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Learning from the Germans

Race and the Memory of Evil

Susan Neiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Learning from the Germans Download image

ISBN10: 0374184461
ISBN13: 9780374184469


432 Pages



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In the wake of white nationalist attacks, the ongoing debate over reparations, and the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments and the contested memories they evoke, Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans delivers an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Neiman is a white woman who came of age in the civil rights–era South and a Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life in Berlin. Working from this unique perspective, she combines philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with both Americans and Germans who are grappling with the evils of their own national histories.

Through discussions with Germans, including Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who created the breakthrough Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibit, and Friedrich Schorlemmer, the East German dissident preacher, Neiman tells the story of the long and difficult path Germans faced in their effort to atone for the crimes of the Holocaust. In the United States, she interviews James Meredith about his battle for equality in Mississippi and Bryan Stevenson about his monument to the victims of lynching, as well as lesser-known social justice activists in the South, to provide a compelling picture of the work contemporary Americans are doing to confront our violent history. In clear and gripping prose, Neiman urges us to consider the nuanced forms that evil can assume, so that we can recognize and avoid them in the future.


Praise for Learning from the Germans

“Fascinating . . . [William Faulkner] observed about the society in whose midst he lived: 'The past is never dead. It’s not even past' . . . The history wars shape far more than how we remember the past. They shape the societies we bequeath to future generations. Susan Neiman’s book is an important and welcome weapon in that battle.”—Deborah E. Lipstadt, The New York Times

“Combining big thoughts and startling snapshot particulars, Learning from the Germans is an enthralling moral meditation on mass social sin and its expiation as practiced in post–Third Reich Germany and the post-apartheid American South. Susan Neiman, a citizen-philosopher who has never shied from difficult topics, has mustered her stylish pen, formidable intelligence, and unique experience as a southern Jewish expat in Germany to produce a nuanced work of conscience with urgent relevance today.”—Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

Learning from the Germans asks a deep question: As Americans struggle, once again, with the legacy of slavery, what can they learn from the German attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust? Susan Neiman’s eloquent, moving, and searching answer is clear. It is time for Americans to listen and to learn from the anguish and truth-seeking of the German confrontation with evil.”—Michael Ignatieff, author of The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World and president and rector of Central European University

"Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans puts discussion of the horror of American anti-black racism into instructive, fascinating, and disturbing dialogue with rumination on the record of Nazism in Germany. This is a moving, deep, important book."Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School

"Susan Neiman has devised a genre that’s encompassing enough to address the problem of evil: investigative philosophy. She tests moral concepts against lived realities, revealing actual human beings wrestling with—or away from—the unforgiving past: Germans who implant memorial plaques in the street, who work to integrate immigrants, and who think Germany was not defeated but liberated in 1945; and in Mississippi, citizens who insist that humanity drives better when it takes the time to gaze into the rearview mirror. This compelling, discerning book is as necessary and provocative as its title."—Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation and Chair of Communications at Columbia University

"The United States has much to learn from twentieth-century German history. As a learned and passionate guide, Susan Neiman draws on her long-term immersion in German history and her knowledge of American (especially Southern) racism to address vital questions: Does Germany's reckoning with Nazism offer lessons for the United States? How should a nation’s history be told to new generations? Should monuments to Confederate leaders be removed? Should there be reparations for slavery and other historical injustices? Packed with stories about individuals and communities dealing with the legacy of racial violence, Learning from the Germans identifies constructive steps for addressing the past and the present to make a different future."—Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University

"[Learning from the Germans] presents an insightful comparative analysis of post-WWII German sentiments about Nazi atrocities alongside southern American attitudes about the Civil War and slavery, suggesting how Americans might better come to terms with their country’s history . . . [Neiman's] commentary is thoughtful and perceptive, her comparison timely. This exceptional piece of historical and political philosophy provides a meaningful way of looking at the Civil War’s legacy."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A pointed demonstration of how Germany offers lessons for attending to polarizing issues of the past and present . . . [Learning from the Germans] serves as an important lesson for those who seek to face up to the past wrongs in this country. A timely, urgent call to revisit the past with an eye to correction and remedy."Kirkus Reviews

"Richly rewarding, consistently stimulating and beautifully written . . . [Learning from the Germans] provides the crucial facets of any successful attempt to work off a nation’s criminal past . . . This disturbing but hopeful and insightful book wrestles with the questions of who we are as human beings and what values we have as a nation."—Roger Bishop, BookPage (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


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,...

About the author

Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum. Her previous books, which have been translated into many languages, include Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age; Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists; Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy; The Unity of Reason; and Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin. She studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin, and was a professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv Universities. She is the mother of three grown children and lives in Berlin.

Cindy Konig

Susan Neiman

Official Links

Read Articles by the Author at the Guardian