Slavery and the Holocaust: How Americans and Germans Cope With Past Evils

Slavery and the Holocaust: How Americans and Germans Cope With Past Evils

Initially skeptical about the viability of reparations, Neiman says her views have evolved. She considers reparations a repayment for a debt, not just for slavery but for the century of “neo-slavery” that followed it in the form of sharecropping, a kind of agricultural servitude that left black families mired in debt to the descendants of those who once enslaved them. Along with sharecropping there were both Jim Crow laws, many of which influenced Nazi anti-Semitic legislation, and redlining by financial institutions. All these continue to leave generations of African-Americans at a decided disadvantage.

Neiman believes that people who live in a society built on injustice, even though they may not have created the injustice, are responsible for correcting it. The moral precedent for American reparations to its black citizens is rooted in Germany’s post-World War II compensation for its past crimes. If one believes German reparations were justified, how can one oppose them in America?

Though Neiman supports reparations, she rejects the notion of cultural appropriation, the attack on “outsiders” — artists, writers and performers — who try to get “inside” the experiences of a persecuted group. “African-American history in all its torment and glory is American history. … You cannot hope to understand another culture until you try to get inside a piece of it and walk around there for a while.” She acknowledges that “you’ll never get it the way someone who was born inside it does,” but you’ll never understand their pain and your part in causing it unless you try. “I know,” she writes, “of nothing more moving than Paul Robeson’s rendering of the ‘Partisan Lied,’ written in Yiddish as response to the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. And the fact that he sang it in 1949 in Moscow, as Stalin’s anti-Semitism began to sweep the Soviet Union, shows he knew exactly how to use it.”

Neiman spent three years interviewing people in both Germany and the United States in preparation for writing this book. Despite her having insisted that her project was not about comparative evil but how evil is remembered, Germans almost uniformly rejected any suggestion of a comparison. They considered what they did far worse than slavery. Americans also uniformly rejected the comparison, but for different reasons. Convinced that slavery was not nearly as serious a blot on their country’s history as the Holocaust was on Germany’s, Americans use that fact as a means of blinding themselves to its horrors. In that contrast there is, Neiman suggests, a lesson about confronting the past.

Optimally, a reviewer’s evaluation should not be influenced by where she read a book. But this book accompanied me while I was in Poland, meeting with Polish academics, museum personnel and dedicated individuals who, at immense personal risk, are fighting their government’s attempt to make illegal any mention of the Poles’ participation in the Holocaust. There were many Polish rescuers who risked their own and their families’ lives. There were also Poles — probably more than rescuers — who persecuted Jews before, during and after the war. The government is intent on removing from museums and cultural institutions references to this aspect of Polish behavior. This is what may be called soft-core Holocaust denial, a reconfiguring of the facts to hide certain truths.

Though Neiman’s book does not concern Polish revisionism, it speaks directly to it. One of the South’s heralded sons, William Faulkner, observed about the society in whose midst he lived: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It is part of us. It determines how we approach the present.

The history wars shape far more than how we remember the past. They shape the societies we bequeath to future generations. Susan Neiman’s book is an important and welcome weapon in that battle.

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