Despite losing the Civil War and often supporting slavery, Confederate leaders have been immortalized by statues in the American South for decades. Now, the ongoing protests over the police killing of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer have accelerated efforts from recent years to take the statues down.
In the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, perhaps the rebellion’s best-known general. On June 10, protestors removed a statue of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, also in Richmond.
As America continues to reckon with its uneasy past, it can learn valuable lessons by studying how Germany has grappled with its own murky legacy of the Holocaust, says American-Jewish scholar Susan Neiman. She probes these lessons in her new book, “Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
With the protests on behalf of Floyd, who died while pinned to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, Neiman’s book is suddenly back in the spotlight.
“I have been sort of giving nonstop interviews, writing things, and so on,” Neiman told The Times of Israel in a recent phone conversation.
Neiman brings a unique perspective to the discussion. She is currently based in Berlin and is the director of the Einstein Forum, which according to its website is “a foundation of the German federal state of Brandenburg that serves the public as an open laboratory of the mind.” She grew up in the American South and has spent multiple periods of time in Germany, including West Germany during the 1980s. She has also taught as a philosophy professor at Yale and Tel Aviv University.
In recent years, she took a sabbatical from the Einstein Forum to live in the Southern state of Mississippi. There, she examined how people are working to address the racial sins of its past and present. Out of these experiences, she wrote the book.
The Floyd protests are not the first time that current events have influenced the discussion. When Neiman went on a book tour last fall, it was in the wake of the synagogue shooting in Halle, Germany, which took place on the Yom Kippur holiday, October 9, 2019.
Earlier this year, Neiman told The Times of Israel that in Germany “there were calls for doing better policing of right-wing terror,” that “people were horrified” after Halle, and that both the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, immediately went there in solidarity.
Neiman said her book’s final chapter deals quite a bit with the rise in Germany of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party. While Germany’s mainstream is highly concerned with the party’s recent success, Neiman said, there is little worry that AfD will receive enough votes to run the government.
“It gives me absolutely no pleasure to say this, but Germany has had many fewer assaults on Jews, and none with deadlier consequences, than the US under [President] Donald Trump,” Neiman said.
She said that Trump uses “support for the current government of Israel to claim he is against anti-Semitism. In fact, he uses anti-Semitic tropes all the time — much, much more than any German politician would dream of getting away with.”
Neiman also faults Trump for what she sees as his inconsistent response to protests in the US — encouraging white demonstrators against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown policies at the Michigan state capitol a few weeks ago, but denouncing African-American demonstrators against police brutality.
“Black children 14 years old, 12 years old, are killed by the police for no reason whatsoever,” Neiman said, adding that health and wealth disparities in the US have grown “significantly worse for people of color than for white people… exacerbated by the [COVID-19] pandemic.”
“All of this has become worse under the Trump Administration,” she said, while continuing “the degree to which the US has been living with a false history the last 150 years.”
Germany faces its past
For Neiman’s book, she interviewed individuals who have helped document what really happened in the US and Germany during tumultuous times of reform. They include African-American civil rights legend James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962 with help from the Kennedy Administration; and Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the German designer of the exhibition “Crimes of the Wehrmacht.”
She also interviewed African-American author and activist Bryan Stevenson, whose advocacy against the death penalty has inspired the new film “Just Mercy.” Stevenson’s book of the same name drew praise from Neiman, who also praised his memorial in Alabama to victims of lynching. She was scheduled to interview Stevenson again in a public event in Berlin which was called off due to COVID-19.
“He’s the only person besides me that I know of who has publicly called for looking at Germany as an example of the way people should look at their shameful history,” Neiman said.
Neiman writes that Americans can learn from Germans in how to face a notorious past through a concept encapsulated in a rather lengthy word: vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. She translates the term as “working-off-the-past,” and writes that after arriving in Berlin in 1982, “it was one of the first words I added to my German vocabulary.”
“It was an unusual time for a Jew or even an American to move to Berlin in 1982,” Neiman reflected, adding that though 15,000 to 30,000 Israelis live there today, “leaving the States for Berlin [in the early 1980s] was considered a very stigmatizing thing to do.”
Neiman lived in Germany from 1982 to 1988, leaving a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In comparing and contrasting how democratic West Germany and communist East Germany confronted their past before the wall came down, Neiman holds that in many ways, East Germany did a better job.
“I live here. I knew it was going to be particularly controversial,” she said. “Many people have criticized it but other reviews have acknowledged that my research holds up.”
But, she said, “The numbers all tell one story. In terms of how many old Nazis were put on trial, how many were convicted, how many were kept in government positions, in all of those ways, East Germany was ahead of West Germany, certainly in the first four decades [after World War II].” She recognizes that East Germany was “in many ways a dictatorship,” but calls it “resolutely antifascist.”
In East Germany, she said, all schoolchildren had to visit the site of Buchenwald to learn about the Nazis. “They learned not the version we would learn — but a version,” she said. “Our version leaves something out. By ‘our,’ I mean the US and the State of Israel and West Germany.”
In the conventional version, she said, “the only crimes were the main crimes the Nazis committed against Jews. Jews were the victims. We leave out the 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union. We leave out the German communists and Social Democrats. The East Germans emphasized this. They certainly did talk about Jews and the Holocaust, but that was less of their focus. But they provided a side that unfortunately tends to get forgotten in the war.”
A legacy of slavery
Visiting the American South, Neiman explores the legacy of a different war, the Civil War. While it took place over 150 years ago, its impact remains tangible — as is the legacy of slavery, which divided North and South.
After slavery was abolished following the Civil War, Southern states enacted discriminatory laws against African-Americans. White vigilantes — including members of a new organization, the Ku Klux Klan — targeted African-Americans through lynching. Efforts to integrate the South in the civil rights movement met a racist backlash. African-Americans continued to die at the hands of white vigilantes, including the gruesome murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.
Neiman said that “one of the two moments when I was just a little scared” while in the South was meeting Civil War reenactors who were “fans of Forrest,” referring to Confederate cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who won many victories on the battlefield, but was condemned for a massacre of black prisoners of war at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in 1864. After the war, Forrest became grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The other scary moment occurred in Sumner, Mississippi, where Neiman said she “talked to the son of one of the lawyers who defended the men who murdered [Till]. He was a rather surly character with a huge arsenal in his backyard.”
Neiman said that Sumner itself has only 400 residents. “It’s hard to call it a town,” she said. “It’s where Till’s murderers were tried. He was killed a little bit down the road from there. There is now a community effort between black and white people to remember that event, to memorialize it.”
“You have people leading groups, encouraging people to talk about things that are extremely hard to talk about,” Neiman said. “It’s both looking at terrible parts of Southern history and making sure it gets remembered, and also trying to remember and memorialize heroes who fought injustice.”
Neiman said that in both the South and in Germany, there exist such efforts at remembrance, but also there is a backlash. She noted that signs commemorating the murder of Till have been “riddled with bullets over and over again. The last one came just this [past] summer. Even worse, University of Mississippi students were posing next to the sign, grinning, holding a weapon, and posting it on their Facebook pages.”
In 2018, Neiman said, “On [the anniversary of] Kristallnacht… some vandals came and tore up stolperstein,” a reference to the memorial stones in the ground commemorating the Holocaust throughout Europe. “But people immediately came and raised money to put in new ones. It’s a process.”
As the worldwide situation reveals, working off the past continues to be a difficult but necessary endeavor in the US and in Germany.
“We would be outraged in the US if, within Germany, you would see statues of Nazi soldiers, with people claiming, ‘They were just my ancestors fighting for my homeland,’” Neiman said. “It’s actually what both descendants of Nazis and of Confederates believed, but it’s highly problematic to fight for your homeland and forget the ideology that started the war.”