eiman thinks that the former East Germany ‘did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany’. West Germany, she points out, didn’t think of 8 May 1945 – the date of Germany’s unconditional surrender – as a day of liberation until the 1980s; in the East it had been a national holiday since 1950. But this had little to do with coming to terms with the past and a lot to do with the GDR’s Soviet masters. Stalin transformed the East German people from the vicious monsters of Soviet wartime propaganda into a largely innocent people liberated by the Red Army and ready to join a fraternal alliance with their communist former enemies. In this narrative the great Nazi evil was fascism, not the Holocaust. Jews were counted among its many victims but they didn’t play much of a role in the GDR’s confrontation with its past or in its national regeneration.
In preparation for writing her book, Neiman spent three years interviewing people in both Germany and the United States. Learning from the Germans, part reportage, part extended essay, is informed by interviews conducted with civil rights lawyers, historians, novelists, philosophers, film-makers and others engaged in ‘remembering’. Many of the Southern informants speak openly of national guilt, but show an understandable Southern discomfort at comparisons made between Hitler’s extermination of European Jewry and plantation slavery. The circumstances surrounding wartime Germany’s biological anti-Semitism and the history of slavery in Dixie cannot bear comparison. Auschwitz was a unique instance of human infamy. Neiman, to her credit, says as much.
The account of the east today is a medley of interviews with a lot of people from the 1989 opposition movements. It would be a bit like talking about Brexit Britain through the eyes of a lot of Remainers and Lib Dems. The narrative of “colonisation” of the east by the west after unification is treated unsceptically. Alas, relativism about communist regimes always ends up trying to excuse the inexcusable, while insisting that it is not doing so. Tout comprendre is not the same as tout pardonner and no amount of “whataboutery” can change that.
But Neiman’s principal aim is to draw parallels between her original home and her present one, reminding us, for instance, that the Nazis made a study of America’s Jim Crow laws in order to develop their brand of racial legislation. She compares the romantic Southern “lost cause” justification of the post-Civil War period with post-1945 German nostalgia for the nobility of the Wehrmacht, to which virtually every German family contributed a soldier. And she points to the recent emergence of nativist trends in both countries — represented by the AfD in Germany and the white nationalist movement on display at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.