzvetan Todorov and Avishai Margalit. 

Learning From the Germans can not be said to be a page-turner of a book.  It is certainly a thought-turner — a serious book for serious times.   Beyond simply saying “Black Lives Matter,” or putting a sign in a window, learning — and this is only a beginning– about the true history of slavery, and Jim Crow is a necessary first step to a real reconciliation with a mutually understood past. 

Neiman writes of Bryan Stevenson, whom she interviews during a Southern visit of six months, his Equal Justice Institute, his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He told her that his inspiration for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, came in good part from his visiting Berlin and seeing the effect of the thousands of “stumbling stones, making public acknowledgment of great crimes, and great loss.  She visits James Meredith and his family. She interviews Ta-Nehishi Coates, adding many places, initiatives and authors to help those of us who are beginning to acknowledge an American past other than the one we have grown up with, one which, she hopes, may enable coming generations to build better and stronger futures, based on reality, reconciliation and justice, not on denial and mythography leading back into repeating cycles of racial and ethnic violence, excused by a false science of biological superiority. 

For an hour long Neiman lecture to UC students in October, 2019 here she is on YouTube


In addition to her recommendations, several other books I have read recently take up similar issues.

Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy Tyson is a particularly good blending of autobiography, North Carolina history and racial violence, and good story telling. (Crown Publishers, 2004) 

Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memories, and the Legacy of White Supremacy,  by Connor Towne O’Neill is, similarly, a personal account of his discovery of the linkage of the slave holding past with today, especially seen in the devotion to Nathan Bedford Forrest all over the South, and what his true legacy ought to be. (Algonquin Books, September 29, 2020)

If you haven’t read one of the many slave narratives now available to us, I strongly recommend reading at least one.  Here a few are listed.  The one that sticks most strongly with me is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself, (1861), by Harriet Jacobs