Susan Neiman: “Neither the US nor the UK has a grown-up relationship to their pasts”

Learning from the Germans is a formidable account of how Germany and America have come to terms with (or not, in the case of the US) past evils.

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“Some German words are so long,” wrote Mark Twain, “that they have a perspective.” They are not even words, he said, but more like “alphabetical processions”. Germany’s modern history is dark and complex enough to have produced one of these “grand mountain ranges” that stretches across the page: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working-off-the-past”.

How Germany has spent the last three decades “working-off” the history of Nazism, and how that compares to America’s historical reckoning with slavery and discrimination, is the subject of Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans, a formidable account of how both countries remember and have come to terms with (or not, in the case of the US) past evils.

Neiman began life as a white girl in the segregated American South during the civil rights era, and as a Jewish woman who has spent most of her adult life in Berlin (“a haven for many who feel at home nowhere else”), few are more culturally attuned and intellectually equipped than her for contending with the difficult subjects of collective guilt and memory.

Neiman completed her doctorate at Harvard in 1986 under the supervision of the eminent liberal philosopher John Rawls, who she described to me as “almost anti-charismatic” but a “marvellous teacher” nonetheless. (“You never felt like you were in the presence of greatness. He was just Jack.”)

Since then, she has become one of the world’s foremost moral philosophers, which has taken her from Harvard to the Einstein Forum in Potsdam – an institute set up in 1993 for intellectuals to exchange ideas, where she has served as director since 2000.

Neiman’s most celebrated book, Evil in Modern Thought (2002), retold the history of Western philosophy as being animated by the question of theodicy, and asked what meaning there is to life in the presence of so much suffering in the world.

As with her other works, including Moral Clarity (2008) and Why Grow Up? (2014), the book revealed a philosopher less interested in arcane questions of epistemology and metaphysics, than in the timeless moral dilemmas about the good life.

Her books, especially Learning from the Germans, prioritise storytelling, reportage and autobiography, over abstraction. “Writing in the first person,” she told me, “can be dangerous because it might become narcissistic or anecdotal. But it’s also a way of taking responsibility for what we say. We live in narratives. We remember narratives.”

In the book, Neiman shows how, since the 1960s, Germany has engaged in a painful yet relatively effective course of national remembrance. Through school textbooks, museum exhibitions, monuments to the victims of Nazism, as well as reparations to the descendants of those killed in the Holocaust, the country has confronted its past as if guided by Philip Larkin’s poetic injunction of, “Never such innocence again”.

Germany is not immune to resurgent nationalism and anti-Semitism, of course. But a nation, Neiman says, that “erects a monument of shame for the evils of its history” – referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin – “is a nation that is not afraid to confront its own failures”.

In the US, by contrast, “shame is hard to find”, she says, and attempts to “work-off-the-past” have been less successful. In the South, there are still holidays dedicated to the Confederacy and Confederate flags adorn state buildings. White supremacists marched on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

The past hangs heavy in Britain, too. That is why I arranged to meet Neiman in Parliament Square, where Gandhi’s statue stands close to that of Winston Churchill’s.

Dignified in bronze, the two figures – the peaceful anti-imperialist and the imperialist war leader – highlight the state’s capacity to extol opposing histories and values. But by honouring both, we fail to contend with either, avoiding the less convenient truths about our island’s story.

For Neiman, nostalgic longings for empire and sentimentalism about the Second World War not only point to “extraordinary failures of basic public memory” in Britain, but also signify an inability to reckon maturely with history.

“Neither the US nor the UK,” she says, “has a grown-up relationship to their pasts, which is about owning the whole.” Having a Gandhi statue “might be a start. But there’s no monument remembering the victims of colonial famines and massacres” (the memorial to those tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion is in Nairobi, which is “unlikely to be seen by an English schoolchild”).

Neiman agrees with the former British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, that “Germans use their history to think about the future, whereas the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves”. But she hopes that Brexit will ultimately make the country face its imperial legacies with more honesty.

Donald Trump’s presidency has pushed many Americans into introspection, forcing people to see just how dangerous a lack of national self-examination can be. Neiman thinks that “the Brexit chaos, along with recent movements and episodes, such as Rhodes Must Fall and the Windrush scandal, will lead to a similar reckoning for Britain and its darker past”.

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries