As an increasingly polarized America fights over the legacy of racism, Susan Neiman, author of the contemporary philosophical classic Evil in Modern Thought, asks what we can learn from the Germans about confronting the evils of the past
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
“[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.”
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.