Finding redemption from within: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels in front of a war memorial in the former Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1970. Photo: Finding redemption from within: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels in front of a war memorial in the

How can nations atone for their sins?

Germany has come to terms with its past. Why can't Russia?

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. 

Original sins

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 around the legacy of slavery and the continued discrimination against African Americans. Is it not time, Neiman wonders, for Americans to do what the Germans pulled off decades ago—to “work off their past” (in German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a key concept for her)—to speak forthrightly about the country’s racial inequalities, and finally do something to compensate the victims?

Other American progressives agree. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates gained widespread attention for his stirring 2014 article in the Atlantic demanding financial reparations for black Americans. Coates made the argument that such reparations are about slavery, but not only slavery. Centuries of racial terror and billions of dollars of economic theft from African Americans in the time since abolition also, in his view, require compensation. The power of his argument led to a hearing in the House of Representatives last June, where Coates himself testified in support of a bill to begin a study into this complex question. 

Also last summer, a daring work of historical re-envisioning became the subject of public debate. The New York Times’ 1619 Project—named for the date when the first slave ship of 20 Africans from what is now Angola came to the new world, landing in Jamestown, Virginia—sought to move back the starting point of American history by over a century. The horrors of slavery, rather than the liberal pieties of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were positioned at the centre of the American experience. 

The gambits of both Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the progenitor of the 1619 project who was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize, are similar: to ensure that the tragic history of African Americans in the US would not be made comparable to any other. In short, it was an effort to “exceptionalise” the American experience: to make clear that the social, political and cultural dimensions of African American history were distinct, the scale of the prolonged crime unique. By proceeding in this fashion, US history might be made credible and convincing to those who suffered from its ravages.

In an ironic twist, their efforts echo the 19th-century description of slavery as a “peculiar institution.” In this earlier effort to make American history exceptional, although in this context it meant exceptionally blameless, the modifier “peculiar” was used to soften the travesty of slavery—contrasting it favourably with other forms of earlier human bondage. The term, coined by southern slave-owners, was meant to imply that the US was more benevolent and paternalistic in its treatment of those in bondage. Subject to criticism by American historians starting from the 1950s, the term had previously been the dominant frame by which a southern consensus on slavery’s ignominious past was justified. American slavery, for these critics, was no better than any other kind. Modern activists, by contrast, think of it as much worse—a shorthand for the depths to which mankind can sink. 

From downfall to redemption 

Neiman’s book came as a result of her Berlin-Mississippi intellectual journey. Part memoir, part historical inquiry, part philosophical investigation, it is a book of “comparative redemption.” It focuses on what has happened in German history since the Second World War, and what has failed to change in the American South since the Civil War. 

Neiman is not an uncritical admirer of the German approach. In the 1950s, West Germans were silent about their participation in the crimes of the Nazi regime, and were instead absorbed by the idea that they were the real victims. Not only had they to survive among the ruins, they believed, they also had to live with the humiliation of defeat. Neiman argues that the Allies’ attempt to de-Nazify Germany after the war was both insincere and ineffective. For Neiman, “working off the past is not something that can be imposed from without.” In her eyes, German success in facing its past is rooted in the revolt of the generation of 1968—that cohort compelled by history and fate to ask their parents questions about what precisely they did during the war.

And ask they did. The ’68 generation brought the conversation into the public sphere, demanding the terrible details. This struggle was ferocious but necessary, and enabled Germany to properly reckon with its past. The concept of Sonderweg or “special path,” which German historians had once deployed to describe a uniquely German trajectory from Bismarck to Hitler, can be also seen in the country’s approach towards grappling with the Nazi era. Only through its own distinct experience and approach—its Sonderweg—could a workable path to a new consensual perspective be reached. Making it a crime to deny the Holocaust, as the Germans have done, could never have been legitimately and credibly imposed from outside. 

Reflecting on the opportunities and risks of adopting the German approach, we have struggled with why Germany’s lessons have not worked particularly well in central and eastern Europe. Most concretely, why has the west’s external pressure on Russia to confront its Stalinist past in the same fashion as Germany failed so spectacularly? The answer is worth dwelling on.

Russia today

Today the majority of Russians—including younger Russians who we might have expected to demand answers to the thorniest historical questions—assess Stalin in a positive light. As we witness toppled statues in Europe and the US, in Russia the state has sanctioned the erection of busts of Stalin in various cities including the country’s third largest, Novosibirsk. 

In 2019 the most respected pollster in Russia, the Levada Center, found that these efforts are working, with 70 per cent of Russians believing that Stalin’s rule had been good for the Soviet Union. In fact, the number who admired Stalin was greater than at any point since Levada started polling on the question in 2001. Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre, stated that “there’s been a quiet rehabilitation of Stalin on the part of the government.” 

The director of Moscow’s Gulag Museum, Roman Romanov, claims, or rather hopes, this attitude is about using Stalin as a way to fulfil something missing in people’s lives—and that such admiration will fade with the older generation. But giving the rising tide of support for the dictator, this seems unlikely, and we must ask how truth and atonement went into reverse. Can it be chalked up to simple false consciousness or historical ignorance? In an age when many young Americans and British leftists, concerned with slavery and empire, are eager to learn from the German experience, what can we instead learn from Russia’s failure to deal with its past? Why has revisionism failed in Russia and indeed large swaths of central and eastern Europe? 

First, and most obviously, while Nazi rule lasted a dozen years, Soviet rule in Russia lasted some seven decades. Nazi Germany experienced a humiliating military defeat, while the Soviets eventually won the “great patriotic war” during which, for all its agonies, no foreign army ever marched on Moscow. Post-war Germany was stewarded by leaders who sought a decisive break with National Socialism, whereas Khrushchev sought a break from Stalin but never really from his system, and Russia is today run by a former colonel of the secret police. 

Germany’s post-war economic achievements eventually allowed its citizens to face their collective guilt in a more confident, rather than a defensive spirit, with contemporary success encouraging hope that society could continue to recover and prosper into the future after drawing a line under past crimes.

The rocky and, for a time, ruinous road of the Russian economy after the Soviet collapse stands in stark contrast. Yet there is something more fundamental in Russia’s failed replication of the German model in the post-Cold War world. The historian Carlo Ginzburg was on to something when he suggested that “the country one belongs to is not, as the usual rhetoric goes, the one you love but the one you are ashamed of.” We rarely experience our national belonging as powerfully as in those moments when we feel “ashamed for somebody different from us for something we are not involved in,” but for someone whom we nonetheless feel a sense of responsibility. 

One’s homeland is a place from which you cannot morally escape. You can emigrate, sure, but that sense of shame will always catch you up. This shame may grow out of a powerful sense of belonging, but whether it is the right material for re-building a nation’s political identity is another question. Is a nation’s courage in facing down its historical crimes an effective glue to bond a society—or, alternatively, is victimhood a better wellspring for solidarity? Might shame, victimhood and for that matter pride intermingle in confecting that complex cocktail that is national identity?

The politics of memory

Birthed out of a common trauma, the European Union is at its core a Freudian project, with all founding members of 1957 being recently defeated or occupied nations. After 1989, the approach that post-war Germany had taken in tackling its grim past became Europe’s assumed archetype of how eastern Europe would accomplish the same for Communism. But the eastern European countries failed to emulate it, and indeed many now fear, that with the rise of the far-right German AfD, the model itself may be in crisis at home as well. Perhaps successful atonement relies on the contingencies of time as well as place.

Central and eastern Europe returned instead into a world where competitive victimhood has the status of natural law. Nation states lost interest in the suffering they had piled on others, and insisted instead that a laser-like focus be placed on the suffering they had endured. 

The Polish parliament enacted a law (later amended) in 2018 that could incarcerate any person claiming that Poles contributed to Jewish suffering during the Second World War. (The saga of the Polish-American historian Jan Gross, who in 2015 caused controversy in his native country by saying—correctly—that Poles had killed many more Jews than they had Germans, was undoubtedly a factor in the Polish government’s whitewashing of its history). And for its part, in the most historically specious way possible, Russia began to blame Poland for starting the Second World War.

[su_pullquote]“Exceptionalism is a necessary condition for effective reconciliation”[/su_pullquote]

The resistance to the German model of “working off” its past was most spectacular in Russia. During Putin’s second term one of us happened to be in Moscow when US historian and writer Anne Applebaum presented the Russian translation of her prize-winning book Gulag. In a smoked-filled café not far from Lubyanka, the old KGB (now FSB) headquarters, the book launch turned out to be anti-climactic. Few showed up to celebrate with the author and the general mood was one of torpor.

In the late 1980s, in the heady days of perestroika, publication of a book like this would have been an event packed with a surfeit of political and intellectual worthies. But during Putin’s second term, the atmosphere had changed: the audience was now composed of mostly older people for whom events like these had become ritualised as a kind of civic duty. 

Applebaum’s talk, in the end, was actually not about the gulag. Rather, it was about the reluctance of the Russian authorities and the majority of the Russian public to condemn Stalin’s crimes. When we know that Stalin killed more Russians than any foreign invader, she asked, why are so many reticent to impugn him or his regime? 

Without saying so explicitly, Applebaum’s puzzle was to understand why post-communist Russia had become markedly different from post-war Germany. Where was the Russian counterpart to Willy Brandt falling to his knees in atonement at the Warsaw ghetto in 1970? Why was this generation of young Russians unwilling to raise the inconvenient questions that youthful Germans peppered their parents with after 1968? The audience was respectful but unmoved. None of those present could ever be suspected of being an apologist for Stalin. Yet Applebaum’s message fell on deaf ears. 

Somehow the intellectuals had grown to think that denouncing Stalin would be acquiescing too readily in what the west was asking (demanding, really) of them. They were finished with living according to western edicts. Back in the 1990s signing on to the German approach to the politics of memory had been seen by Russians as joining a civilised club whose members all wished to credibly confront their demons. But once this wave of “correctness” had run its course, Russians—even former true believers in the German “model”—were often looking for the restoration of the nation’s power, and for the restoration of its exceptionalism. Russians demanded their own Sonderweg.

Russian intellectuals have lost faith that their nation should follow the turbulent self-examination that Germans endured. Russia’s liberals at the book launch were still hostile to Communism, if somewhat nostalgic for the clarity and communality of the Soviet Union. Two decades after the Cold War’s end they felt like losers (more like post-Versailles than post-Second World War Germany perhaps). Of course, they were appalled by their government’s efforts to normalise Stalin; certainly they looked on aghast at the polling numbers already showing Stalin valorised. But they feared that by condemning Stalin they would become complicit in the west’s impulse to deprive Russia of its role defeating Hitler, and saving the world from fascism. (A similar reluctance can be seen in Britain when Churchill’s imperial adventures are criticised, as though this is somehow sullying his heroic role in the war.) 

Overall, they tended to understand the short Soviet century as an unfinished civil war in which perpetrators became victims and victims perpetrators. This struggle will need to be resolved in Russia—atonement, after all, begins at home. It is a domestic problem and reinforces the necessity of exceptionalism. 

Ultimately, what made Russia different from Germany was that, paradoxically, Germany’s politics of memory was a way to resurrect German exceptionalism. Germany became an exception because it parted with the received wisdom that “evil is what others do” and concentrated instead on its own crimes and misdeeds—a unique evil in the history of the world. 

Exceptionalism is, in the analysis here, a necessary condition for effective reconciliation. It can’t be imported; it should be invented. What was significant about Germany is how it was able to justify its coping with the past. When this coping is truly exceptional you can even craft, as was done in Germany, a new national identity. But this will only work if you can turn guilt into pride. If guilt ends in humiliation it won’t work—so the post-Soviet Russian transformation into a kind of submission was destined to backfire.

What the Russian experience instructs us is that America’s and Britain’s wider attempts to deal with their sorrow-filled legacies will have a chance to succeed only if it is framed as a victory of sorts. Instead of being proud of its empire, its “peculiar institutions” or its dictators, a country should aim to become proud of the distinctive way in which it has dealt with its distinctively troubled legacy. This can’t be a way to make a country “normal,” but must be an opportunity to reclaim its exceptional character and set it to work for the good.