Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil
Susan Neiman

Two weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous extermination camp where over a million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. She not only announced a new large donation to the foundation that runs the memorial, but also pledged that “these crimes are and will remain part of German history, and this history must be told over and over again.”

‘It’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump would have been elected,’ Neiman writes, ‘had Americans done their historical homework.’

Germany’s commitment to remembering the Holocaust is today accepted fact, manifested not only in speeches such as Merkel’s, but also in the plethora of German monuments that commemorate its victims. Berlin’s Monument to Europe’s Murdered Jews, known as the Holocaust Memorial, is probably the most famous of them. Composed of almost 3,000 concrete pillars, it honors the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and the ongoing burden Germany feels to atone for its crimes. The memorial, which far-right politician Björn Höcke denounced in 2017 as a “monument of shame,” and the culture of atonement it represents, are also at the heart of a paradox: the nation which perpetrated the most infamous crime in history, the nation that was home to Nazism, has seemed, with greater success than most, to resist falling thrall to the siren call of the new radical right.

In 2017, as the world confronted Brexit, the ascendance of Donald Trump, and worries about France’s Front National, I tried to explain this puzzle in an article for the Atlantic. In it, I argued that Germany’s unique relationship to its past—the ways in which it had memorialized the Holocaust and formalized shame about it as a cornerstone of national identity—was the reason the country had evaded a surge from the right.

I was not the only one to have this thought. Six months after my piece appeared, philosopher Susan Neiman, who directs the Einstein Forum in Berlin, published a short article in the Miami Herald making similar claims. This year she published a book-length version of her argument. Addressed specifically to Americans, Learning from the Germans contends that, in our confrontation with our long history of racism and racial slavery, we have much to learn from how the Germans denazified their country and continue to memorialize the Holocaust.

The book is an extended ode to Germany’s Vergangenheitsaufbearbeitung, or “working-off-the-past,” and a critical inquiry into how the country’s example might serve Americans who have just begun—many might say hardly begun—working through our own racist past. Because Germany has “learned most of the lessons it needed from its own racist past,” Neiman argues, it has been spared the worst of far-right populism. Thus, the United States would do well to emulate it. “It’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump would have been elected,” she continues, “had Americans done their historical homework.”

You might think I would agree with Neiman’s proposition that working-off-the-past can help inoculate against right-wing revanchism. After all, our arguments are largely the same.

But mere months after I published my views, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party that preaches climate change denialism, xenophobia, and jingoistic nationalism, surged in federal elections that made it the third largest party in Germany’s parliament. Today it is the official face of the opposition to Angela Merkel’s coalition government. And hate crime against both immigrants and Jews in Germany have been on the rise in recent years.

The rapid change in the AfD’s electoral fortunes gave me pause. If Neiman and I were correct that Germany’s ways of remembering its past had shielded it against the far-right politicians who threaten democracy across the globe, why had the AfD enjoyed such tremendous success—briefly even threatening Angela Merkel’s hold on the chancellorship? Moreover, Neiman argues that East Germany was better than its western twin at atoning for the Nazis’ crimes. If that were so, then why has the AfD built its strongest base of support in Germany’s eastern reaches?

In short, while I agree with her assertion that Germany has done much to prevent racism and xenophobia from once more taking hold of its national imagination, I disagree that working-off-the-past is enough. Ultimately, while I continue to believe that it is necessary for nations to come to terms with their violent and shameful pasts, I no longer share Neiman’s optimism that it is sufficient. Nor do I think it is moral to frame the case for doing so in instrumental terms.

• • •

Germany has made an extraordinary, even unique, effort over the last seventy-five years to come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust.

Neiman and I do agree on much, and nothing more than the fact that Germany has made an extraordinary, even unique, effort over the last seventy-five years to come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust.

Today Holocaust memory stands at the center of German identity. But the country’s relationship with its past was not always an easy one. In the war’s immediate aftermath, a majority of Germans expressed sympathy with Allied denazification programs (in 1946, 78 percent approved of the Nuremberg Trials). But as Neiman points out, most Germans quickly turned against these initiatives. Within four years, for example, support for the Nuremberg Trials fell to just 38 percent.

By then, Germans already preferred to think of themselves as victims of the war. Hadn’t they suffered massive casualties on the eastern front? Weren’t there millions of German men dead or still in Soviet POW camps? Hadn’t their cities been firebombed by Allied planes, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians? These were the stories Germans told, holding fast to their belief that Hitler and the SS were bad actors for whose crimes millions of Germans were now unfairly suffering. By the late 1940s, around 50 percent of Germans avowed that “National Socialism had been a good idea badly carried out.”

In West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, the country’s first chancellor, was complicit in the propagation of these fairy tales and for undoing much of the Allies’ denazification efforts. He believed building a stable democracy on German soil would require forgetting, if not forgiving, the fascists’ crimes (a wager that flies in the face of Neiman’s claims).

Adenauer’s government promulgated a series of laws that expunged the criminal records of former Nazis. In 1951 West Germany reinstated many of them to their government jobs and pensions. The measures contributed to what historian Mary Fulbrook calls “renazification” in West Germany. For Neiman, the period resembles the present-day United States: we know slavery and Jim Crow existed, but most of us prefer not to talk or even think about it.

If Adenauer got one thing right, though, it was that he negotiated the first in a series of reparations to victims of the Holocaust. In 1952 the West German government and the new state of Israel agreed to a reparations package by which Adenauer’s government paid 3 billion marks to Israel and 450 million marks to the World Jewish Congress. This initiated a tradition of German paying war reparations: in total, Germany has now paid more than 89 billion dollars, mostly to individual Holocaust survivors.

West Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war resembles the United States today: we know slavery and Jim Crow existed, but most of us prefer not to talk or even think about it.

In addition to reparations, Germany has over the decades devised ever more nuanced ways to keep its disgraceful past in front of its citizens’ eyes. One of the most remarkable achievements, Neiman and I concur, is the way in which Germans have publicly memorialized Nazism and the Holocaust. It is impossible to visit Germany without encountering monuments both small and large that induce the passerby to recall the Holocaust: a particular victim, perhaps, or the site of a burned synagogue or ghetto. Thousands of Holocaust memorials—from the small “stumbling stones” that mark where victims lived, to Saarbrücken’s Place of the Hidden Memorial, to the grandiose Holocaust Memorial in Berlin’s center—dot Germany’s landscape. These monuments are Germany’s answer to the question, in scholar James E. Young’s words: “How does a state incorporate its crimes against others into its national memorial landscape? How does a state recite, much less commemorate, the litany of its misdeeds, making them part of its reason for being?”

The single most visited German Holocaust memorial is the Monument to Europe’s Murdered Jews, which sits just paces from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. Finished in 2003, its sea of concrete is meant to evoke, in the words of its creator Peter Eisenman, “that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose it loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential for chaos in all systems of apparent order.” We are all, in other words, capable of committing mass murder, however civilized we may believe ourselves to be.

The memorial does, however, have its detractors. Strangely, Neiman is one of them. “I tried to think about Auschwitz, or the millions of murdered children in whose names, among others, the stelae had been raised,” Neiman recalls. “I failed. After weaving my body through the slabs a little longer, I walked out into the day, discontent.” It is odd that in a book whose central purpose is to praise Germany’s process of working through its past, Neiman remains skeptical of its most visible effort to do so. It is even odder that the monument she prefers is, strictly speaking, neither a Holocaust memorial nor a German one.

If you travel east along the Spree, the river that bisects Berlin, you soon come to a large wooded area known as Treptower Park. It was here that the Soviet occupiers, who arrived in Germany in 1945 and remained until 1994, built a titanic tribute to their defeat of German fascism. It is this monument that Neiman applauds repeatedly and fulsomely.

Entering the monument’s large grounds—about ten football fields—you first see a cowering woman rendered in white stone. Turning, you take in the monument’s full scope: 1,600 feet in the distance is a 40-foot statue of a Soviet soldier. He clutches a baby in one arm while, with his other, he uses a sword to crush a swastika. Between the woman and the soldier are 16 stone sarcophagi on which are reproduced quotes from Joseph Stalin. The monument is saturated with the totalitarian hysteria that often characterizes Stalinist art and architecture.

If I disagree with Neiman’s preference for this monument, it is not only because I think Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is more pioneering than she credits. It is also because her praise for the Stalinist eyesore points to a significant problem with the book’s insistence that “East Germany did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany.”

Neiman, of course, did not pull this argument from thin air. Historians have long noted that in the years of occupation and in the 1950s, the Soviet Zone and the new East German government were far more ambitious in ridding government and society of former Nazis. East Germany and the Soviets passed almost 13,000 sentences on Nazi perpetrators. West Germany and the Western zones issued around half as many sentences on a population three times that of East Germany’s. the East’s socialist ideology positioned the country as a fundamentally anti-fascist state, built on the labors of the communist resistance to Hitler and in firm opposition to what it saw as the lingering fascism of its West German neighbor.

In that regard, Neiman is not wrong to claim that East Germany’s devotion to overcoming the Nazi past was stronger than it was in Adenauer’s West Germany. But what her account ignores is that the GDR propagated an emphatically one-sided view of Nazism and the Holocaust, one that put communists squarely at the center of the story and largely neglected the suffering of other groups. When a restitution law was submitted in the Soviet Zone, proposing to return to Jews property stolen under Nazism, the Socialist Unity Party’s Central Committee responded, “When we recognize [a right] to have damage replaced, we only strengthen the Jewish capitalists.” When the law was finally promulgated in October 1949, it privileged the communists who had fought against the regime over the Jews who had been, in socialist eyes, mere victims. It made no provision for the restitution of stolen property.

East German restitution laws privileged the communists who had fought against the regime over the Jews who had been, in socialist eyes, mere victims.

Moreover, East German purges of former Nazis often swept up political opponents of the socialist regime. The NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, ran 10 “special camps” in the Soviet Zone. Ostensibly for the internment of former Nazis, the 120,000 prisoners at these camps included “political opponents and people who had simply been arbitrarily arrested.” In 1950 more than 3,000 of them were tried and sentenced in a matter of weeks in what have come to be known as the Waldheim Trials. Of those, 33 received death sentences and over 90 percent received sentences longer than 10 years.

While West Germany progressed between 1949 and 1989 toward a more public reckoning with the legacies of Nazism and the Holocaust, East Germany remained mired in the myth that it was and remained a purely anti-fascist state, untainted by the heritage of National Socialism. Whereas West Germany continued to try former Nazis complicit in the Holocaust, trials largely stopped in East Germany after the late 1950s. And as large public debates over the complicity of regular Germans rocked West Germany throughout the Cold War, East Germany tolerated little dissent from the official line that communists were fascism’s chief victims and had rescued Germany from its grip.

Neiman’s belief that East Germany’s denazification was unambiguously better than West Germany’s suggests an uncritical embrace of received wisdom. Yes, in some respects East Germany was better: its government and the Soviets were certainly more aggressive in the late 1940s and early 1950s in pursuing former Nazis and removing them from public positions. But in other regards, West Germany’s record was undeniably more faithful to the truth of the crimes that Germans had committed. At the end of the day, each country’s approach was flawed.

• • •

Neiman’s larger argument about historical memory runs aground on an inconvenient fact: if East Germany did such a fantastic job of coming to terms with its Nazi past, and if successfully working-off-the-past protects against right-wing extremism, then why is the AfD polling best in the states that used to make up East Germany? Take a look at an electoral map of Germany’s 2017 election and the divide is stark. Most of what used to be West Germany is colored pale blue, indicating weak support for the AfD. But the five federal states (not counting Berlin) that used to make up the GDR are lit up in dark blue. Just this year, three of those states held regional elections. The AfD placed second in each of them. And in recent years, immigrants have been ten times more likely to be victims of hate crimes in eastern Germany than in the west.

The AfD offers simple formulae: vote against the establishment, vote against immigrants who will take your jobs and your culture. This should all sound familiar to Americans.

The reason, I now believe, is that the success of far-right parties in Germany is not one whit correlated with working-off-the-past. Indeed, to argue that it is misses two critical points. First, attempts to draw comparisons between East and West German approaches to Vergangenheitsaufbearbeitung are somewhat ahistorical, because the most inventive and public expressions of shame—as opposed to approaches to legal accountability—are phenomena principally of post-reunification Germany, not of a particular East or West German approach to the problem. Second, the success of the AfD in former East Germany can be more readily explained by the failures of reunification and of the country’s economic policies, which have impacted the two sides of the formerly divided nation in very different ways.

While the AfD trades in xenophobia, its appeal in the former GDR stems not only from racism. Although the East German dictatorship had numerous problems, it did succeed in providing a basic standard of living and sense of purpose for many of its citizens. East Germans often believed they were part of the work of building a more just and equal world. When socialism abruptly collapsed in 1989, it was because hundreds of thousands of East Germans wanted democracy—but many of those protesters also wanted to keep their socialist state and improve on it.

This tumult concluded in a reunification that was swift and brutal. East Germans who had been used to a cradle-to-grave welfare state suddenly found themselves out of work. The new government set up a corrupt, scandal-ridden bureaucracy known as the Treuhand to liquidate East German industry. Civil servants were purged and replaced with Westerners. Those who managed to stay on discovered that they were paid less than their Western colleagues. Today unemployment in East German states remains two points higher than in the West and per capita income is considerably lower.

The unhappy legacy of reunification helps explain why the AfD has found the former GDR to be such fertile territory. Voters there experienced a crude anti-fascism that often neglected to mention that Jews suffered in the Holocaust. Following reunification, they became victims of a rapacious shock therapy that left their world shattered. Appealing to the frustrations of these voters, the AfD offers simple formulae: vote against the establishment, vote against immigrants who will take your jobs and your culture, vote for a genuine alternative.

This should all sound terribly familiar to Americans. It recalls the ongoing debate over whether innate racism, economic anxiety, or some other form of resentment led to Donald Trump’s election. Neiman is one of those who primarily blame racism for the rise of Donald Trump, whereas I am of the opinion it was a combination of all three. Racism and xenophobia are the languages that the far right speaks, but its success is based too in profound economic and social resentments against a changing world. Those who hold Neiman’s view tend to ignore that the deciding factor in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—the states that handed Trump the election—was not new Trump voters but rather Obama voters who simply stayed home. In other words, these were not racists in any simplistic sense, but rather those disaffected with the failed economic policies of the neoliberal state.

Americans do need to deal with slavery just as urgently as Germans needed to deal with the Holocaust. But for moral reasons, not political ones.

In her praise for both Germany’s Vergangenheitsaufbearbeitung and Barack Obama’s presidency, Neiman ignores the vast socioeconomic chasms that have opened in Germany and the United States over the past generation. Obama did little to address these inequalities, raising taxes only marginally on top earners and allowing a considerably weakened inheritance tax to become law (to say nothing of the even worse policies of his predecessors). Although Americans today often look to Germany as a beacon of progressivism, it too has seen inequality skyrocket in recent years. And the Iron Curtain’s scars still fester, both physically and mentally. East Germans have not yet forgotten what they lost (or think they lost) in 1989.

Working-off-the-past alone cannot give back to a generation traumatized by the 2008 financial crisis their lost twenties and thirties, and it alone cannot fix the massive wealth and income gaps that corrode democracy. Trump won because he employed racist and xenophobic rhetoric, but also because he convinced enough young, disillusioned people that voting for him—or not voting at all—was preferable to voting for an avatar of the establishment that has ravished our country. The AfD threatens German democracy not just because it makes scapegoats out of people of color, but also because there are real social and economic resentments on which racism and xenophobia can feed.

Americans do need to deal with slavery just as urgently as Germans needed to deal with the Holocaust. But for moral reasons, not political ones. There is a moral obligation to acknowledge the crimes of slavery, Jim Crow, and the genocide of Native Americans. I wish I shared Neiman’s optimism that doing so would make our country more democratic and more stable—but we must do it whether it does or not. For my part, I no longer see a strong correlation between Vergangenheitsaufbearbeitung and living in a secure democracy. Without economic, social, and political policies to match the rhetoric of apology, we are, I fear, doomed to repeat the same mistakes.