“Lack of a Culture of Remembrance”

Philosopher Susan Neiman on her life as an American in Berlin and an incomplete reunification.

Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam
Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam

“I first arrived in the city with the Wall in 1982 on a Fulbright scholarship. Originally I had planned to stay a year, but I was fascinated, captivated by Berlin – above all owing to Berlin’s focus on German history. The German concept ‘Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung’ working off the past was something that was foreign to America, and it drew me in. I of course wanted to know how the term was applied in East Berlin. Politically I have always been on the Left, but I grew up in America, whose identity rested on anti-Communism. The opportunity to take the subway to travel through the Iron Curtain was appealing. I naturally knew that the subway was a one-way street, and that in East Germany there was a lot that was lacking. But I wanted to know what was present there too.

Back then, as an American I felt more welcome in the East because at least the people there knew that there was an America that was not just Reagan and McDonald’s – even if East Germans overestimated the importance, for example, of Angela Davis. And as a Jew I also felt more at home there because there was something about the anti-fascism in East Germany that seemed more profound than what existed in the West. East Germany’s instrumentalization of anti-fascism was of course manifest, just as the name Anti-Fascist Protection Wall was absurd. However, the stance amongst the East Germans with whom I came into contact was genuine.

I am all the more surprised that 30 years after reunification there is no culture of remembrance in Germany as a whole. Everything undertaken in East Germany on the topic of post-War remembrance is today rejected by most West Germans as ‘anti-fascism ordained from on high’. It’s a strange accusation, as if it was wrong to ordain anti-fascism for a people permeated by fascism.

Now no one would claim that East German anti-fascism was perfect or without its faults. However, reunification will remain imperfect until such a time as East and West Germans can discuss their post-War histories with each other without ideology and contempt.”

Professor Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, a foundation of the German federal state of Brandenburg that serves the public as an open laboratory of the mind. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin. She was professor of philosophy at Yale University and Tel Aviv University before coming to the Einstein Forum in 2000.

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