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kottke.org posts about Susan Neiman

What Can Americans Learn from Germany’s Reckoning with the Holocaust?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2019

For The New Republic, Heather Souvaine Horn reviews Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, about the successes and failures of Germany in coming to terms with the Holocaust and what the United States can learn from them in dealing with our history of slavery and genocide.

She sees the murder of nine black Charleston churchgoers in 2015, and the events of the following years, as prime examples of conservative backlash in white communities: “The 2016 election resulted, in large part,” Neiman writes, “from America’s failure to confront its own history.” Her book, Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, offers a possible answer to one of the questions The New York Times’ 1619 Project, published in the same month and focusing on slavery’s centrality to the American nation, has prompted: What now? It is a book about how Americans could better confront their racist past, by looking at the way Germany has come to terms with Holocaust guilt.

After a trip to Berlin last year, I wrote about what I observed of the German remembrance of the Holocaust and its relevance to America:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

You might think the Civil War & the oppression of African Americans is too far in the past for the US to truly reckon with it, but Neiman argues that we should be looking much closer to the present day:

But this, Neiman holds, is the wrong timeline to be looking at: Americans are only now in the early stages of their reckoning, for the simple fact that the Civil War did not really end in 1865. Due to Reconstruction, due to Jim Crow, and as evidenced by the appalling violence and state-federal standoffs of the 1960s, the appropriate point to mark the South’s “zero hour,” she believes, is not 1865 but 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to this timeline, Americans are a bit behind the Germans, but not by much — “about the place where Germany was when the Wehrmacht Exhibit provoked the kind of backlash that the removal of Confederate monuments provoked in New Orleans.”

Plus, systemic discrimination continues to this day, as does the US government’s poor treatment of indigenous communities. There is plenty of reckoning to go around and no time like the present to begin.