Learning from the Germans: Susan Neiman On Facing the Evils of the Past

If there is any moral consensus in contemporary Europe and North America, it is that the Holocaust was evil.  There is less agreement on what happened after the Holocaust, and whether Germany’s attempts to face that evil can be a model for other nations.  

This latter part was at the heart of a recent talk by the American moral philosopher Susan Neiman, whose most recent publication is What we can learn from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman, also president of the Einstein Foundation, was the latest speaker in CEU’s Reasons for Hope Presidential Lecture Series

For Neiman, the slow and difficult path of Germany towards facing its evil past has important lessons for other peoples seeking to come to terms with their own national crimes. While her book focuses on the United States, she began her lecture with messages to Austria and Hungary, the two countries where CEU operates. 

“I suspect nowhere on Earth are people more adverse to learning from the Germans than in Austria” Neiman contended, noting that there is a general resentment against Germans in Austria. Arguing that Austria has not even come to terms with World War I and that the country seems to be stuck in between a “melancholy nostalgia for its empire and a robustly provincial form of nationalism” she held that the country sees itself as a victim of Nazi Germany, and the wounds of the second world war are even worse. “Showing hostility to post-war Germany is a way of concealing, perhaps especially to oneself, how happy most Austrians were to be annexed in 1938.”

“Budapest is even less inclined to examine its own sins and more interested in focusing on its own suffering” she said, adding that this attitude is “a natural one, and probably universal”. 

“Since the end of the second world war, remembrance and valorization of national suffering has become a very common way of strengthening national bonds” she said, noting that this was not the case before the middle of the 20th century. Focusing on victimhood had not yet been marked as the highly effective tool for identity building that it has become today. 

But there is another option, according to Neiman: “…and that is what the Germans had largely taken: the acknowledgment of national crimes” Neiman said.

Neiman spoke at CEU’s Vienna Campus at the beginning of December. 

If you want to hear more, you can watch the lecture here, in its entirety, as Neiman also discusses Brexit, slavery in the United States, the rise of extreme right-wing party AfD in German and why people need ‘a grown-up relationship’ with their countries:

In an additional interview for this feature, Susan Neiman also talks about why post-communist countries are lagging behind with facing the evils in their past and what the consequences are when a nation turns a blind eye to their past: 

Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin and was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. 

She is the author of Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, Evil in Modern Thought, Fremde sehen anders, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, Why Grow Up?, Widerstand der Vernunft. Ein Manifest in postfaktischen Zeiten and Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.