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By Lizzie Widdicombe

Prior to the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, the philosopher Susan Neiman thought that America had reached a turning point in confronting its past

When Donald Trump recently tweeted a dark warning of a “Civil War like fracture in this Nation” were he to be impeached, it was further evidence of his Administration’s troubled relationship with that period in American history. The President has also suggested that the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was still alive; asked, “Why was there the Civil War?”; and described white supremacists rallying around a Robert E. Lee memorial as “very fine people.” His former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, compared California’s immigration laws to Confederate secession; Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly , referred to Lee as an “honorable man” and said that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of ability to compromise.”

But the philosopher Susan Neiman argues that it’s not just Trump or his Administration. Most white Americans are fuzzy on the cause of the Civil War—slavery—and even more are unaware of the decades of racial terror and
oppression that followed Reconstruction: lynching, convict leasing, mass incarceration, racist labor practices. “For many people, and I’m including myself until recently, the period between 1865 and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is just a blank,” Neiman told me the other day. This is not incidental. If Americans were more familiar with the darkest parts of the country’s past, she argued, “it’s hard to imagine that Trump would have been elected.”

Neiman, an American who directs the Einstein Forum, a public think tank outside of Berlin, has recently published a book, “Learning from the Germans,” that makes the case for an American version of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, a word that she translates as “working off the past,” which refers to the decades-long process through which Germany has come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust. Today, the country isn’t free from racism and anti-Semitism, as the recent attack on a synagogue in Halle showed, but its culture and politics remain deeply informed by its history. All of the arts, including TV and film, regularly refer to and treat Nazi history. And the country pauses to perform what Neiman calls “public rites of repentance” around events such as the liberation of Auschwitz, Kristallnacht, and the end of the war. Then there’s the iconography: the Holocaust Memorial sits at the center of a reunified Berlin. There are also the famous “stumbling stones”—small brass plaques placed throughout the city to mark where Jews and other victims of the Nazis last lived, before they were deported. By comparison, she writes, “Imagine a monument to the Middle Passage or the genocide of Native Americans at the center of the Washington Mall. Suppose you could walk down a New York street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labor.”

Neiman was in town recently, and she visited the exhibit Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In her book, she points out that the Nazi era is, ironically, quite prominent in American culture. There are more Holocaust museums in the U.S. than in Germany, Israel, and Poland combined—and almost none devoted to slavery. This isn’t an accident, either. Imagining Nazis as “monsters who are not like us” allows us to “outsource evil,” she said at the museum. In the book, she calls our fixation on the Holocaust “a form of displacement for what we don’t want to know about our own national crimes.” She talked about the backlash when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to migrant detention camps at the U.S. border as concentration camps. It made people think of Auschwitz. “But that’s not a concentration camp,” she said. “It’s a death camp.” We tend to focus on the very worse, and forget everything else—the many smaller camps, and lesser crimes, that the Nazis also committed. Were those not evil, too? “People talk about never forgetting, and learning the lessons ofAuschwitz,” she said. “As long as you’re not putting people in boxcars and gassing them on arrival, then you’re not evil. Unfortunately, that is the lesson that way too many people have learned.”

Neiman’s interest in such comparisons comes from her life experience: she grew up in Atlanta, during the nineteen-fifties and sixties, witnessing both segregation and the civil-rights movement. Her mother, a Jewish housewife from Chicago, took part in a campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s schools. And she has spent much of her adult life in
Berlin, as an American Jew. She first moved there, in 1982, to study German philosophy, and was shocked by “how present the war was in everybody’s mind.” The people she hung out with—politically progressive people, including artists and academics—seemed to talk about it constantly. “I thought, ‘Why are they so focussed on this, when Americans seem to do their best to forget history?’ In a certain sense, that question, the ways in which the Germans have faced their national crimes and catastrophe, has been on my mind ever since.”

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