Susan Neiman: Philosopher calls on historians to celebrate the heroes who successfully resisted Hitler

Historians in the News

[Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University.]

... Germany is not alone in its quest for the right sort of memory, and it has done a better job than most. But the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power should be an occasion to reflect on how historical crimes are remembered. I propose we restrain our attention to the suffering of the victims of those crimes and turn to the courage of those who worked to stop the criminals. This would return us to an older model, where claims to legitimacy are focused on what you’ve done to the world, not what the world did to you. It wouldn’t ignore the victims, but it would return the heroes to center stage.

Which heroes we choose would be crucial. Here too Germany serves as a model from which we all could learn. It has chosen its resistance heroes, and it has chosen them wrong. Every child here knows the names of Hans and Sophie Scholl, college students who were guillotined for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Most German cities have streets or schools named after them. Tom Cruise has added his fame to a new film about Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the oft-sung leader of a group of officers hanged for their failed attempt on Hitler’s life.

The courage of such people should not be forgotten, but the message their stories convey is grim: their deeds cost them their lives, and accomplished nothing. It’s a message that comforts the millions of Germans who didn’t try to oppose the regime.

By contrast, one of the most successful acts of resistance in the Third Reich is not well known. In 1943, when the Nazis were undecided about whether to deport and murder Jewish spouses of non-Jews, they tested the waters by rounding up nearly 2,000 Jewish men whose non-Jewish wives had already withstood considerable government pressure to divorce them. These wives spontaneously gathered in front of the building in the Rosenstrasse where their husbands were being held. For one long week they refused to leave the little square in central Berlin, despite the Gestapo machine guns trained upon them.

It’s often said that nonviolent resistance worked for Gandhi and Martin Luther King because their oppressors were civilized; the governments of Britain and the United States could be bested by the moral courage of their opponents, while totalitarian regimes simply shoot them. This not only underestimates the evils of racism, but also our possibilities of combating them....
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