Alex Clark - Nazism, slavery, empire: can countries learn from national evil? Interview with Susan Neiman

Moral philosopher Susan Neiman has studied how Germany came to terms with the crimes of nazism. She explains why the US and Britain should take note
“I really do see that our relationship to our nation is like a grown-up relationship to our parents. We have to sort this through and say: ‘These parts of my national history I can be proud of and I can stand by, and these parts I’m sorry for and I’d like to do my best to somehow make up for.’ 

When Susan Neiman’s German friends discovered she was working on a book called Learning from the Germans, they laughed. “They told me: ‘You cannot publish a book with that title. There’s nothing to learn from the Germans; we did too little and too late.’ And there is something paradoxical about saying: ‘Well, we committed this terrible crime, but weren’t we great at coming to terms with it?’ You can’t really say that. But someone who’s a semi-outsider as I am, can, in fact, say that.”

Neiman, a moral philosopher, spent part of her childhood in the American south and she has written a comparative study of how Germany has come to terms with the crimes of nazism, and why the US, in failing to confront its own human rights abuses, should take note. Ambitious and detailed, it ranges from the initial reluctance of German citizens to begin the process of truth and reconciliation to small-town Mississippi, and the shooting of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, four years ago. It was that massacre, carried out by a white supremacist, that prompted Neiman, whose previous books include an examination of the concept of evil, to begin researching and writing Learning from the Germans. From her home in Berlin, where she has lived for the past 22 years, Neiman watched Barack Obama give a heartrending eulogy to the dead, and then followed as governors began to order the taking down of Confederate flags, and Walmart announced that it would stop selling Confederate memorabilia. It struck her that amid the horror lurked a hopeful moment – a moment of potential change – and that she herself had “some knowledge and experience that I could share, that might be helpful”.

Neiman’s mother campaigned for the desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools – an activity that earned her, as Neiman recalls, several late-night phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan. One hot summer’s day, her mother invited an African American friend and her children over for the afternoon, and Neiman asked if they could all go to the outdoor swimming pool. No, came the answer. The lake, then? Still no. Imploring and questioning did not change the answer. In the end, the children played beneath the garden sprinklers; only years later did Neiman realise that it would have been against the law for them to have swum together.... read more:

Susan Neiman - Evil in Modern Thought // Lecture: 'Hannah Arendt's Disruptive Truth Telling'
Kwame Appiah's review of Moral Clarity

Popular posts from this blog

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus (1940)

Kevin McDonald - ISIS isn’t Medieval: Revolution, Terror and Statemaking are Modern

Haruki Murakami: On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning

After the Truth Shower

A Message to the 21st Century by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)

Rudyard Kipling: critical essay by George Orwell (1942)

Satyagraha - An answer to modern nihilism