When Donald Trump recently tweeted a dark warning of a “Civil War like fracture in this Nation” were he to be impeached, it was further evidence of his Administration’s troubled relationship with that period in American history. The President has also suggested that the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was still alive; asked, “Why was there the Civil War?”; and described white supremacists rallying around a Robert E. Lee memorial as “very fine people.” His former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, compared California’s immigration laws to Confederate secession; Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, referred to Lee as an “honorable man” and said that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of ability to compromise.”
But the philosopher Susan Neiman argues that it’s not just Trump or his Administration. Most white Americans are fuzzy on the cause of the Civil War—slavery—and even more are unaware of the decades of racial terror and oppression that followed Reconstruction: lynching, convict leasing, mass incarceration, racist labor practices. “For many people, and I’m including myself until recently, the period between 1865 and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is just a blank,” Neiman told me the other day. This is not incidental. If Americans were more familiar with the darkest parts of the country’s past, she argued, “it’s hard to imagine that Trump would have been elected.”
Neiman, an American who directs the Einstein Forum, a public think tank outside of Berlin, has recently published a book, “Learning from the Germans,” that makes the case for an American version of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, a word that she translates as “working off the past,” which refers to the decades-long process through which Germany has come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust. Today, the country isn’t free from racism and anti-Semitism, as the recent attack on a synagogue in Halle showed, but its culture and politics remain deeply informed by its history. All of the arts, including TV and film, regularly refer to and treat Nazi history. And the country pauses to perform what Neiman calls “public rites of repentance” around events such as the liberation of Auschwitz, Kristallnacht, and the end of the war. Then there’s the iconography: the Holocaust Memorial sits at the center of a reunified Berlin. There are also the famous “stumbling stones”—small brass plaques placed throughout the city to mark where Jews and other victims of the Nazis last ...
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