When Tennessee’s Governor recently ordered a holiday to celebrate the memory of confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest, a convicted war criminal who helped found the Ku Klax Klan, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman commented: “The world would be horrified if Germany announced plans to start celebrating Erich von Manstein Day.” Krugman’s point was to emphasize that to celebrate a commander of the German Army from the Nazi period does not behoove a modern democratic nation. But his analogy of celebrating the founder of the Klan in today’s America and a Nazi in today’s Germany is more than another dispute between liberals and conservative Americans. Krugman invokes Germany’s “overcoming” or “coming to terms with” its past of racial violence, atrocity and genocide as a possible guide for American attitudes toward its racialized past.
But how did Germany deal with the Nazi past? How did post-Germany move from the legacy of fascism to today’s democratic political culture? And how can America learn from a country that had committed the crime of the Holocaust which has served as a universal moral yardstick for nearly half a century? I spoke with philosopher Susan Neiman, author of Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), about these questions, and whether contemporary America can learn anything from post-war Germany’s ways of dealing with its past crimes.
Uli Baer is a professor at New York University. He is also the host of the excellent podcast "Think About It"