Susan Neiman: the Brexit lessons we can learn from postwar Germany

There will be life after Brexit, probably. But like Germany in 1945 we face a day of reckoning before fixing our fractured country. Author and adopted Berliner Susan Neiman looks to the future

Two world wars, one World Cup and an empire where the sun never set. These are the highlights of a certain perspective of British history.

But the truth is more complex: the interventions of Russia and America were what won the wars. At least one of England’s World Cup-winning goals was dodgy.

And as for the empire – yes it was vast but it was also built on oppression, violence and slavery. So, you know, not necessarily something you should be boasting about in polite company.

Britain’s colonial past should have been discussed during the Brexit referendum

If we, as a nation, were a bit more honest and critical about our own history might we might have avoided landing ourselves in this Brexit mess? Susan Neiman, author of Learning From The Germans: Confronting Race And The Memory Of Evil, thinks so.

“I think it’s perfectly clear that Britain’s colonial past should have been discussed during the Brexit referendum,” she says.

“It is also perfectly clear that appeals to racism and refugees of another colour was playing a role in that debate.” 

An American Jew who grew up in the South during the Civil Rights movement, Neiman has spent most of her adult life in Berlin, where she gained a close-up view of a society grappling with its own dark history.

“By accepting that they were the perpetrators of the war and not the victims, they were able to reach a consensus and restore some national pride,” she says.

The process is called ‘working off the past’, or, as the Germans put it, ‘vergangenheitsbewältigung’. Yes, it’s a silly and excessively long word. But might we Brits be able to learn something from it?

The Big Issue: You say we should have debated the sins of colonialism in the Brexit debate. What good would that have done anyone?

Susan Neiman: Conservatives will always say there is nothing to be gained in opening up old wounds – that you just destroy national pride and cause divisions. What I think Germany shows is that a country can go through that process and come out the better for it.

But wasn’t it easier for German society to accept the evils of the Nazis? They were so self-evident?

As outsiders we have this idea of the Nazis as this abstract form of absolute evil. But when the war was over the German people didn’t immediately fall to their knees and beg forgiveness. It took them a time to come to terms with it. In West Germany, it wasn’t until 40 years later that they began to see themselves as the aggressors not the victims.

In 1985 president Richard von Weizsäcke made a speech in which he described May 8 1945 as a day of liberation. That might seem an obvious statement to the rest of us but, until then, Germans had described it as a day of capitulation.

But most politicians don’t care about complex matters like rewriting history, do they? 

They do if their constituencies agitate for it. That’s what happened in Germany. Because there was this pressure coming from grass roots they pushed politicians to think about national identity in a different way. And I think that is happening in the USA – Black Lives Matter has played an important role in that.

So, I think people can force their politicians to pay attention. And I also think the simple fact that Britain and America are becoming more ethnically diverse means there are more people who know that large part of their own history has been left out of official narratives. 

Half of all voters for Trump have incomes over $100,000 a year

Isn’t populism grounded in an underclass who feel resentful towards the ruling elites?

That is an explanation that many people have offered – about Trump, about Brexit and about the resurgence of the far right in Germany.

The problem with that in America and Germany is that the numbers don’t back it up. Half of all voters for Trump have incomes over $100,000 a year, and half had college educations.

There is a real aversion to confronting the evils of the British Empire

Same goes for the far-right AfD in Germany. It would be nice if we could say education and a solid income protect you from having neo-fascist tendencies but it doesn’t. People make the same assumptions about Nazi support in the 1930s but the highest proportion of their supporters came from the educated classes.

What do you think is wrong with British society’s sense of history?

There is a real aversion to confronting the evils of the British Empire. It fuels the belief that Britain should stand alone in Europe. And that they are capable of withstanding any of the fallout of Brexit. Germans have a clearer sense of their history and it is reflected in things like their national iconography, their statues, their heroes.

I’m not saying that you should pull down all your statues of colonial heroes but you might put them into better context by having other statues of the people who fought against them, like the Mau Maus in Kenya. This stuff makes a difference: it needs to be very visible, in lots of big cities so it becomes a teaching moment. This is the sort of thing you see in Germany with prominent monuments to victims of the Holocaust.

And what about our understanding of the world wars?

All due respect to the RAF and the Blitz spirit – without British sacrifices the Nazis would have triumphed. But you can’t ignore the contribution of the Soviet Union, who lost 27 million people defeating the Nazis.

The EU has its flaws but the best way to confront them is from within

This is what contributes to the idea that Britain should strike out alone. Some people think the idea of Britain being one of 28 equals in the EU is noxious. 

What about people on the left who backed Brexit because they see the EU as a giant neoliberal monster? 

I’d say to them to look at the alternative forms of power outside of the EU, in America, China, India and Brazil. There are almost no labour rights and standards of living are poor. When I tell my American friends about the labour rights we enjoy in Germany they think I am describing heaven. Yes, the EU has its flaws but the best way to confront them is from within.

You describe yourself as a social democrat. You are also Jewish. What do you make of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?

I was delighted when he was first elected because I heard him described as Britain’s Bernie Sanders. I began by dismissing the accounts of anti-Semitism as the right trying to smear their enemies. But I read more and more about it and became more concerned because I have met many British anti-Semites that you don’t tend to find too much in Germany any more. And they dress it up as anti-Zionism.

Well I am as opposed to Netanyahu’s policies as much as anyone but to use that struggle as a vehicle for covert anti-Semitism images – or not even very covert – and not being able to distinguish between Jews and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is very pernicious. An awful lot of Jews left the Labour Party with tears. Labour is naturally a home for Jewish people – Jews proportionally skew left more than any other religion. Corbyn seems to have been pig-headed about the whole issue. 

Do you regard him as an anti-Semite?

I don’t think he is an anti-Semite. I think he might be a Little Englander who has a problem with cosmopolitanism. The problem is when you’re a politician what counts is not the contents of your soul but what you do in public.

Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil by Susan Neiman is out now (Allen Lane, £20)