Saturday, May 9, 2020

Susan Neiman's Learning from the Germans and Working Off the Nazi Past and the American Racist Past: A Report with Excerpts

In February, I blogged a number of times about Susan Neiman's book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019). As I told you in one of those postings, one reason Neiman's important book caught my attention and made me decide to read it is that Susan Neiman grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights era, as I did. Neiman is, however, Jewish, and she saw the struggles for African-American rights in Atlanta through the lens of her own marginalization as a Jew, an experience I did not have growing up as a white Anglo Southerner descended from slaveholding ancestors. 

Living and teaching in Germany for many years has convinced Neiman that Americans could, if they chose, learn from the willingness of Germans to face their demonic history in the Holocaust period — and how that history is rooted in the deeper history of unacknowledged anti-semitic racism for many centuries. In writing about Neiman's book, I placed a passage from it side by side (see the link above) with something my friend Wendell Griffen had recently written in an essay at the Baptist News Global site. Wendell wrote,

The harsh truth is that our present crisis is not merely due to Trump's pathological presidency and its wickedness. We are here because we refused to know the truth about this nation. We refused to tell the truth to one another about this country's unjust beginning and unjust conduct from that beginning. We rejected truth-telling prophets. Trump's presidency is the harvest we are reaping.

I compared that observation with the following passage in Neiman's book Learning from the Germans

While systematic racism infects processes and affects lives all over America, Southern awareness of history makes it impossible to ignore. Moreover, the influence of the South on American political culture is disproportionate to the size of the region. Focusing on the Deep South is not a matter of ignoring the rest of the country, but of holding a magnifying glass to it (p. 18).

These insights are all the more important for us to consider as evidence amasses that the coronavirus pandemic in the United States is disproportionately affecting — disproportionately killing — African-Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans. The pandemic is laying bare the glaring inequities of the system of healthcare provision in the U.S., and the glaring socioeconomic inequities that always result in more suffering and death for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. 

In another previous posting, I also drew your attention to the following from Sucan Neiman's book: she writes, 

She's [i.e., Bettina Stangneth] not convinced that Germans have faced the worst fact about the Nazi period: not the ignorant masses, but the educated elites were the driving forces behind the regime …. 
People voted for Hitler as they voted for Putin and Trump, because they didn't want to give up their own privileges. This isn't a matter of ignorance. They understand exactly the price of enlightenment: that the equality of humankind means the equality of humankind, and not only after I've secured my own comfort (p. 56).

It recently occurred to me that, after having mentioned Susan Neiman's Learning from the Germans glancingly in those two February postings, I never reported further about the book after I finished reading it. What follows is not so much a review of the book as a series of excerpts — passages that caught my eye as significant, which I'd like to share with you in the hope of nudging you to read Neiman's book in its entirety. These are arranged thematically rather than by their sequence in the book:

On the German Attempt to Come to Terms with the Nazi Past and to Work It Off (Vergangenheitsaufbearbeitung)

Neiman sees the German attempt to "work off" the Nazi past — to try to understand what produced that atrocious moment in German history, to atone for it, and to prevent it from happening again — as a model for Americans to examine as we confront our racism. She fully recognizes that this model is/was imperfect. Nevertheless, she offers abundant evidence for its at least relative success. Here are some of her observations about this matter:

1. As she notes, the Vatican itself helped give cover to former Nazis because of its overwhelming fear of communism:

The Vatican put it most clearly: "The leading Nazis of World War II should no longer be prosecuted; now they belong to the active side of the defense of Western civilization against communism, and today it is more necessary than ever to gather together all anticommunist forces." The statement was written in 1960, as Vatican diplomats demanded Eichmann's return to Argentina" (pp. 55-6, citing Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem [Arche Literature Verlag, 2011], p. 454).


She's [i.e., Bettina Stangneth] not convinced that Germans have faced the worst fact about the Nazi period: not the ignorant masses, but the educated elites were the driving forces behind the regime (p. 55).

3. Neiman repeatedly contrasts how Germany has chosen to deal with Nazi artifacts and monuments, and how Americans are still dealing with artifacts and monuments glorifying the Confederacy and the slaveholding practices of the Confederacy:

Participating in Southern debates about Confederate monuments led me to try, over and over, to imagine a Germany filled with monuments to the men who fought for the Nazis. My imagination failed. For anyone who has lived in contemporary Germany, the vision of statues honoring those men is inconceivable. Even those who privately mourn for family members lost at the front, knowing that only a fraction of the Wehrmacht belonged to the Nazi Party, know that their loved ones cannot be publically honored without honoring the cause for which they died (p. 266).


Another plaque [in Berlin] states that Nazi students burned books on this spot, but the words are too sparse to convey what thousands of tourists passing by need to know: it wasn’t an unwashed, unlettered mob, but hundreds of well-off and well-read students, and their professors, who gleefully followed the Nazis' first orders. There are photos showing their faces beam as they toss books into the flames right in front of the Humboldt University. We'd like to believe that illiterate masses are responsible for right-wing nationalism, but the numbers tell another story (pp. 273-4).

On this same point, re: the mass burning of books by university students and professors in Berlin on 10 May 1933, see Charles Marsh's biography of Dietrich BonhöfferStrange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (NY: Knopf, 2014), p. 174, which notes that theology students and their professors were leading participants in that atrocious book-burning event.

5. Neiman points to the "stumbling block" (Stolpersteine) project spearheaded by Gunter Demnig in Germany and other places where the Nazis controlled things. Demnig and others working with him have placed Stolpersteine  in towns, villages, and cities from Germany to nations east and west where Jews, gay men, Romani, the disabled, and others were murdered by Nazis and their accomplices.
Each Stolperstein gives the name of one of those murdered; many mark the place in which the murdered person lived — so that their names and their human lives cut short by hatred will not be forgotten.

I have seen these stumbling blocks embedded in streets and walkways in German cities and villages. It is an eerie, discomfiting experience to see them, step over them, stop and read them. About these, Neiman writes,

The stumbling stones document what larger memorials cannot show: that the terror began not in far-off Poland, but in the heart of a city full of clubs and cafés, spaces where you can still buy a lottery ticket or go to the dentist. Each four-inch square recalls an ordinary human being, in the midst of her life, who was deported and murdered with little notice and no protest from the other ordinary human beings who surrounded her every day. The terror was here (p. 276).

This discussion of the Stolpersteine project in Germany provides a bridge to the American part of the discussion: I think, for instance, of all those murdered in my own part of the U.S. by lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries, whose names were not even recorded, and who are not even remembered. I simply cannot envisage a successful "stumbling block" project in my part of the world. We Americans, and perhaps in particular we Southern Americans, lack the imagination for such a project. We want to pretend that our history is something other than it has been.

Read just about any honest history of slavery in North America — read Edward Baptist's magisterial The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (NY: Basic Books, 2014) — and you'll find that enslaved people were tortured in unthinkable ways, and burned alive. We do not have extensive historical documentation of all of of this torture and murder because it happened on plantations in which such punishments for enslaved people regarded as threats were too common even to be noteworthy, and where no record was made of the murder.

What we do have from the latter 19th and early 20th century is extensive photographic documentation of unthinkable acts in which black people, usually men but sometimes women, were tortured, burned alive, and dismembered in lynchings. Photographs were taken of lynchings, often showing white men, women, and children observing and even holding picnics as these murders took place. These photographs were turned into postcards and sent as boasts to friends and relatives living in other places.

We do not know our history. We do not want to know our history. We Americans have nothing at all equivalent to the Stolpersteine project — and this is one primary reason we could elect and tolerate and even re-elect the moral monster now occupying the White House because a large percentage of white citizens could not accept that the nation elected a man of color as its president.

On the American Project of "Working Off" the Past

1. As Neiman notes, the Confederate monuments about which people are fighting right now — "Don't obliterate our glorious history!" — do not date from the Civil War. They were erected in two waves. The first was in the Jim Crow era, as the Daughters of the Confederacy worked to create the myth of the noble, long-suffering South, with its beautiful houses and plantations, and well-mannered people (and its enslaved people supporting that entire system and carrying it on their backs, depicted as happy, singing slaves by the UDC). 

The second was the 1960s, when civil rights legislation and the end of segregation spurred white-supremacist Southerners to throw up another batch of these monuments. Neiman writes: 

The monuments were not innocuous shrines to history; they were provocative assertions of white supremacy at moments when its defenders felt under threat. Knowing when they were built is part of knowing why they were built (pp. 262-3).

2. There is a direct link between this uniquely American controversy and Germany's Nazi past:

The 2017 demonstrations against the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, established one thing beyond doubt: Nazis are not just a German problem. You may prefer to call the demonstrators white supremacists, but that's a distinction without a difference. The deliberate use of Nazi symbols—swastikas, torches—and slogans—Blood and Soil! Jews will not replace us!—leaves no room for doubt. Not everyone who wants to preserve those symbols is a Nazi. But American Nazis' embrace of the Confederate cause made clear that anyone who fights for those symbols is fighting for values that unite Nazis with racists of all varieties (p. 263).


Participating in Southern debates about Confederate monuments led me to try, over and over, to imagine a Germany filled with monuments to the men who fought for the Nazis. My imagination failed. For anyone who has lived in contemporary Germany, the vision of statues honoring those men is inconceivable. Even those who privately mourn for family members lost at the front, knowing that only a fraction of the Wehrmacht belonged to the Nazi Party, know that their loved ones cannot be publically honored without honoring the cause for which they died (p. 266).

4. One of the people Neiman interviewed as she wrote her book is Diane McWhorter, who reports in her magnificent book Carry Me Home (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) on what she found when she began trying to trace the hidden paths that led back from the men who bombed a black church in Birmingham to the movers and shakers of Birmingham society, who claimed to be separate from those working-class white men and to deplore their violence. She found that the social elite of her city, including perhaps her own father, had hidden ties to those engaging in overt violence to stop the civil rights movement.

One of the questions Neiman asked McWhorter is why she thinks she (McWhorter) had a kind of ah-ha! experience growing up, about the evil of racism, when so many of her fellow white citizens did not:

She [Diane McWhorter] was ten years old [when To Kill a Mockingbird awoke in her a sense of something very awry in the racial system in which she grew up]. "That's about the age when people start deforming their consciences in order to accept something that's not just manifestly wrong but manifestly contrary to the religious beliefs that are front and center in their lives." Like Bettina Stangneth or Jan Phillip Reemtsma or David Person, Diane McWhorter cannot say why her conscience resisted attempts to deform it (p. 200).

McWhorter also told Neiman (pp. 202–3) that there's a very direct link between Southern white racism and the national agenda driving the election of Donald Trump:

5. Neiman and McWhorter also connect all of this to the pretend innocence many white Southerners like to assume regarding our history — Me racist? Why, I don't have a racist bone in my body!:

The desire for regional innocence is so powerful that every single Klan witness at the Birmingham bombing trial in 2001 said under oath that he never had any bad feelings about black people (p. 202).

6. Another authority on Southern culture Neiman interviewed was  Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He told her the following about the religious roots of Southern white racism:

I think Southern whites are very literal-minded about the Bible, and the Constitution as well, because they are always searching for ways to read texts that would support their racial views. It goes beyond race to support a hierarchical worldview in which everyone has a place: slaves, children, women. A typical Sunday morning starts with a biblical text that gives legitimacy to whatever the preacher wants to say (p. 204).

He also stated the following:

7. The outcome of the pretending and theological gussying-up and the denial of historical fact:

It's a genteel sort of refusal to face up to history. I doubt that anyone in town belongs to the Klan, or even its more respectable cousin, the White Citizens' Council. They'd simply prefer to leave the past unexamined, cover it with honeysuckle, and go back to their bourbon. It's the kind of response that ensures no one will reflect on the ways that past seeps into present (p. 208). 
His mother claims she didn’t know anything about the racist terror going on in Mississippi and Alabama; she was caught up in joining a sorority, not knowing what was going on in the rest of the world. Or around the corner (p. 232).

No comments: