Prof suggests US confront racial history like Germany confronted Nazi Holocaust

Bowdoin College professor Jill Smith lauded a book that asks what Americans “can learn from the Germans about confronting the evils of the past.”

Smith explained that using “shame” can be “something productive” in dealing with American race relations.

Professor Jill Smith of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine lauded a book that “asks what we can learn from the Germans about confronting the evils of the past” in an interview entitled “Learning from Experience: What America Could Learn from Germany’s Atonement for Nazi Sins.”

Learning from the Germans by philosopher Susan Neiman explains that “in the wake of white nationalist attacks, the ongoing debate over reparations, and the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments and the contested memories they evoke,” Americans should learn from Germany’s atonement for the Holocaust.

“The question of dealing with the past is first and foremost in the German psyche, and it’s interesting how Neiman takes this idea and looks at it from the perspective of Americans and how we deal with race relations in the United States,” said Smith in an interview with Bowdoin’s official news outlet.

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Smith, who teaches German, explained that she had previously “balked at the idea” of attempting to “place Germany’s Nazi past on par with America’s history of slavery and racism.” She characterized her initial response as an “allergic reaction.”

However, after reading Neiman’s book, she decided that considering Germany’s response to the Holocaust could inform “how we deal with race relations in the United States.”

Though she admits that the German and American experiences are different, Smith approves with Neiman’s belief that “the feeling of shame can be something productive.”

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“I thought that this was an interesting philosophical idea to posit, because I had always thought people reacted very negatively to shame being imposed upon them,” said Smith.

Bowdoin’s news outlet interviewed a student who said that the book was “eye-opening” to him. After reading Neiman’s book, he took a liking to the “concept of Vergagenheitsaufarbeitung, which is German for ‘working off the past.’”

He believes that Bowdoin is in the midst of its own Vergagenheitsaufarbeitung.

Campus Reform reached out to Smith for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft