Germany has come to terms with its past. Why can't Russia?by Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo / July 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
What is the ideal approach for a nation confronting its historical crimes? In dealing with historical guilt, are nations better off working to become “normal,” or should they strive to be “exceptional”?
In Britain, historians attempting to critique the legacy of the empire or its role in slavery—as opposed to its abolition—have set off furious debates, which in recent weeks have poured onto the streets. Some statues may have fallen, but there has been a backlash too, and whether or not any deep mark on the country’s sense of itself will endure is far from clear. For those hoping to inspire lasting change and sustained atonement, it is important to ask what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere in the world.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which tried to account for apartheid, may have been an exceptional case and not one with universal applicability as some human rights activists would like to believe. Similarly, the German model for contending with its Nazi past has failed to be replicated, most notoriously in Russia in regard to its Stalinist history, because of the very exceptionalism inherent to it.
But is there a way out of this impasse? We will argue that the only way to make peace with a bloody history is through exceptionalism—reckoning with what is exceptional in your own country’s story, and finding, too, a distinct and homegrown way to face up to the truth and its consequences. Those consequences, and their lessons, will after all be different for different peoples.
The work of Susan Neiman is instructive in this respect. Neiman is a philosopher, an American citizen, a Jewish woman, and a committed leftist who has spent the last 35 years living in Berlin trying to make sense of the moral dilemmas of her city. In her 2019 book, Learning from the Germans, Neiman invokes Tzvetan Todorov’s insistence that only the Germans—the perpetrators—should talk about the singularity of the Holocaust. By contrast, Jews—as the victims—should be focused on its universality.
With this moral map as her guide, Neiman returns to her native Mississippi to ask why an America that twice elected Barack Obama can’t arrive at a consensus…