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On the Use and Abuse of Historical Comparison
Evil is what others do. Our people are always very fine people. In the ancient world, an evil action could pollute the community without being intentional, as the story of Oedipus reminds us. Even those who subscribe to the doctrine of original sin in the abstract tend to ignore it when things get particular. We have a natural impulse to believe that we, and our tribe, may make mistakes, but nothing that merits a word like evil. The impulse is just as strong toward evils past as evils present. We want our ancestors to be honorable, and honored. My grandfather died for the homeland he loved; what’s criminal about that? My great-uncle wasn’t a racist, he was simply defending his home. If you followed the debates over the removal of Confederate flags and monuments that began to swell after nine churchgoers were massacred in Charleston in 2015, you will recognize such remarks. Some were made by white supremacists who, enraged by the presence of a black man in the White House, knew exactly why they wanted to keep Confederate flags flying. Those who were less malicious, if also less honest, clung vaguely to family tradition. As those debates continue, you will hear variations on that theme from Richmond to New Orleans.
Unless you’ve lived a long time in Germany, you’ll be surprised to learn that descendants of the Wehrmacht made the same claims as the descendants of the Confederate Army. Not only in the dark, shell-shocked days that followed the unconditional surrender outside Berlin in 1945; such remarks continued to be made in public through the end of the twentieth century, when the Wehrmacht Exhibit broke West Germany’s final taboo. Created by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the exhibit used soldiers’ letters and photographs to reveal that Nazi military crimes were not limited to elite SS units, nor confined to a few bad apples. The institute, which organized the exhibit to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end, never expected the reactions it provoked. After all, the claim that the Wehrmacht systematically committed war crimes seemed—to foreign observers and even most German historians—about as controversial as the claim that the earth is round. But the gap between historical scholarship and ordinary public memory proved tremendous. With eighteen million members, the Wehrmacht included a broader scope of German society than any other Nazi organization. Every German had a father, a son, or a brother who served in it, if they didn’t serve themselves, and reactions to the exhibit showed how many still believed the myth that the Wehrmacht was clean, even gallant. Those brave men who defended their homeland against the Bolshevik menace were no better or worse than millions of soldiers before or after them.
Originally planned as a limited project, the exhibit was seen in thirty-three cities by nearly a million viewers. It ignited media discussions, filled talk shows, and eventually provoked a debate in parliament. Protesters balked at what they saw as an attempt to drag their forebears through the mud. In Munich, five thousand neo-Nazis carried signs bearing slogans like GERMAN SOLDIERS—HEROIC DEEDS. In German it rhymes. The good news was that even in Munich, the Nazis’ original stronghold, ten thousand counterdemonstrators turned out to protest them.
The furor revealed how hard it is for scholarship to penetrate personal memory. For decades, German historians had worked to provide a detailed reckoning with the Nazi period, but there were layers of popular consciousness that work had not reached. The impact of the Wehrmacht Exhibit was profound; as its initiator, Jan Philipp Reemtsma, told me, the claim that the Wehrmacht was a criminal organization, so controversial at the time, now is self-evident. The exhibit became part of the history of postwar Germany; no German listening to the media at the time, or studying postwar Germany since, can fail to know something about it. When people point to Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its criminal past, the Wehrmacht Exhibit is Exhibit A.
“But surely…” said a sweet-tempered sixtyish man in Mississippi after I’d explained that the first generation of postwar Germans sounded like nothing so much as the defenders of the Lost Cause version of Confederate history, “Surely they knew—at the latest when they opened the camps—that what they’d done was pure evil?”
They did not.
This book shows how the German people worked, slowly and fitfully, to acknowledge the evils their nation committed. Many books have been written urging us to draw lessons from the Holocaust, some of them dubious. My interest is in what we can learn from Germany after the catastrophe was over. The story should give hope, particularly to Americans currently struggling to come to terms with our own divided history. Here’s a key to understanding contemporary Germany: nearly every German I know, from public intellectual to pop star, laughed out loud when they heard I was writing a book with this title. The exception was a former culture minister who didn’t find it the least bit funny, raising his voice in a Berlin restaurant to tell me that I should under no circumstances publish a book suggesting there was something to be learned from the Germans. Just as it’s become axiomatic for decent Germans to insist that the Holocaust was the worst crime in human history, which should never be relativized by comparison with anything, it’s become axiomatic that this insight itself was far too slow in coming. German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung was too little, too late, and above all incomplete, as the defensive reactions to the Wehrmacht Exhibit revealed. Don’t I know how long it took for Germans to make the switch from viewing themselves as Worst Victims to viewing themselves as Worst Perpetrators? Don’t I know that many of them never made the switch at all? Don’t I know there’s still racism in Germany, currently represented by the AfD, the first radically right party since the war that won enough votes to be seated in parliament?
Having spent most of the last four decades in Berlin, I do know these things. I’m a philosopher, not a historian or a sociologist, but for reasons that were deep and urgent I’ve been straining to gauge the temperature of this once-fevered nation since 1982—most crucially, to determine whether it was a place fit for raising Jewish children. In 1988, I decided it was not. By 2000, I had changed my mind, for the changes that tentatively began in the ’80s had taken root.
In fact, it’s the failures of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung that should give hope to other nations facing similar problems, but that’s only an apparent paradox. Social justice activists in the South, for example, who are struggling to force their neighbors to face the ways their racist history informs the racist present, are above all aware of how hard it all is. The acknowledgments are too defensive, the racism too tenacious, the impulse to insist on one’s own victimization too strong. Learning that it took decades of hard work before those who committed what are arguably the greatest crimes in history could acknowledge those crimes, and begin to atone for them, brings enormous relief to those working toward similar acknowledgment in the United States. If even those raised in the heart of darkness needed time and trouble to see the light, why shouldn’t it take time and trouble to bring Americans—nurtured for years on messages of their own exceptional goodness—to come to terms with homegrown crimes? The mechanisms and mistakes of the postwar German experience show a slow and faulty process that reflects the tentative steps America is taking toward justice and reconciliation.
Failures foster hope where it’s clear that they lead not to final solutions, but to progress that can be gauged by real differences in people’s lives. For a few, the differences were lives made worse: in Frankfurt am Main and Philadelphia, Mississippi, men were finally sent to jail for murders committed in times and places where the murders were not considered crimes. For many more, lives were made better. A million refugees were welcomed by cheering Germans eager to reverse the racism of their forebears, and the later backlash does not change that fact. And two terms in a row, my president was black. The achievements of Obama’s presidency, especially impressive in the face of massive opposition to every move he made, undermined the last rationalizations for white supremacy—which is just what provoked the massive backlash that led to the election of the least qualified man ever to approach the White House. Obama’s term in office could not overcome the wave of hatred he and his family endured with such grace. But the fact that it was possible is a fact to be cherished, for if the hopes it raised were possible, they are possible again. I will argue that the 2016 election resulted, in large part, from America’s failure to confront its own history.
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In American and British life, the symbolic importance of the Nazis stands in inverse relation to common knowledge about them. Nazi just means: the black hole at the heart of history, the apex of evil, the sin for which no expiation is possible, no condemnation sufficient. There is, of course, a wealth of scholarship about the Nazi period produced by American and British historians, upon which I have often drawn in addition to German sources. But my interest is public memory: what every half-educated member of a culture knows in her sinews, for it seeped into them in ways she can hardly remember. Things like your country’s geography: few Americans need pause to consider whether Colorado is west of Connecticut, as few Britons have to wonder whether Leeds is north of London. If you’ve forgotten everything else from your school days, you’re likely to remember that.
Britons and Americans know that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, as they know that Henry VIII had six wives or George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but the absence of detail makes the Holocaust more of a mystery than anything else. There’s detail aplenty about the mechanisms of murder; the appetite for yet another description of life within or on the way to the death camps seems insatiable. But with little knowledge of what led to fascism in Germany, and next to none of what happened after it, it’s unsurprising that Nazi is simply a term of abuse that has been applied to everything from Obamacare (by Ben Carson) to Saddam Hussein (by George Bush). Bill O’Reilly even used it to describe Black Lives Matter. No wonder a comparison between the violence inflicted on Jews by the Nazis and the violence inflicted on African Americans by Caucasians raises hackles, even indignation. “Tendentious” is the mildest objection white people raise. Slavery was wrong, but it was an economic issue. How can you compare it to the deliberate murder of millions?
Who has the right to make comparisons? This is not a trivial question. The first people to compare Nazi racial policies with American ones were the Nazis themselves. It’s noxious enough to learn how frequently those comparisons were made after the war in wretched attempts at exoneration. Even in playground brawls, He did it first! is a miserable excuse. It’s considerably worse when the genocide of Native Americans is invoked to justify the murder of millions of Slavic peoples. Alas, historians have shown that Nazi interest in American racial practices was present not only after the fact but considerably before it. In the 1920s, Nazis looked to the American eugenics movement to support their own bumbling race science. Hitler took American westward expansion, with its destruction of Native peoples, as the template for the eastward expansion he said was needed to provide Germans with Lebensraum—room to live. Nazi jurists studied American race laws extensively, particularly concerning citizenship rights, immigration, and miscegenation, before drafting the notorious Nuremberg Laws. Chillingly, those jurists found American racial policies too harsh to apply in Germany, and replaced the infamous “one drop of blood” model by which American law determined race with more lenient criteria, allowing Germans possessing but one Jewish grandparent to count, shakily, as citizens. On the other hand, they appreciated the ways in which American legal realism “demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to have racist legislation even if it was technically infeasible to come up with a scientific definition of race.”1 The best of those jurists dug up the worst quotes of Lincoln and Jefferson in support of racist policy. None of this suggests that American racism was the cause of German racism. Racism is a universal phenomenon that takes many forms. The fact that the United States had the world’s best developed racist legislation, which the Nazis eagerly studied in the 1930s while formulating their own, is disturbing enough without causal connections.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Neiman